The place where stories grow


Stories grow in coffee shops, between the hum of burr grinders and hiss of espresso steam and low conversation and clacking of keys. They congregate there, with the regulars who make a scarred table an office, the mothers clinging to their adult-ness, trying to be intellectual while bouncing infants grabbing at their soy lattes to go, the students slouched under the weight of headphones and dusty books much, much older than themselves. The stories are there, waiting to be found, to be told. I’ve thought about a series or a column to tell them; sense their presence when I pass by on Philadelphia Avenue; burn with words unwritten when I settle onto the couch to use the wireless to catch up on Burn Notice. But I haven’t.

The Washington Post, apparently, knows it too. I ran across their Coffeehouse Series last week, designed to show that a good writer can find a story anywhere. The idea thrilled me. The caveats (use the word “secret,” feature a landmark) aggravated me; it weakened good writing, added nothing, made a fascinating experiment into a game.

My favorite was, coincidentally, at the same Del Ray coffee shop where strangers quietly joined our game of Trivial Pursuit. (You can read it here). I love how the writer identifies each man or woman by their beverage. And because I’ve been there, I can feel the conversation warming, drawing in first the group’s own members, then the tables all around.

But the stories are everywhere.

I remember the possibly insane man at the now-closed Brew Mountain Coffee in Northern Virginia. He was wearing cut-off shorts on a chilly autumn day and walking around the small shop, smiling at anyone whose gaze crossed his. That’s how I noticed him, pulled out of my own books and papers by his pacing. He grinned, asked me where I was from.

“I’m a student here,” I answered, half uncomfortable (“Don’t talk to strangers” ringing in my ears), half fascinated by his strangeness, his friendliness.

“I’m from the moon,” he told me simply, watching to see if I believed him.

“Well, what’s that like?” What else can you say to a man who hales from the moon?

“You take huge steps,” he grinned, imitating his way out the door into the wind and into the unfriendly DC suburbia world.

I wish I knew his story.

Brew was a great place for stories. The owner was one all to himself, with his many children and patient wife and propensity to lose customers when he refused to adulterate his high-quality coffee with flavors and sugars. He glared at construction workers pouring sugar in double espressos; frowned when I failed to note the hints of citrus and cherry and hibiscus flowers in his newest roast (I made the flowers part up); threatened to disallow laptops because he wanted his shop to be a community.

His patrons loved him, and loved his store. But no one was surprised when it closed (we bought one of his chairs the day he closed the it; a piece of our history).

Other shops have told other stories. I remember my first coffee-cupping experience at Caffe Pronto in Annapolis, tasting an espresso with all the sweetness of tea, watching a shy girl with multi-colored hair tiptoe into a world her bolder friend was eager to introduce.

There was a young mother and her 8-year-old son at Commonplace just a few weeks ago. Her hair, long, dark, and in braids, fell in front of her shoulders; a loose shirt fell well over her very pregnant belly, skirt reaching to the ground, a tattoo peaking from her shoulder. She was knitting; the boy was drinking root beer with a straw. She left before I could ask her story.

There was the older man, mustache just turning to grey, hair on his head thinning slightly. He commented on my cross stitching, took a seat on the coach next to us. No ring on his left hand; a crazy limp that left him kicking furniture when he lurched across the room.

“I come here to get out of the apartment,” he explained. He wanted to talk about music, but we had never heard of each others’ favorites. Still he sat there, just to be near another soul, I guess, occasionally tossing comments our way from his work on his laptop.

The stories, I hear a new one every time I go there. I hope they wait for me to find the words to tell them.

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