I’m looking for my place in this town. We moved here during Covid, when everything was still locked down, and had been for ten months.
For a minute, I think I’ve found it.
This place feels like walking into a sitcom. It sits on the corner of two of the major streets, full plate-glass front. There are 8 tables, all two-tops but for one, four of them sharing attached bench seating against the wall. The tabletops are mismatched, some finished with a gray sage covering, mostly hard wood stained light. The chairs are all black, paint and cushions, and are the only thing in here that match. The walls are a deep blue that edges toward navy, with a blue mural of a grizzly facing you as you walk in. The organizer in me is in awe of their storage system; shelves for coffee beans and pour-over kits mounted to the support beam, narrow shelf for cream and sugar and various accoutrements following the slight curve of the window. There is a cold fridge directly beneath the counter at the corner where the tiny screen that now serves as a cash register sits, still under a Plexiglass barrier. A small case for pastries sits on the other edge of the counter, flush against the section where the focus turns inward towards the barista. The equipment isn’t new, but gleams even three hours after opening. There is a great deal of foot traffic, no optical illusion even though a line of more than four people winds out the door. The barista is in her forties, with grays just beginning to scatter in her short cap of black hair. She calls every stranger honey or baby, and her regulars by name. She remembers their orders, giving them a hard time when they try something new.
I took the last empty bench seat, sitting between two men also banging away at their laptops. To my right is a man in his fifties, comfortable in dark-wash jeans and a gray T-shirt. So far, I’ve learned that he has multiple children, enjoys tuna fishing, and didn’t want his wife to resign her job because he likes the money she makes.
To my left is a tall guy in his early twenties. His posture is ramrod straight and three inches away from the wall; his slim-fit, cinnamon-brown pants that are a perfect match to his large canvas backpack and leather “work” boots offset by a bright teal T-shirt. I know far less about him; he hasn’t said a word, has his Airpods in while he focuses on his computer. Occasionally he picks up his phone, but puts it back down after attending to whatever it was that notified him. I want to ask him the secret of his focus.
The one other long-term occupant sits against the window, facing the back wall. She is also on her laptop, with a full headset and mic on. She’s taken three calls since I’ve been here. She is clad in pastel workout shorts and short-sleeve shirt, blue running shoes with the white of her ankle socks showing. She could have stepped out off the track if it weren’t for the Michael Kors bag with her own power strip and various chargers at her feet. She leans into her screen, readers perched on her nose, long red hair pulled back in a ponytail that was thrown up hours ago.
There are a number of characters I’ve seen come in. One tall man in his fifties, navy polo tucked into his belted chinos, knew the generic picture of mediocre successful man sitting to my right. They chatted while his order was filled, the seated man never rising, the tall man never sitting. I could only laugh listening to their conversation; not eavesdropping, since it was the loudest thing in the café at the time. They couldn’t recognize the irony in their conversation about downsizing their sailboats, but bitching about their daughters’ tuition, wanting them to go to state schools and work part-time through their pre-med program, because “we told them, you know, you can’t just have everything. So anyway, where’s the little boat?”
I haven’t met the mayor yet, but there have been several men in double-breasted suit coats and varying levels of white hair who have come in. Two young students come in and take a table, papers and notebooks and coffees all jousting for position on the small table between them. A mother in jogging clothes, stroller covered with a rain-cover, bright eyed baby quiet and staring. Construction workers pass the door to enter the convenience store for cheaper coffee and snacks. At no point in here is the radio ever drowned out. I don’t recognize a single song from the contemporary easy playlist.
The coffee is strong, the muffins are soft and delicious. I’ll be coming back, but I don’t think it’s going to be a mainstay.
Now, the library is another story.
