Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Worlds Within Worlds

Just like unto a Nest of Boxes round,
Degree of sizes within each Boxe are found.
So in the World, may many Worlds more be,
Thinner and lesse, and lesse still by degree;
Although they are not subject to our Sense,
A World may be no bigger than two-pence.
Nature is curious, and such worke may make,
That our dull Sense can never finde, but scape.
For Creatures, small as Atomes, may be there,
If every Atome a World can make, then see,
What severall Worlds might in an Eare-ring bee.
For millions of these Atomes may bee in
The Head of one small, little, single Pin.
And if thus small, then Ladies well may weare
A World of Worlds, as Pendants in each Eare.

–Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623 – 15 December 1673)

As I write about the past, I think of the small, cellular worlds I must be creating somewhere. I’ve written about memory before, and I return to it because I can’t will these created worlds to burst their little bubbles or float away. They exist under a microscope of mind and words, and this is the place where I catalog my own Micrographia, as Robert Hooke did more than three-hundred years ago. Through his improved version of the Leeunwenhoek microscope, Hooke examined the unknown worlds teeming under the surface of human vision. He then carefully drew the details that sprang to life through light and lenses.

While Hooke’s microscope existed tangibly, as the image at left attests to, mine is locked up inside my skull, and my words are my only witnesses to what I’ve seen. But if I want to take a philosophical turn, I’ll have to admit that Hooke’s drawings are frail witnesses, worlds Hooke created as an artist with pencils. And nobody saw what Hooke saw, the worlds he experienced through his retinas and experienced as places in the mind.

Yes, that’s far too philosophical for short vignettes created by my early adulthood, of that short space of time I spent in nineties coffeehouses. If I were to live a second time, I would study the neuroscience of memory and probe deeply into the corpuscles of the frontal lobes. I would call myself a Mad Scientist with vision through walls, brought to me by brain imaging technology. My second life would have to take an abrupt turn at a crucial point, however, owing to the layers of memories and learning that have built up this idea of me as scientist rather than writer.

In those early nineties, I dropped out of college [this is the crucial point] because I feared my own incompetence and lack of intelligence. Hence, I applied to work at Coffee People because an espresso shop wouldn’t prove me incapable, even though it did on occasion. And writing was the outward shield I carried to thwart my critics. Although an academic failure, I could write and, furthermore, I didn’t need a degree to prove my writing abilities. Later, life would prove that I wasn’t a raw talent waiting to happen, and so I did eventually earn a creative writing degree, which served to reveal my lack of talent, after all.

Am I depressing you? Expressing negativity isn’t my intention in this piece, though admitting my fears is acutely discomforting to me, so I imagine how you must feel reading them. Instead, expressing perception is my intention. My memories, my successes, my failures, my life in toto are tainted by perceptions. And have these perceptions changed the reality of the worlds within worlds within my mind? And does a pure sense of existence survive after all is said and done?

I worked at two created spaces of Coffee People: the Beaverton store, and the one in downtown Portland at the end of the university park blocks. The downtown store has left the greater impression in my memory, perhaps because I worked there just before and after my wedding. Or perhaps the many ways in which my incompetency did reveal itself branded me for the future. For example, one delightfully early morning, I opened the store and forgot about the alarm and the alarm code until the beeping woke the downtown, sleeping city.

How far can I reach into these created spaces in my stored memories without altering them? In the kitchen of the shop, the bakers baked banana bread and brownies and cookies, and the smell intoxicated customers. It intoxicated me: true memory. In the front, we worked at one of two registers or espresso machines. The spare espresso machine was rarely used, though, and created its own little den-like space for a family of cockroaches–also a true memory. That’s panning in, focusing deeper, but it isn’t as far as the sight can reach. What if I extend my view upward?

Upward, I discover a space purely created in the imagination because I never witnessed those upstairs apartments that housed mentally ill patients. I imagined the next level as a series of dwellings lost in the bends of mouse mazes, where the mentally ill found themselves, unable to navigate their way out. But they did find their way past security occasionally. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have known of their existence. When a mean, old lady with a jerking leg entered the cafe, her space met mine. The other employees avoided her, as well as the dirty old man who muttered to himself in another language [Russian, or am I inventing that?]. We were supposed to call the security upstairs if they caused trouble: Hello, you have an escapee who speaks strange words, and this time, I’m off the hook.

But I’m never off the hook. And, no, I refuse to make the obvious pun. What world have I created today? How did my thoughts inform my mind? Have I managed to create a coffeehouse, a rectangular space colored red and dotted with chrome and black? Despite my best efforts, my memories are escaping, now. They’re carrying me out the door of Coffee People and into the grass, under the giant elms that blow in the summer breeze. I’m newly married, and I’ve experienced love, but I’m sad, always very sad because I’ve stored my dreams in nonexistent worlds, lost in the storehouse of my mind.

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