Bi-weekly chatter about how looking closely at some of the most common expressions in everyday life can prompt new ways of thinking about our writing.
Last week I met a friend at The Hungarian Pastry Shop in Morningside Heights, just across from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and a few blocks from Columbia University. My friend, Ines, has a shining bright energy; I’d even say electrifying—in the ways electricity can sometimes show us colors we never thought we’d see. We had agreed to “meet for coffee” because in addition to a personality and style that emits warmth and creativity, Ines also speaks three languages so she’s helping me with my conversational Italian. (For more on my pull to the language, see Column #15: “Piano, Piano and other Italian Charms.”)
Can I buy you a coffee?
How do you take your coffee?
Wanna grab a coffee?
If it had a dime.
Okay, yes. I’m a coffee drinker. And I probably have lots more to say about the smooth, rich taste, the color of the beans, the arousing smell, the sounds that shoot from the steam wand on espresso machines and the way the chosen mug of the day (thick rim? slim edge?) feels against my lips.
But this is not that column. This is not the one where I dive deep and ramble on about the way coffee ignites my senses. Besides, what if you drink tea?
Instead, this is about exploring the practice that is “meeting for coffee” or “going to do work in a coffee shop.” Whether it’s a cappuccino, a mint tea or an iced latte that’s being sipped, a satisfying “coffee date” with a friend or oneself has the power to fuel idea-making, rich conversation and, on the good days, solid writing.
Back to Morningside Heights. The café is a writer’s dream. Or, at least, this writer. It was a summer day in mid-April (I think it was close to 82 degrees that afternoon!) so the air inside the place was thick but sweet, too. We took a table in the way back and in the corner. While Ines went to the counter to order for us, I scanned the room.
What did I see?
Notebooks, lots of notebooks. Laptops, lots of laptops. Cups of coffee, yes, and nibbled-on sweets atop tiny white dessert plates. Servers, moving fast and furious through the crowd and in between the shaky, very close-together tables. And, of course, patrons. Alone and together. Silent and working. Chatty and conversing.
Note: There is no wi-fi in this joint and refills are free so I imagine if words are flowing freely, on the page or in discussion with another, the chances of stumbling on a discovery or venturing toward the deep end of a story are high.
Discovery and depth. Isn’t this what we, as writers, hope to encounter in the process of making our work?
As Ines approached the table with our very own cookie-covered, white dessert plate I wondered, in the six decades The Hungarian Pastry Shop has been open, how many people had come here for a date with a friend or a blank page. And, in that wondering, I felt energized. Writing, as we know, can be lonely and solitary and isolating. This moment (and this coffee shop!) embodied the opposite of lonely, solitary and isolating. There was a collective vibration in the room and one that seemed to feed both the intellect and the spirit.
So, of course, Ines and I spent the whole hour swirling in and out of that vibration! I messed up but practiced many Italian phrases, we laughed, drank coffee and surrendered to the magic of the space.
And then that wall of book covers! In her August 2020 article, “The New York Café Where Writers Go to Work—and Eat Cake”, Reggie Nadelson relays a conversation with the current owner, Philip Binioris, about the infamous stretch of book covers customers can view upon entering:
“Philip stops by to chat for a moment and then directs my attention to the wall across from the pastry counter, featuring many books at least partly written in the cafe. There are novels by Julie Otsuka (2002’s “When the Emperor Was Divine” and 2011’s “Buddha in the Attic”) and Rivka Galchen (2008’s “Atmospheric Disturbances”), short stories by Nathan Englander (1996’s “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges”) and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2015 nonfiction work “Between the World and Me.” “What I love most about the wall is the variety,” Philip says. “Just like the city we live in, there is a little bit of everything, from self-help to academic works, philosophy to children’s books, fiction and nonfiction — award winners and not, they all belong, and they are all part of our community.”
There is something striking about being in a space where unforgettable art has been created. Maybe it’s the kid in me or just my grown-up imagination on overdrive, but I can’t help but envision something in the air that lingers and lives in places like this. Some invisible particles of dust that we, as writers-in-motion, could walk through and be touched by, transforming us in the tiniest of ways. Hopefully, good ways. Ways that lead to the gentle crafting of words and words and more words.
Magic in the air and a damn good cup of whatever. Not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.
Wanna grab a coffee?