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Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Project Whimsy Part I

I’m a project-oriented person. Life isn’t about philosophy, religion, politics, economy–unless those subjects are related to the current project. In fact, you’ll be enlightened to know that this blog post is simply one of my smaller, nested projects in a day of projects. At a certain point, though, life isn’t about small, nested projects. It’s about a larger, overarching project that tastes like rain on my tongue. I can’t exactly describe it to you because I don’t know what it is. Until I know, I replace it with large projects such as earning degrees or writing books that satisfy my need for projects, albeit not entirely.

As that one ultimate project eludes me, my farce at filling in the gaps fails me at times, and I become scattered, not certain where to focus my attention. Nothing matters, you see. Everything is meaningless except that elusive distant project I can’t put my finger on. This is when it’s necessary to take on what I like to call Project Whimsy. Life is absurd. Humans are absurd. Nobody makes sense. Human vision is covered by a web of irrationalities that most of us pretend to be able to penetrate. Not surprisingly, those who suppress their emotions are the least aware of how irrational they are. They don’t understand that suppressing emotions or being, as pop/pseudo science would call it, left-brained doesn’t always correlate to being rational. Men are famous for putting on this pretense, but women will also wear it and pretend their post-enlightenment dresses aren’t shaped in that draping way that Mr. Darcy finds attractive (Mr. Darcy being a prime example of an unemotional male who pretends to be rational).

Project Whimsy isn’t a project with a plan, so much as it is The Plan to Ditch All Plans. In my childhood years, my elder sister Jenny often left me out of her plans (as one would expect), but when we were young adults, we swung full force into Project Whimsy–at my insistence. Most of the time, I had to drag her into my attempts at spontaneity, which were carefully planned out. That may sound paradoxical to you, and, well, I don’t have an excuse. I had notions of what it meant to be whimsical, and I needed to fulfill them. Coffee, as a notion, was a prime whimsical beverage. In my head, I knew what a whimsical coffeehouse looked like: it was down a country back road, had windows adorned by checked curtains in red or blue, and if I peered through the gaps in the curtains, I would spy pies that were so sloppily homey their heaping pie tins would be barely covered by slipping crusts.

I had seen a cafe such as this along Highway 26 from McMinnville to Seaside, and I had determined that Jenny and I would go there together when she deigned to visit me at Linfield College. We would be whimsical. We would have to rely on whimsy because neither of us owned vehicles, and the buses didn’t run in that direction. And so, in the settled heat of a summer evening–the kind of resonant heat that resembles deep dish pie–we set about to walk several miles in hopes we would find pie and coffee and maybe other delicacies, such as sandwiches filled with thick slices of meat. I had no idea what was on the actual menu, aside from the sloppy pies I’d glimpsed one time through the window. But that was part of the fun–the finding out how terrible or lovely a cafe with checked window curtains is.

As we passed the rolling hills of Oregon’s wine country, we sang our favorite songs. We could feign a carefree spirit even if neither of us actually possessed it. My sister does to some extent–as in, she chooses to remain positive–but she also has a strong sense of responsibility that prevents her from being too adventurous. Together, I suspect we’re a sorry crew, but we did manage to entertain ourselves by skipping and dancing up the highway for mile upon mile, until we were utterly exhausted–at which point, we stumbled across the cafe with its empty parking lot. When I say empty, I mean dismally empty. I mean that a state of emptiness hung over the dark ramshackle building that, in my imagination, was bustling with a clatter of coffee cups and the fragrance of blueberries baked in crust. It wasn’t simply closed. The cafe had been closed for quite some time. The windows were dark, and a newspaper article about their closing, dated two months back, was taped so that it was visible in the gap of the checked curtains.

We mulled over our options. It was now almost completely dark. We couldn’t go forward; walking farther away from McMinnville along the highway would be devastating once we had to trudge back. There was only one answer, and that was to turn around with our stomachs empty and hope our strength held out until we arrived back at the Linfield campus, where I might have had a can of tuna in my room. Thankfully, after we navigated a third of the miles, a couple in an Oldsmobile offered us a ride. They dropped us at the Shari’s Diner in McMinnville, where we drank acrid coffee by the side of bland sandwiches and onion rings, all of which tasted like heaven when pitted against the gnawing hunger ever-present in skinny girls who have walked for miles in the shade of summer trees.

That particular Project Whimsy didn’t work out as I had planned, and that’s exactly why I hate spontaneity. Of course, my husband, who is truly spontaneous, accepts that spontaneity will never meet planned expectations. That’s kind of the point. I suspect, even after all these years, I have a lot to learn about projects, projections, and whimsy. In any case, I’m half crazy today because this nested blog post project doesn’t at all resemble the ultimate project, the one that still waits for description like the taste of rain.

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Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Predictability

In the Linfield cafeteria sat an automated espresso machine, newly installed, that poured out cappuccinos in layers. First, push the button—with your mug underneath, of course—and watch the coffee spill through the spigot, followed by brown-tinged milk and a sludge of foam. These ingredients are basic enough, but calling the monstrosity an espresso machine pushes the line on what is known, mysteriously, as truth. Although I never glimpsed the inner workings of the machine [for all I know, hapless monkeys might have operated it using hand cranks], I doubt it forced steam through finely ground, packed coffee.

