Creative non-fiction / August 2009 (Issue 8)

The Okinawan Coffeeshop

by Anne Tibbitts

You matter as a human being while you sit in that chair and eat the homemade lunch made by an old lady whose hands have made a million before yours. You watch the cars out the window, see the buses, the people who'll settle for cold, too-sweet coffee from a sidewalk vending machine. This is not a place for people who want Maxwell House or Folgers. Here, you're in a different land, a faraway kilned world of knotty pine and blue glazed saucers to set the cup down onto and hear the little, familiar click or crack like sound that only pottery cups make on their mated saucer.

If you sit at the long six-chairs counter, the ladies wash plates right in front of you, grind ice for cold coffees, grind beans. You're part of a world here, the micro-cosmos of Brazil beans in burlap bags, an old light pink payphone that still takes yen dimes, and dials. A world of dim lamps and filtered daylight, tall green palm-like plants, hardback chairs, and the comfort and warmth of knotty pine walls. The iced tea is Earl Grey. At the counter, you sit so close to everything; when the beans go into that measuring cup before getting ground, the sound is as joyful and trinkety as wooden beads falling in a child's jewelry box.

Today when I went to the knotty pine coffeeshop, the girl who is always there to take orders came close to me and put her hand on my shoulder. "Ham-boo-a-guh?" she asked. "Yes." It was Tuesday and she had remembered that I always ordered that on Tuesday. Later, she knew to bring me hot-ta coh-hee, not iced. I always take the hot with the hamburger. On tofu days, though, I like the iced coh-hee. There on the counter sits like a temple shrine this great giant pale green ice grinder. Chunks of fresh ice are dropped into the vat and then one of the ladies turns the ice crank by hand, the sound so familiar and cool. Ice comes out broken into little pointy shards, and the thin copper iced-coh-hee cups sweat beads while the hot goes over the ice.

The wall behind the counter sink area is covered by a custom-built cup case. There seem to be hundreds of tiny squares each just big enough for one saucer and cup set. All are different; there is not one identical pair. You see the cracked glazes of clay once held by an old man's expert hands, the cups holding coffee grown ten thousand miles across the deep ocean. You sit in the same chair day after day, drink the fresh roasted beans, feel the rush and sway of truly excellent coffee. Coffee that is more like nectar. Coffee that when you sip and swallow, elevates you to a higher plane. Sometimes, you aren't sure what will happen next.

One afternoon, a French gentleman came into the shop. He looked around as if to determine whether he would have coffee or a lunch or just move on down the street. But something caught him. He stayed. From where I was sitting, I watched him experience the coffee elevation, and indeed, he seemed to float out of his head toward some kind of coffee bean nirvana. After he finished his coffee, I struck up a conversation with him and discovered he was a photographer who'd come from Tokyo to do a photo spread for a slick city magazine. An unlikely place to meet such a fellow, but that's the kind of place this is—a beacon whose call cannot be resisted. If, that is, you are truly a coffee person of the finest, most delicate degree.

Only classical music is played in the knotty pine coffeeshop. Mornings are usually violin and after lunch there is always a symphony. It's good to go for afternoon cake and tea or coffee. The cake is chocolate layers cut in beautiful pointy triangles, covered atop with curled shavings of pure sweet dark chocolate. The cakes are made at home by a housewife, who brings a new cake in every second day or so. Her little car is white and weaves close to the curb so she can carry her cake to the case sand then dash away. When you eat that cake, you can see sunlight streaming through her kitchen window, smell clover in the grasses outside the screened door, watch a cat slink toward a gecko. There is silent magic in each bite of her cake: she has made them with devotion. The combination of this cake and coffee from the pale grey cup and saucer set is like nothing else.

Traveling all over the world, seeing a million places, sitting on ten thousand chairs drinking from paper, plastic Styrofoam or china—nothing can match this bliss. It exists. Someday you could go there. Sit at the counter and gaze at the shelves full of pottery cups and saucers, see the girl grind ice, hear the beans clink through the funnel toward fineness. You could go on a Tuesday and order ham-boo-a-guh. You could suck iced coh-hee though a thin straw and chew rock sugar between your front teeth or eat spaghetti and look out the window to watch the tropical sun fall huge and orange into the ocean. You could drop a yen dime into the old pink payphone and call someone, anyone, and tell them "I'm here--at the Knotty Pine Coffeeshop. I've just tasted the nectar. I am elevated. I know I will never be the same."

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