My family didn’t go to the library often; it was across town and the parking was terrible. The sidewalks would be slick in the rain, and I feel like it was always raining when we went; perhaps we only did when we couldn’t be sent outside to play. I remember the stone had a softness to it, having been carved long ago enough that no sharp edges remained in the architecture. The stairs of the entrance were so well tucked under the building it was always dark. The double doors are giants in my memory, and probably only somewhat smaller in real life. It reminded me of an old church, but so much warmer, both in sentiment and temperature. It still held the reverent hush in its very walls. As you entered, the circulation desk would be directly in front of you, guarding the way to huge rooms with cathedral ceilings and stacks of books beyond it. The wing to the left was two stories, the wraparound balcony with its high wall and brass bar skirting around the edges of more stacks. Little desks were tucked here and there, lit by brass desk lamps with the green glass shade that I associated with colleges and professors; I had one on my desk at home, and I was immensely proud to see it there after visiting the library.
The wing to the right was much more open and bright, at least, brighter gray; no shadows here, no towering stacks. Here there were individual cubicle desks, and a couple of old benches; shelves held VHS tapes in tattered plastic cases, and, if memory serves, the giant wooden card catalog. I thought those were fascinating; drawers upon drawers of little cards with secret codes that let you find whatever book you wanted. Now we have browser tabs, and all the code is hidden.
I, somewhat desperately, want the library to be our place. It’s not walking distance; I imagine it will be biking distance at some painful point in the future. The architecture is highly reminiscent of my childhood, sandstone and pink granite with craggy bricks and soft curves. There’s no half-mile, uphill trek in, just a few steps on level sidewalk to small staircase. Once inside those magic doors, the stairs go down to the right, and up directly in front of you, welcoming you to ascend into the worlds of the printed page, or detour down into the open workspace of technology. At the top of the half-staircase is the circulation desk, now tucked behind Plexiglass.
I had gone alone to the coffeeshop, but brought my daughter to the library. Lucy’s eyes were wide as she stood, taking it all in. I spoke with the librarian about the application I had started online, and within moments, was grinning ear to ear with library card in hand. I have a secondhand Kindle, which I have yet to use; but holding that card, I felt like I was given the keys to the castle from Beauty and the Beast. Any book I imagined I could conjure up and bring to me. The timing worked out well; just as I tucked the plastic card away, Lucy took off, thankfully to the children’s section. She stopped in her tracks and looked all around, trying to make it compute, before running over to the low table with its equally tiny chairs. She climbed up and spent a happy twenty minutes taking the crayons out of their basket and replacing them, occasionally moving a handful somewhere else nearby with seeming deliberation. I found myself, as I often do when I watch her play like this, wondering what spell she’s casting, what magic lives with her beautiful dark eyes. The moment breaks when she pulls down several books from a shelf. She’s found the books about trucks and other large operable machinery. I smile as she scatters a few of the books, and the pain slices me through like a scalpel, so sharp and neat, I don’t feel it right then. I don’t realize I’m crying until my hand comes away from my face, wet and streaked with running mascara. I don’t feel the ground beneath me until my knees start to buckle. I stay upright with a willpower borne of an audience, not willing to cause a scene, although we are almost the only patrons.
I want to find our place; I need to. I need to keep searching for this new dream, keep building this new life. As the one year anniversary closes in, the pain is swordsman, hiding around every corner, steel glinting only after it strikes. The missing of them is visceral; I feel it, deeply, in the fissures of my heart, in my empty arms. My chest wants to cave in upon itself, my body to bow as only the grief-stricken can.
I stand straighter.
A half-hour later, we finish our first tour of the library, making friends along the way. Lucy turns and waves, calling “bye!” to everyone and everything. She is entrancing; her wide-eyed amazement over a painted flower pot, her desire to put everything she can pick up into her mouth. She keeps me going; she keeps me standing.
We will find our spot. Maybe we already have, and I just don’t recognize it, because a world without Hawthorne still doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe it never will. Maybe the best we can do is to find some middle ground, some worldly place between absence and nonsense. Maybe that will be enough of a place to call home without my original vagabond by my side.