(from end of 2006, given to Gwen, owner of Coffea, so she would keep the hours weird)
Coffeehouse culture is alive and well in Brown Zero. I sit in the newest; Caffea in the Bywater, full of red touches, funky paintings; clearly, the owners living room was transported here. Starting at Sunday opening time at 9:10 am (yes, actual opening time on the sign on the door; New Orleans is a understanding late riser), a mix of characters come for lattes, crepes and Mr. Henry’s doughnuts.
Conversation swirls around; ongoing renovations of one’s flooded or burned house (fire is the biggest concern presently in a city full of empty houses with new wiring, newer wood and being held hostage by the worst drought in over a century), last night’s music and literary shows, and today’s event at the newly renovated library up the street. It’s in these moments that the city seems more itself than at any time. Conversation over a cup of coffee and neighbors spending the day together, culture flows through casual relationships and unlikely formal matchings.
Unlike other American places where families equal one to three small people and one or two tall people that look alike driving in a van or SUV, families in urban enviros are often a group of friends sharing all of their spare time together, vacationing together, evacuating together in the teeth of an approaching storm.
Since Katrina, this is even truer in the Crescent City. The aforementioned coffeehouses are one example of community folks who have become the point person in their community to keep in touch, create a normal routine and pass along important news. The trend has been explored and explained before now: the concept of “ third place“is detailed in sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s classic, “The Great Good Place.” Oldenburg defined “first place” as a person’s home, “second place” their workplace and “third place” the neutral community space. For many New Orleanians, the first place is gone or only slowly reappearing with insurance delays and contractor woes, and the second place is disappearing fast with corporate layoffs popping up in clusters like fast moving summer storms. Third places are the lifeline we cling to in our troubled days. They include neutral grounds with shady trees to put chairs under, churches and any place that humors a group hanging for a few hours in comfort and ease.
Third places don’t ask for a state issues id or a background check. They don’t show their disdain for people who wear go-go boots at 10 am, or a cape at 3 pm.
Third places include charismatic neighbors who somehow bring all the tired and poor masses to their door. They are always listening to a story while standing in the heat on their way to the hardware store.
Public life is alive and well in the Crescent City, as a matter of fact, writer C.W. Cannon points to that as one of the four reasons why “America hates us” in his now classic essay in the anthology “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans”. Our public life is why we stick out when we evacuate elsewhere; we tend to stand on corners with drinks in our hands talking animatedly to someone we met at a party while our (other America) hosts frantically beg us to “get back on the porch before the police come.
”Police? Why on earth? Because of my DRINK? Are you kidding?”
No they are not kidding. We know everyone else is quite tired of our constant pride in our weirdness in the public eye, but we recognize it as culturally significant as Neal Cassidy’s obsessive driving skills in the Beat community of the 50s. It speaks to our inner selves, and illuminates the family ties. Because, when all is said and done, we hold together here because we have chosen our cultural community over any other.
9:10 am is our choice.