Since I may be getting into my daily life, I ought to provide some background. So here’s something I wrote two years ago. The first editor who saw it didn’t think it would play outside of Berkeley. The next one was sure it would, but hasn’t found the right mix with which to surround it yet. But not wanting to deprive my faithful readers any longer, and knowing he won’t mid…
The Wrench (not quite itsw actual name), my coffeehouse of choice, occupies the ground floor of a two-story, red brick hotel which, when I arrived in Berkeley from Philadelphia in 1968, housed a laundry. The cobbler, hardware store and gas station that had been nearby have been replaced too, by designer women’s clothes, a unisex beauty salon, a Pilates studio. Peet’s was already in place, but Chez Panisse had not arrived. The neighborhood, then too undistinguished to be named, is the Gourmet Ghetto now.
The Wrench faces east. A bulletin board announces that a relaunched Sopwith Camel can be heard, spiritual transformation obtained, peace still fought for. The fire engine red San Marco espresso machine draws greater interest. It is the ceiling of this Sistine Chapel, its deliveries masterpieces of viscosity, strength, and flavor. The barristas, Bartolo, thirty years in residence, and Leon, with tenure slightly less, adorn the steamed milk of the favored, whether “Maestro,” or “Chiquita,” with chocolate roses and breasts. News of marriages and children pass above the biscotti jars. The one-pint tip glass fills.
For decades, I came to the Wrench weekend and holiday afternoons. But since my retirement from the practice of law, I arrive mornings, usually before eight. The sidewalk offers tables; but most action, though still not free of inconvenience from the elements, is within. The back room’s glass roof admits rain. Its windows do not close, so the fog chills; and when it lifts, the rising sun glazes the eyes of the seated. The view this costs is of a supermarket’s parking lot. The front room has its own flaws. One of the four heavy wood tables, strung single-file along the south wall, is too near the door; one is cast aslant by a lopsided floor; one is perversely small and one dimly lit. Four additional tables stand perpendicular to it, before a mirrored wall. At three of these, a bank of folding chairs links the seated too closely, and the fourth reposes directly across from the hotel clerk’s ringing phone. Music from a Spanish-language station caters to the staff, rather than the jazz or classical which would suit the clientele. If you do not mind edges to your bagel, these toxicities bemuse.
The Wrench is tres Berkeley. Customers include an anaesthesiologist, cartoonist, contractors (two), fine artists (several), folk musicians (several more), high school teacher, mathematician, mime (retired), photographers (several), plumber, professor emeritus (anthropology), psychotherapists (several), river rafting guide (retired), roadie (formerly of the Allman Brothers, now homeless), union organizer, yoga instructor. I can identify delegates from Brazil, Bulgaria, Ethiopia (or Eritrea), Israel, Poland, Syria. A Thai waitress, Vietnamese grocer, Chinese auto mechanic get theirs to go. I can count four octogenarians named “Sam,” all with Greek fishermen’s caps. I hear “Guten tag,” “Bonjour” and “Buon giorno.” Robert Reich stands behind an obese woman with matted hair, bare midriff, and flip-flops.
As coffeehouses go, the Wrench is of the social persuasion. By offering only two electric outlets, it deters the roosting of the silent, studious, lap-top dependent. The chatter level dissuades attempts at chess or go. (But not the two scholars who translate Homer to each other.) There is a morning crowd, an afternoon’s, an evening’s; overlap occurs. Groups as large as twenty congregate; others confine themselves to trios or quartets. A minority customarily solo. We learn each others’ schedules and habits. If our favored tables are taken, we know upon whom to keep an eye and when to grab up cup and pounce.
I read; I write; I stare out the open door at passers-by. I accept recollection’s jolts or the encounter that will generate conversation. Memories of marches, three-on-three games, hot tub parties surface and fall away. This week’s discussions included the Oakland A’s, Billy Collins’s poetry, and the social consequences of growing up haole in Hawaii.
The first coffeehouse I entered in Berkeley, back when less milk steamed in the entire city than now hisses within a mild ramble from the Wrench, was the Mediterranean, on Telegraph. My youthful forays into Philly’s Guilded Cage had not prepared me. The Med’s bill de fare, posted on the wall, clubbed me dizzy. I had no clue what to order, which required cream or permitted sugar. I was certain an error would mark me as a narc or F.B.I. informant. The bearded, black turtle-necked assembled, huddled together as if plotting to storm the Winter Palace. I clutched a spoon to wield in case the nearby Hell’s Angel, full colors flying, lunged for my throat.
But time has transformed me as well as my surround. Berkeley now seems more threatened by mountain lions than Hell’s Angels, and real estate more frequently discussed than revolution. I have become proudly bi-lingual when it comes to “short double espresso” and educated to more than choice of beverage. I came to the Wrench, as one comes to many things in life, from chance and circumstance, experience and process of elimination. Then, with fit established, as with wife and home, I ceased to wander.
Without an office or the links profession forges, the Wrench provides a new community. It called for shifts in dress and speech and eliminated entire channels of concern; but it more than supplied what I sought. (I am not alone in this regard. “The Wrench is my church,” I heard Pug, who fenced for Columbia and fought in Vietnam, explain to his grandchildren one Sunday morning.) People find companionship, encouragement, affirmation of belief – even romance – all good reasons to look forward to rising for another morning when reclining at night. Patrons display art, announce gigs, and publications. Sections of the Times and Chronicle pass hand-to-hand. Hugs happen.
The Wrench hosts memorial services too. I have known those who passed from lung cancer and heart failure and their own hand. I see those who labor with pace-makers and the ravages of chemotherapy. Arrivals became dependant on canes, then walkers – then ceased. A friend visiting from across the bay told me of the hip, young people filling the cafes on Columbus Avenue. “You mean we aren’t the hip, young people any more?” I said.
That was years ago – and is still difficult to swallow. But once down, an expanded vision may follow. As one may find a new place to repair heels and soles and learn to bridge the gap left by each departed pal, one may focus on the table at which one sits, shuffle aside the attendant discomforts, and focus on the wonders that remain.