On our street, there are many cafés. Some are independents, some are chains. The chains have been designed to look like independents. Don’t be fooled.
Let’s go inside this café. It looks as if it’s been here for ever, but in fact it was opened ten years ago in an old haberdashers’ shop. It is defiantly independent. It used to have a sign outside that read: If you voted for Brexit, don’t bother to come in. There were several ugly scenes.
The café is popular with tourists. It’s in several guides to the city, recommended as being idiosyncratic and friendly. At this table is a group of friends from Wisconsin. They’ve come to the city for a Christian conference. At this table is a couple from Austria. One of them is a news presenter. She is the first black woman, the first woman in fact, to present a news programme on Austrian television. Several people have turned to look at her – and looked again, thinking they recognise her. The other runs a neighbourhood café in Vienna. She says to her partner – How strange, this café looks Viennese. Unlike mine.
At this table is a man who comes in every day, alone, at exactly 11am, and drinks a cup of espresso coffee and a glass of iced water. He used to smoke a cigar, but he is no longer allowed to. In 1939, as a child, he escaped from Lviv, a city in Ukraine, and came to live here. He never saw any of his relatives again. Most of them were taken to Dachau. Every year he goes to Lviv, and stays in an airbnb in the house where he was born.
On the counter there is a display of cakes and pastries. Gluten free, they say proudly. Vegan. May contain nuts.
These two women are friends, and have been for thirty years. They are eating cake. One of them is going through the break up of her third marriage. The other listens with genuine sympathy but slight lack of attention. She’s heard it all before. She catches the eye of a handsome middle-aged man who has momentarily looked up from reading one of the newspapers that the café provides for its customers. He smiles. She half-smiles. He returns to his reading. There will be no meeting, just this fleeting eye contact.
The barista is from Guatemala, where coincidentally this week’s guest coffee comes from.
A man comes in, as he does every day, flirts awkwardly with the barista. He is homeless. She gives him a cup of tea and a cake, partly because she feels sorry for him, partly because she likes being flirted with.
The song on the sound system is You Can Call Me Al, from Paul Simon’s Graceland album. The lyrics of this song are complex and profound. No one is attending to them. In fact, no one is listening to the music. They are, simply, hearing it.
At this table is a young man with an open laptop. He has been here for several hours, and he will be here for several more. He finds working in libraries impossible; they’re far too quiet. He loves the cheerful racket in the café, the buzz of conversation, the explosive whooshes of the Gaggia machine, the clatter of the music. He is writing a thesis on Memory and Re-Creation in Troubadour Lyric. He writes; it seems good. He reads what he has written; it seems terrible. He is excited; he is disappointed. He corrects, deletes, copies and pastes. He eats the banana he has brought with him.
At the table in the corner is a knitting group. They are knitting guns for an exhibition of knitted weaponry curated by a successful young artist. In front of the knitters is a complex array of drinks, decaf this, one-shot that, herbal this, soya that. They are cheerful, chatty, occasionally raucous. They have been knitting here every week for the last few months, and they are enjoying the sociability and the gentle transgression of the activity.
Outside on the street there is an eruption of sound as a huge bin full of glass is emptied into a recycling lorry. A man starts to clean a high window, awkwardly, with a long-handled brush. And the morning floats on.
Words by Orlando Gough. Café imagery by Joanna Waller.
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