Restorative Oases Essential
[Cafe on Đồng Khởi in Vung Tau on 1/30/24]
Near my room there are three cafes I frequent. One opens at 6:30AM, the others at seven. If I feel like a coffee before that, I must walk at least half a mile. Sometimes I trek nearly three miles to the central market. With produce being delivered during the night, it’s abuzz with activities well before dawn.
In Pakse, Laos, there are many Vietnamese, so there, too, I could sit among men to sip bitterness as each day began. Since it’s cheaper to drink at home, why do this? To see familiar faces, of course, and to banter. Among Vietnamese and many others, it’s a social necessity. In Scranton, PA, my friend Chuck Orloski would see some of his buddies at Dunkin’ Donuts, but they don’t show up each morning. Plus, it’s a sterile, corporate space with employees, and not an owner one has gotten to know over years. Since paid-by-the-hour workers must be busy at all time, they can’t chatter with customers.
I’ve been at this café on Đồng Khởi [General Uprising] since just after 5AM. Strolling in, I simply sat down to await my black coffee without sugar. From just a handful of visits, the lady knows what I want. She’s a Buddhist married to a Catholic. This fact I glean from overheard conversations, but there are other clues.
Behind the counter is a clock and thermometer with an image of the Madonna. No, not the aging Jewish whore who’s about to break her ankle or neck, but the Virgin Mary. Since there’s also a shrine to the Earth God and God of Wealth, two Taoist deities, this shop is also owned by a Buddhist. Predictably, there’s no Buddha, though Guanyin, the female Bodhisattva, might be on the highest floor. With her multicolored radiating halo, she protects her children.
Though I know no one here, it’s a comfort to be among my own kind, and by this, I don’t mean Vietnamese. In Beirut, Cairo, Tirana, Skopje, Seoul, Phnom Penh or wherever, it’s similarly soothing to be accepted. Even the buzz of conversations I don’t understand is the ultimate music.
As long as they’re not sonic hells, bars are also oases that restore. Essential to English speakers, they’ve been communal living room where the buzzed or pissed can debate, blather and solve nearly everything. With their degradation and marginalization, the Anglosphere has become fragmented, lost and pissed off. For more on this, check out my “Twelve Rounds with Kent Clizbe,” a proud and, I must say, rather smug CIA man.
In Vung Tau, I’m amused and even nourished by snippets caught in cafes. Here’s a woman speaking to her son on the phone, “Why are you sending me music?! I don’t know how to listen to music! Send me money!”
It’s just past 6AM, so many regulars have drifted off to work. Catching this early crowd, two itinerant sellers of lottery tickets have come and gone. I recognized them.
One is a thin, dark woman who always wears a soft hat with “NAM MÔ A DI ĐÀ PHẬT.” In the infinite light of the Buddha, I take refuge. Also constant is her furry slippers with plastic cartoon characters. Today, she charms us all with her Winnie-the-Pooh pajamas in shiny polyester. Must be new.
The other is a septuagenarian who hobbles around with an aluminum quad cane. Inching from café to café in the dark, he must plop himself down to rest at each. I’ve seen him, half a mile away, pausing in the middle of a street to gather his strength.
Not so old, my gait is already changed. Almost comically, I shift visibly from side to side as I move forward. Perhaps it’s only a tactic, if only half consciously, to elicit pity or mercy from passersby? Don’t injure this oldhead, he’s already half dead. Hand me a basketball, however, and I’ll race upcourt to zip a no-look pass at a cutter or, fuck it, glide to the rack myself to jam it in your mama’s boy’s face!
Since language is so malleable and felicitous, you can say anything. Just look at your politicians, newscasters and public intellectuals.
Looking up, I see the owner of the noodle shop across the street. With a shaggy dog peeking from between her bare legs, she’s picking her nose. Standing up, this lady of about 50 arches her back, thus exposing a white belly not quite pregnant. Her shirt has horizontal stripes in dark colors, very elegant.
Behind her is a television showing fireworks nonstop. Tet is over, however. I’m glad. Not tied to any schedule, I prefer normal days with no cause for alarm or celebration. Café culture is built on this basis. Men come daily to be reassured by normalcy. Pity those who have no access to this.
Note: to support my work as author, and not just blogger, do consider buying one or several of my books, all of which are destined to become eternal classics to be (mis)translated into all known and unknown languages.
[Cóc Cóc Coffee in Vung Tau on 2/12/24]
[cafe near Mohamed Naguib Station in Cairo on 1/18/21]
[on 12/17/20 at a cafe in Hamra, Beirut, portraits of Khahlil Gilbran, Niza Qabbani, Saeed Akl, Mahmoud Darwish and Marcel Khalifa]
[Deus Cafe in Hout Bay, Cape Town on 9/10/21]
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