Still, it was coffee with foam, and it satisfied many a tired college student who stayed up nights high on ecstasy, performing research on the best way to catch an STD. For my part, if I could afford to, I walked into downtown McMinnville to buy my coffee at the Cornerstone Coffee Roasters. These were the early years of the nineties, and the freshness of a new decade pervaded the air. In my mind, I picture my roommate and I sitting at an outdoor table, grasping at stray rays of sun. The pavement is wet from rain, and the fragrance of rain-sun-stone steams off the sidewalk. Ironically, the local homeless personality weaves up to the cafe on his bicycle, and this adds to the idyll.

Early in the year, I struck up a friendship with this homeless man, Bill*, and consequently, he joined us for coffee on more than one occasion. It wasn’t the first time I’d befriended what others considered to be the dregs of society. In high school, I sometimes dragged home young, smelly homeless boys, and not because I was the type to rescue strays. I desperately needed a connection with a kindred spirit. Homeless people are eccentric, on their own elliptic, because they don’t live in the center of society. Neither do I. But, as in the cyclical nature of things, young concentric people of the nineties often attempted to be on the fringe, too. They dressed as Bill did, in old tattered flannel jackets and t-shirts and jeans. In keeping with this “new” ideal of concentricity, my college friends and I frequently bought bottles of cheap wine, hid them in paper bags, and climbed up the railroad trestle until we were on the beams just below the train tracks. From there, we waited, by the schedule, for the train to rumble over us.

I first met Bill on the Linfield campus, as he sorted through the dumpsters behind the frat houses. He pulled his worldly wealth from these dumpsters, and stowed it in enormous garbage bags. Bill was a recycler. He was an alcoholic who recycled the bottles and cans of up-and-coming alcoholics who partied in a predictable manner. He knew the party schedule just as we knew the schedule of the trains. Year after year, the party predictability set a routine, and Bill detected when he would dig out the greatest treasure. Frat boys didn’t change, he insisted, not even as they moved in and out of their sacred houses.

He was right—not much about people changes. Small towns have their homeless characters writ across their souls. College students slum it in order to create new, independent selves. And frat boys never stop partying. Certainly, this is a lesson I’ll never forget, even if I’ve quarantined some of my life lessons, just as the body creates warts when it’s overcome with an infection it can’t fight off.

I only managed a year at Linfield, and that year taught me far too much. At the end of it all, after I’d survived my finals, and after most students had already left campus, I walked from my dorm building to the dingy one behind mine for a last confab with my friend Derek*. When I entered the vestibule, I immediately sensed danger, but being in an all-male building that housed multiple new fraternity recruits always gave me a bad taste in my mouth, if not a bad smell to light up my olfactory nerves. This was different, though. A group of about ten drunk frat boys instantly surrounded me when I neared Derek’s closed door. Their rage, as evidenced by their taunts and shoving, took me by surprise. What had I done? I had no idea.

The conversation went something like this:

One drunk frat boy whipped out his genitals and said, “Take a look at this, bitch!”

I responded in my usual, unimpressed way, “You know, I’d really like to, but I’ll need a microscope first.”

Further enraged, but inspired, several others exposed themselves to me while backing me up against Derek’s door. I pounded on it, hard. Derek tried to open up, but one of the boys grabbed the handle and slammed the door closed. In that short space, Derek realized I needed help. He [apparently] climbed out his window to rescue me because, in the blink of an eye, he was there.

Let me tell you about Derek: he’s an ex-physics-geek-turned-art-major. He’s tall and gangly with a shock of red hair and enormous glasses. He stood up to the obnoxious, buffed-out wrestlers or footballers, or whatever they were, and threatened to call the police. These being the days before cell phones, it was a simple matter for them to block the hall phone from Derek’s reach. So Derek ran off to find another one. Meanwhile, I took advantage of their distracted state to slip down and crawl out of my human prison. I hightailed it out the back door and catapulted into Derek’s open window, half expecting them to follow me. The mention of police, however, seemed to sag their sails.

Speaking of predictable, the police didn’t show up until long after I’d left the safety of Derek’s room [out the window again]. Later, however, they didn’t hesitate to respond to a trespass call. While in one of his physicist-turned-artist moods, Derek broke into the campus pool and swam lonely laps in the deep blue water. They arrested his ass because property and insurance liability, as we know, are more important than people.

People are predictable. They’re like automated espresso machines gushing out sludge at the push of a button. Homeless Bill–he was, perhaps, the most predictable of all. He drank. He weaved around town on his bike, and he collected cans. Once, while walking around town with him, he brought me to the backyard shed he rented from a friend. Bill wasn’t even homeless.

But some people’s predictability entails honor, and I’m ever-grateful to my friend, Derek. He was my true kindred spirit, not Bill. I don’t know where he is or what he’s doing these days. But I do know he’s on his own elliptic somewhere–perhaps welding art installations in his spare time. Maybe he’s a dad. Maybe he’s a techie. Wherever, whatever–I raise my coffee to him, brewed strong from freshly ground beans, and remember Oregon in the nineties.

*I’ve changed these names because I don’t have permission to use the real ones.

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