I know I’m haunting the coffee shop a little bit too much when the perky staff turns to me once every counter has been left slightly damp by a casually passed cloth. “So what do you do?” comes easily, because in our world people are defined by their job. “I’m a writer,” I tell them, casually letting it fall around what I really am as a person. “Oh,” comes the response, as if to say, “Duh!” Dunn Brothers Coffee on West Seventh is one of those places where people who need a step back from their life sit in the middle of it all – a good place for writers.
A functioning city is, invariably, a collection of places just like this. Two blocks away is the Xcel Center, home to large gatherings that include NHL’s Wild and the Republican National Convention. Around it are the smaller places like this where people meet to pitch for work and catch up with each other. My own home is only two blocks away, and within an easy walk of a half-mile we have about 20 restaurants and bars, the last time I counted.
It may not look like much, but Dunn Brothers is very important. This is the kind of place where Aristotle taught his students, a corner of the Athenian Agora. JS Bach and GF Telemann formed a band called “Musical Friends” that played in Zimmerman’s Coffee House in Leipzig. In my own time, the Mayor of Saint Paul, Chris Coleman, walked in and greeted me by name, putting a little edge to the conversation I had earlier.
A quick glance tells anyone that this is a gathering place, a hole in the West Seventh streetscape waiting to be filled with people and noise. What makes it more is the democratic sense that we are whatever we are, roughly equal and not precisely how we look or act. The Mayor had to stand in line behind a man, whose name I believe is Carlos, who slipped in to get warm and pick up a stray paper; I slipped him two bucks to get something so that the staff wouldn’t eye him the wrong way for being beverage-free once the counters finished another round of dampening.
We all go about our business. The staff fills the air with the good morning embrace of coffee aroma. The Mayor is meeting with Deputy Police Chief Bostrom, and whatever they are discussing betrays a deep sense of friendship and warmth between them. Carlos, if that’s his name, is ingesting the Pioneer Press more eagerly than his coffee. A well dressed man and woman appear to be on the verge of signing a contract as the flurry of paper passed between settles into one stack in the middle of their table. The guy in the pony tail stares at his screen as if he was lost deep inside of it and trying to find himself. They show, not tell. I, for whatever it’s worth, write this in much the same way I’ve been at it for two years.
No one can sit this close to so many other people without making a few judgments about them. That’s why writers like to hang out in places like this, using the stimulus of lives led close together to fuel the imagination even more than caffeine. If there was a band and some local art on the wall the connection to a larger culture would be obvious, but not here. Right now, this morning, we’re just hanging out in the same space. That’s close enough to a kind of Trust for urban people. Whatever stories we invent we keep to ourselves and call it Civility instead of Culture.
Time spent absorbing this shows what a city really is for, after all. We talk about things like access and buildings and great big events that will really pack ‘em in, but they ultimately aren’t what a city is. This particular spot is where a Starbuck’s closed and the local chain, Dunn Brothers, reopened a month later; when this space was dark, illuminated only by the promise on a cheery “opening soon!” sign, it was physically the same space it is now. A city is about life, not spaces or all those other things, and the physical world is only useful to the extent that it makes life come together. Life, itself, is a collection of stories that are remembered after the eulogy is finished. The city works when it is a place where stories are born happily.
The job of a writer is nothing less than that of a community organizer, making the connections in the stories that fill the spaces inbetween. That sounds less romantic when I explain what I do, so I’ll just be the guy in the corner looking around and smiling whenever I can.