Shortly after 5 on Thursday, I enter Les Petit Cafe on Rue Descartes. It’s hard to resist a cafe on a street named after the author of “Discourse on the Method.” Descartes famously stated that thought cannot be separated from a human being. However, he lived centuries prior to the invention of cable television.
The cafe is at the top of the hill that’s Rue De La Montagne-Sainte-Genevieve, a few blocks up from the apartment I’m renting. As the day weakens into night, the smell of cheese from the fondue restaurant across the street grows stronger.
The chill in the late October air that sends me inside reminds me of previous Octobers spent in a similar coffeehouses in New York in the days before Starbucks where there were independently owned coffeehouses in New York. There are Starbucks in Paris, as well as in Barcelona and pretty much every major European city I’ve visited. They all look the same as if they are exported in a model kit with easy to follow instructions. The android barista probably has a switch to activate the appropriate language.
When I first moved to New York, in my early 20s when I had all the time in the world and was as overwhelmed by that as anyone else is at that age, I would often leave the office and go to a coffeehouse in Morningside Heights on 107 and Broadway. It was then called the Coffee Lounge — “the uptown coffeehouse with the downtown vibe.” In those days, it was very important for hip things to be downtown or have a downtown feel. It still is, I guess.
Cafes are different here — you can enter one and order an espresso, a good beer on tap, or an excellent French wine. That’s at least three different places in the states with a distinct decor. Somehow a dive bar, coffeehouse, and wine bar all exist simultaneously and harmoniously.
You can also peacefully read, jot in a notebook, or have a quiet conversation, as well. That is difficult to achieve during happy hour at a NY bar. Coffee Lounge expanded shortly before 2000 and became a bar — The Underground Lounge, which still reached to the downtown vibe but the increased volume made reading the paper impossible.
The 20something Parisian next to me reads his paper while sipping an espresso. A different young woman, each of increasing pulchritude, walks in every few minutes and greets him with a kiss. Later, a blonde lingers past the initial kiss, resting a moment in his lap, then moving to an adjacent chair when her Cotes du Rhone (the 3 Euro house red) arrives. She stretches her leg, which is long enough to reach Burgundy, over his as she chats with the waitress. He leans his head into her chest and she strokes his hair. He seems happy. This never happened to me at Coffee Lounge, presumably because I never ordered the espresso.
The young woman working behind the bar sings along to Portishead’s “Wandering Star,” which plays on the iPod speaker dock behind her — the only words I hear her speak in English the entire time I’m there are “please won’t you stay awhile to share my grief. It’s such a lovely day to have to always feel this way. And the time that I will suffer less is when I never have to wake.”
She was probably four or five at the oldest when Portishead’s “Dummy” was released in 1994. I wonder how many iterations of women her age have sung along to these words over the years? One of them was the woman I dated in 2001 — definitely a woman to me then; now, in retrospect, it’s hard to consider her more than a girl right out of college who wanted to avoid law school (she ultimately failed) and who liked to listen to “Dummy” and Bjork’s “Vespertine” in the dark – as did I.
It’s now past six, so I abandon coffee for liquor and the cafe feels just like a wine bar once the whisky is placed in front of me. If I stay until 8, I would find myself in a french bistro — the menu is similar to one of my favorite places in the East Village — but I leave to walk down the hill as the odor of fondue follows me.