Scenes from a Poorly-Lit Coffee Shop

At 6:30 on a cold November night, the familiar yellow glow from several green-hooded bankers desk lamps and some vintage lamps whose bell-shaped shades wore dangling tassels, lit the nearly empty coffee shop, Cafeteria.

The brick building, whose red-orange window frames and newly-painted black door complement the orange and black colors of the business sign hanging above the sidewalk on Main Street, is a popular hangout spot for college students. Cafeteria is often described as a staple of its hometown, New Paltz.

Yet, that Wednesday evening I was joined by only three young women sitting in the booth behind me, a young man lounging with a book on a Victorian couch near the bar, a lonely chess player wandering the room asking strangers for a game, and the barista restocking shelves in the back.

I have been inside Cafeteria several times to enjoy its atmosphere and sip a mint mocha cappuccino. With its exposed brick walls, eclectic furniture, ornamented copper tiles covering the high ceiling and chiaroscuro lighting (provided by the primary light source: sporadically placed desk lamps), Cafeteria invites you in with its quirky charm. On Monday nights the room fills with people and conversations that spill out onto the steps and sidewalk, everyone wanting to enjoy the sounds of Open Mic Night. On late afternoons the spacious room is quiet and relaxing; the sunlight pours through two large windows that face Main Street, warming the pair of arm chairs that sit on a stage in front of one window and glinting off the wall of guitars on the opposite side.

But at 6:40 on a November night, the sun had long since sunk below the Shawangunk Ridge. Across the room to my right, the chess player sat down with one member of the female trio at a dining table set up end-to-end with its twin. They played by the light of a bankers desk lamp.

A few pages turned, pawns advanced, coffee machines were filled. Suddenly, a rush of cold air burst through the door, followed by a small group of friends who sat down at a mosaic tiled patio table. Two went back to the bar to order their coffee.

Minutes later the door continued to swing, each time introducing new people and frigid air to the cozy coffee shop. A long line began to form in front of the bar; its tender moved furiously. The soft indie-blues that once hummed from the speakers was quickly drowned out by the rumble of overlapping conversations and the tssssss of coffee spraying from the machine. Somewhere a clock ticked closer to 7 p.m.

The trio of women who had been sitting behind me took to the stage and set up a microphone. A harsh spotlight poured onto the mic from above. The armchairs and Main Street, seen through the grid of the window, became the backdrop. A neon sign in the restaurant across the street flashed on. Pairs of red brake lights came to a halt and waited for green.

Finally, 20 minutes late, a dozen brave souls gathered at the edge of the stage to pull their fate from a floral-print snapback: the performance lineup.

Katie Leach, co-coach of the New Paltz Slam Team and host of the competition, stood before the mic and exclaimed to the crowd, “Let’s make poetry matter!”

There wasn’t a seat left in the room yet, once a performer took the stage, all but the hissing coffee machine fell silent.

It was at once everything and nothing like the black-clothed, beret-wearing, finger-snapping Beatnik scene portrayed all-too-often in movies.

Some poets read from their smartphones, none dressed in all black, and only the barista wore a beret. But the audience sipped coffee, gave snaps for a particularly good line, and sometimes the words were so entrancing that only the hairs on their arms could move. And the poets. The poets laid themselves bare for the audience to see and inspect and judge. All of their pain and flaws and anger and love were vulnerable beneath the spotlight, which could both burn and illuminate.


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