Photo by Dale Gillard
Every English teacher needs a café of his own, and my weekend joint for nearly seven years has closed. The Fall Café frothed its final latte in early December. I hope my students understood why their last batch of essays was returned later than usual.
Signs of the café’s demise were written everywhere, literally. Last July, a chalkboard appeared in the Smith Street window inviting passersby to a closing party. Five months later, The Fall Café was still steaming scrambled eggs and wrapping breakfast burritos, but customers knew the end was near. For one thing, the chalkboard remained in the window. Similarly, the art on the wall, a rotating assortment of amateur collages, non-representational portraits, and dreary urban landscapes, hadn’t changed in a year, and for the final few months of 2011, there were never paper towels in the bathroom. Instead, a message, scrawled in red on a sheet of loose-leaf, chastised customers for flushing them. “If you want dry hands, use your pants,” the note read.
I knew the owner only as Henry, and he reminded me of those old men Woody Allen describes at the beginning of Annie Hall—the guys who wander into cafeterias dribbling saliva and screaming about socialism. Five foot nothing and whippet thin, Henry had the body of an ex-jockey, his neck, arms, and legs a spidery map of veins and tendons. His movements were strange and spastic, and I liked to watch him dart around the café, arranging tables and chairs in a pattern only he could see. He moved like a bee and had a voice like one too, nasal and slightly swallowed. Customers heard his high-pitched murmuring as he tidied, his squeaky rants about the news as he scanned the papers. We laptop users rolled our eyes at his distracting antics, but they were also why we kept coming back.
The Fall Café became mine in 2005 when I started dating a girl who lived on Smith and Douglass, just a few blocks away. I was a grad student upstate at the time and I’d visit for four-day weekends as often as I could. Her apartment was small, poorly lit, and she had a roommate, as well as cats—all of them, roommate and cats alike, ornery and peevish. When my girlfriend went to work on Mondays or Fridays, I’d escape with my books to the coffee shop, order an endless mug, and sit near the window for a few hours, gazing blankly at the passing strollers, truant teenagers, and local Cobble Hill culture.
I began to recognize the regulars, and though I never talked much to anyone, I eavesdropped with abandon and picked up their names when the baristas would call out orders. There was Stan, a stocky Japanese gent who liked English muffins and rolled his own smokes after eating; Sanjay, an amateur economist of some sort, who loved the merits of free markets and machiattos; and Ali, a Yale professor, whose essay on Melville’s poetry I found online and once read in a pause before a refill. I learned the names of employees, too: Rachel; the two musicians, both named Chris; Becky; Scott; and Jerry, Henry’s muscle, the strongman who hauled in supplies from the beverage depot and left, I suppose, with beans. The Fall Café was a place where no one knew my name, I knew theirs, and free Wi-Fi allowed me to google their lives.
Even when graduate school ended and the girlfriend became my wife, I remained among The Fall Café’s faithful. The wife and I established our domestic lives together, bought furniture and kitchen utensils, a coffeemaker and a teapot. We were equipped to brew our own and did; yet, most Saturday mornings and every snow day I made my way to sip from Henry’s cups.
The coffee, though, was never what drew me there. Baggy and flat, the brew tasted like it was left out overnight to thaw. I wasn’t there for the food either. The place sold oatmeal and muffins, soups and shrink-wrapped baked goods. The food was meant to keep coffee drinkers from burning holes in their stomach, not for savoring or making the neighborhood’s “best of” list.
I came back for the down-at-the-heels nobility of Henry’s establishment. I liked the signs near the door ordering customers to bus their own tables. I liked the music played by the people who worked there—Pavement and Sonic Youth one day, bluegrass, nineties hip-hop, or Motown the next. I liked that the scuffed wood floors had blurry imprints of fallen leaves, which might have been an aesthetic choice but, just as easily, might have been from a failure to sweep. I liked that on two different occasions a stranger asked to borrow my computer to hold a conversation on Skype.
Near the door, there was an often-occupied velvet couch, a secondhand find that coughed out dust whenever anyone sat down. On rainy days, a street person might rest there for a spell, drying out the dirty contents of his plastic shopping bags. Then, as soon as he’d leave, a customer at one of the tables, someone who’d been there the whole time, would move to the couch and feel grateful for the chance to recline. I liked that, too.
Like me, Stan, Sanjay, and the others never left, but the crowd at The Fall Café thinned over the years as the neighborhood changed. Trendier spots opened nearby, places that advertised organic joe and vegan scones. There were probably paper towels in the bathrooms as well. Smith Street more and more resembled an eastern outpost of Manhattan, and from inside the café, I’d watch couples peer into the window before moving on to someplace Zagat-rated. Maybe they didn’t want to bus their own table; perhaps they’d seen the wood floors and the couch and opted for something cleaner. Their loss, I’d think, flicking an ant away from my breakfast.
Several Saturdays ago, after a weekend away, I walked to The Fall Café, hoping to get through a stack of students’ essays. The place was shuttered. A work order adhered to the window, and renovations were already underway for a new place called Trattoria, a name I have trouble pronouncing.
Nothing of Henry’s was visible from the street. I looked for a note, an explanation of what happened to the café. I knew, of course, but part of me wanted a good-bye, a thank-you for all the years of loyalty. The window chalkboard was gone, and the only words on the shutters were inked in graffiti. The Fall Café closed, and no sign, no story, no paper towel, told what happened.
Nicholas Soodik is a high school English teacher in Brooklyn.