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On writing in cafés


Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft has written about the sometimes challenging experience writing in cafés. His essay for the LARB in partial below, the full piece here.

I WENT TO MY first café to escape my mother, not yet knowing that she had once done the same thing — escaped her own parents by walking down the rickety stairs to the basement of the Starr Book Shop in Harvard Square, where she established a makeshift coffeehouse. She did this while she was a high school student in Cambridge in the 1950s, when the Square was still academic shabby, still full of beatniks, decades before the place would be cleaned, covered with money, and left in its current condition, an open-air shopping mall with a red-brick-and-ivy theme. In a basement filled with slowly degrading acidic paper between slowly degrading cardboard covers, my mother wrote poetry, met with friends, and drank the thinnest coffee you can imagine. In college at Radcliffe, she moved across the street to the Pamplona, one of the few remaining businesses that’s been in Harvard Square longer than my family’s been in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and she would, in time, write her own scholarly books there. The coffee at the Pamplona has never been good, but that was never the point of the place. Even with a new coat of paint it still feels grimy enough to think smart thoughts. The Pamplona has a modesty that’s getting harder to find as cafés — and, thankfully, coffee — get better and better. It comes from a time when we asked less of our amenities.

Decades later and just two miles up the street I, 14 years old, walked to a different used bookstore in a basement with a different urn of coffee kept hot enough to burn all flavor away — but not hot enough to damage flesh. An aspiring writer just as my mother had been, I wrote awful poems in a notebook with a green marbled cover that (I thought) recalled the old books in the basement of the Harvard library. Since I still have that notebook, I can now report that it just looks trashy. I had no idea that I was engaged in a form of auto-seduction; that over the next 20 years I would spend as much of my time in cafés as I could, reading, writing, and hovering between those activities — and eventually asking the question: “What are cafés good for?” Cafés took me through high school, college, the itinerant odd-jobs-and-graduate-school wanderings of my 20s, through the opening moves of my career as a historian, and, of course, up to the realization that I had only retraced my mother’s path. Melville’s Ishmael says that whenever it is “a damp, drizzly November” in his soul he “account[s] it high time to get to sea as soon as [he] can.” When I’m down, and when I’m up, I go to a café. I’ve gone to write, to read, to see friends or to get away from friends, to have strong feelings and to escape strong feelings, to pursue a crush or because of loneliness, because of inertia, because of dependency. I’ve gone because I liked people, or because I was trying very hard to like people. And of course, I’ve gone for coffee itself, but it is interesting how quickly that can drop out of the reckoning. I’ve gone to be in public, and I’ve gone to be alone in public. Cafés have formed a through-line in my life, holding me stable across several coast-to-coast moves, protean writing projects, and different visions of who I wanted to become.


My first memory of drinking coffee is when I was under 7, I think. I would take a glass of water and a cup of very sweet coffee and drink out of both at the same time with straws. The thermic shock and the contrast between the strong sweetness of the coffee and the neutral mildness of the water made it delightful. I would never dare to do it again and ruin that memory with what would probably be a terrible experience. Now that I’m nearing my 40s with maybe 30 years of daily coffee drinking behind me, and my blood pressure soaring with the help of high levels of stress, I wonder if I should have started so early. Of course, being Brazilian has something to do with it, as well as with my coffee-snobiness (as a friend recently put it when I was explaining which countries served the best coffee, and what was the best type of coffee to order in each country).
The reason for me to dwell on coffee is because for me cafés and coffee are undistinguishable: I go to cafés for coffee, and I drink coffee to go to cafés. I always feel as if I were cheating when I, for example, have tea (or, worse, herbal tea) at a café. Coffee is for me a drug and that makes cafés into some sort of bohemian den where people share a common vice. If you don’t do it, then don’t go there.
Sometimes, you can’t have coffee at a café: blood pressure alarm, 6th cup of the day and it is 7pm, no proper sleep in the last 3 days, terrible coffee, already time for wine etc. It can be acceptable in the same way that one will accept an alcoholic gone sober but not someone who doesn’t “like the taste of alcohol”. Tea drinkers should go to tea houses.
In Rio de Janeiro, the cafés-for-writing-and-working (and drinking), as they existed in the first half of the 20th c. and before, came back in the 90s. At that time, I elected a 24h-café for reading and working. It was called “Letters and expressions”. It soon became known as “Letters and depressions” as it became kitsch, sad and empty. I have installed my office in many other cafés since.
In New York, it took me a while (2 years, actually) to find my working café. It was close to my 2nd house, on the Lower East Side. I liked it because the coffee was good, other locals worked there habitually, and it had a good mix of people and activities. People would work, talk, take out, stay in for hours etc. but it never got unbearably full. It had the exact amount of movement and calmness to make writing possible. I wrote my qualifying exams and my prospectus there, even as my stomach protested violently against the ridiculous amounts of coffee I was drinking. I would sometimes have to resort to herbal tea… (shame!)
I have just moved again, and changing cities sets the challenge of finding a new café. I suppose I will feel a little homeless until I do.


Agreeable piece, I’ve gone back to this now and it is also a relief from the screen, the sentimental attachment of some writers to the typewriter and it’s a chance to use nice pens, actually use them…