I'm sitting here in the Atomic Cafe in Beverly, Massachusetts, a town north of Boston. It's nearly five o'clock in the evening the day before New Year's Eve. Outside the trees that line the street are lit with white fairy lights and though it's not yet dark, it's not light either.
The Atomic Cafe is a uniquely decorated little coffeehouse frequented by local college students, moppy-haired book readers, and people who wear hats that somehow look cool on them but would not look out of place upon the head of a little old lady. It's a place where the aroma of coffee mingles in the air with the driftwood of quiet conversations drowned out by the noise of cappuccino makers and music by artists you may never have heard of.
My friend Karen and I stand and briefly survey the menu.
"Hey does that have AirPort?" asks the guy behind the counter as he points at my laptop.
"Yeah." I say.
"Well hey, we've got an access point here, you could test it out. You'd be the first person to do so in fact. Some guy saw it on something, so I guess it must work. I don't really know too much about it though," he said vaguely.
As he speaks, my PowerBook makes its usual little sound to alert me to the fact it has indeed logged into the AOL instant messenger network. A few thousand miles away a couple of my friends' computers announce, "Simon is now available." Sure enough, I now have wireless internet access.
Karen and I sit by the window and watch the world go by while we take occasional sips of our drinks and eat our overpacked sandwiches, replenishment after what seems like an age spent at the North Shore Mall. Like all such shopping meccas, it was bursting with wannabe clones of manufactured teen idols and people on post-Christmas shopping missions hell-bent on finding whatever it was that Santa didn't bring.
I am not a shopping mall kind of person and I wouldn't imagine many of the folk who come here are, either. If they were then they may very well be Abercrombie and Fitch type people—if they could afford it, but who can? That shop is so over-priced. It seems like a lot of money to look slightly disheveled, but then I suppose it's an expensive disheveled look. When I think about it, it isn't very 'Atomic Cafe' at all; probably more Starbucks than Atomic Cafe, really.
I take another sip from my coffee mug that may well have been kissed more times than the Blarney Stone. The music changes and outside street lights now illuminate the traffic on Cabot Street. Only a few people walk by, but those who do can't help but glance in through the coffeehouse windows.
Karen steps outside to get something from the car and inadvertently locks the keys in the trunk. She's pretty annoyed at this and ordinarily, I would be too, but it's no big deal. Our friend Anne lives nearby and she'll be able to call AAA.
A lady in a bright yellow coat with a blue hat that looks like a crime against fashion approaches the Cafe on the sidewalk. She appears to be caught up in conversation with her conscience or something and is clearly unaware that I am looking at her. She walks in quick little steps that give her the air of being busy and wrapped up in her own world. I'm betting she is not a coffeehouse person. She looks like the kind of person who avoids anything other than the most essential interaction. She passes and makes no attempt to even take a cursory glance at life in the Cafe or watch her reflection walk with her for a moment. One of the many Eleanor Rigbys of this world perhaps?
I wish we had places like this in England. One of my more obscure aspirations in life is to open a coffeehouse called PoshCoffee. We'd have special days like Mocha Monday, all Mochas half price, acoustic Tuesdays where people could bring instruments in and jam with others, and even though I have no love for poetry we'd have to have poetry nights from time to time. There would be books aplenty that would be exchanged and borrowed on the honor system. The place would be drenched in words, be that in print, conversation, or song. As I said, it's an obscure aspiration.
Karen returns with Anne. They come in and bring with them a few wafts of cold winter air that dance around me before disappearing to wherever it is cold air goes. They inform me that AAA is on the way and will be here shortly, and it's clear that Karen is still irritated by her mistake. The muddled moment unfolds in front of me as they unwittingly rephrase one another's sentences, talking to themselves but directing their remarks to each other.
I offer to buy a round of drinks for us. I wonder, is that a thing in the American coffeehouse culture, or just an English pub thing? I can't recall ever having been involved in buying a round of coffees before, so perhaps it's not a coffeehouse thing. I offer anyhow.
"Are you paying?" Anne asks with a quizzical tone confirms that the 'rounds' idea is indeed foreign.
"Yeah, What d'ya want?" I say.
"I'll have a small butterscotch steamer please," she says as the momentary melee they created settles like fading ripples on the surface of a pond.
I walk up to the counter, sit on one of the stalls, and order our drinks from a guy wearing a knitted hat. A couple of places down from me a guy still sits there working on his laptop drinking his coffee at what I earlier noticed to be an impossibly slow rate. Four gulps and I can polish off a cup of hot tea, but Americans can make a coffee last half an hour with ease.
AAA arrives in a brightly colored tow truck complete with bright yellow flashing lights. The guy looks like he could be in a grunge band when he isn't towing cars and legally breaking into them to rescue people who have locked their keys in the trunk. Getting into the car took him all of a few moments without so much as a murmur of displeasure from the car's alarm, something that should perhaps concern owners of Chevy Malibus?
Karen and Anne come back in and take their coats off once more as the AAA truck turns off it's flashing lights and moves onto the next distressed motorist. Karen apologetically explains that she somehow makes a habit of locking herself out of cars. The two of them sit down and talk to each other again, I look over at them and hear words but make no effort to understand the sentences. It was a drama that I was detached from and I don't feel the need to jump on its coattails.
It's dark outside now. It looks the kind of evening where you'd pull up your coat collar and hurry home, but it's not that cold. It could be winter wandering weather, and with stores still dressed for the holidays perhaps it's a good time to catch up on some window shopping, making mental notes you're sure to forget.
Karen and Anne sit across from me planning our New Year's Eve that we're spending in Boston. We'll be making the most of the city's special 'First Night' events that will be going on throughout the day and night, climaxing in a spectacular firework display to salute the arrival of 2004. I'm not much of a planner. I tend to find my way through these things much as a motorcycle weaves its way through traffic.
One day I'd like to chase the New Year around the world, repeatedly turning back the hour on my watch as I cross different times zones returning to the year that has just past. I suppose before I do that I should probably learn the words the "Auld Lang Syne". Then again, when the time comes to sing it, no one really cares about the words anyway!
Karen and Anne leave to get some gas for the car. I'll have to walk back to Anne's house in a while, so it looks like I'll get a chance to catch up on my window shopping after all. The music changes again, and once more I can't say that I have heard this artist before now.
I like Atomic Cafe. It has a very laid-back ambiance. PoshCoffee would be a mixture of this place and coffeehouse called the Java Café that I used to frequent back in California, the place where I borrowed the idea for Mocha Monday. The fact I can sit here, sip a butterscotch steamer and write a meanwhile while wirelessly connected to the internet is just cool. It's a mixture of geek coolness and arty coolness I think.
Well, it's getting late and my laptop only has a little battery power left. I suppose I should take that as my cue and make my way back to Anne's house to join the others. We're having salad for dinner. It doesn't look to me like a salad day, but still.