Every writer with a romantic synapse in their brain can imagine themselves sitting at a café on the Left Bank, drinking a cappuccino, citron pressé, or Calvados, writing words that are so transcendently profound (and, more often, tragically self-referential) that delusions of Sartre, de Beauvoir, Hemingway, and other famous literary locals and émigrés dance in their heads.
I sat in a café on the Left Bank once, but I didn’t write anything. It felt like every sentence that could possibly be written there had already been written. In virtually every language. I was at a loss for words. They’d all been taken by someone else.
But I have written in many places that do leave a lot for the imagination. The main requirements are that the large regular is $3.00 or less, there are free refills, free Internet, and, preferably, the place isn’t a Starbucks. (Although, I have to admit their new egg-bite things are a good source of gluten-free protein.)
Circling out from my personal grind zero, there’s Amy’s Bakery and the iconic Mocha Joe’s in my hometown of Brattleboro, VT, Prime Roast to the east in Keene, NH, the Flat Iron in Bellows Falls, VT to the north, south to Haymarket in Northampton, and southeast to The Edge in Providence. All of which have served as temporary offices. For which I feel an unspoken gratitude that goes beyond whatever I leave in the tip jar. *
Amy’s is more of a permanent office. Especially if it’s warm enough to sit outside. When it was closed during the pandemic, people I’d never even met would see me wandering forlornly up and down Main Street and ask, “Where do you work now?”
My literary refuges have reached as far east as The New Café in Florence and west to the Bean Bag Café in San Francisco. Sometimes I remember the taste of their coffee, more often what we used to call their gestalt. Sometimes both. Like Kudu in Charleston, South Carolina. The place blends in so well with the neighborhood that, from the outside, it looks like the home of some obscure liberal arts department that the College of Charleston wishes would just go away. They make a remarkable “True Italian Cappuccino” with just enough steamed milk to know it’s there, but little enough so you can still taste the espresso. When I walked in the second day, the barista asked if I wanted “the same.” He did call me “sir,” but, by then, I had no excuse for deducting points for that.
At the Walden Pond Visitor’s Center in Concord, MA, a few hundred yards down from the cabin where Thoreau lived for two years, two months, and two days, there’s a big interactive map of the world. Above it is the question: “Where is your Walden?” (If you aren’t planning to be at Concord in the near future, you can do it at their website: www.walden.org/education/wheres-your-walden/). The question asks you to identify “a place in Nature that inspires you, makes you see things through different eyes, and causes wonder and awe. It’s often a place you know well, but it can also be a place you’ve visited just once in person, but often revisit in your mind.”
When I was at the Visitor’s Center, I obediently placed my Walden at Mount Wantastiquet, the mountain across the Connecticut River that I stare at every morning while I’m drinking my coffee.
But, if set aside the two words “in Nature” for a moment, my answer would be very different. I don’t have one Walden. I have many—an eclectic assortment of coffee shops, bars, and town squares where I’ve watched people in a way that makes me “see things through different eyes, and causes wonder and awe.”
I’m just beginning to work on a project about Thoreau. And while he certainly spent more time on main streets than he would lead you to believe, his genius was his ability to transform the smallest observation in nature—a leaf, bug, ripple on a lake—into a profound insight into humanity’s relationship to it.
I’m looking forward to writing about Henry David (née David Henry). And I apologize in advance to his immortal soul that I will inevitably do much of it among and for “the mass of men [sic] [who] live lives of quiet desperation.” They, too, can be the source of “wonder and awe.”
In 1843, Thoreau went to New York, thinking he had to go there if he was serious about getting his work published. The hustle and bustle of the city kind of freaked him out and, after a few months, he returned to Concord.
Maybe next time around, he’ll go to Paris.
* I was thinking that someone should do an idiosyncratically subjective guide to good independent coffee shops. Naturally, someone already has; https://www.foodandwine.com/coffee/best-coffee-shops-in-america
(Illo by Echo Mars)