May 18, 2009

Sunday in Alfheim

The twenty-four-hour coffeehouse dominates the little strip mall in a funky old neighborhood that was a suburb eons ago. On Sunday night it’s a yellow-lit oasis of table lamps and overheads. The parking lot’s crammed full and it isn’t even a night when the AA group next door is meeting; nor are the Earth Art store or the vintage clothing boutique still open.

The outside terrace is full: a spring night, temperature eighty degrees. Rickety unmatched tables filled with students, would-be artists, lefto activists, nonprofit staffers, fringe entrepreneurs. There’s a U-shaped wooden communal table where talkers-to-themselves sometimes congregate. A gray-haired bohemian walks up trailing two yellow mongrels who are connected by two separate chains to the same skateboard. They sit patiently outside the door, skateboard-tied, while he goes in to order coffee. Inside, one of the bathrooms is decorated with a wall-high mural of a red devil and graffiti quotations about hell, while the other contains a mural of an angel and quotations about heaven. Either gender can take its pick. Out here on the terrace, a bumper sticker pasted to the newspaper vending machine says, “Austin women don’t pee on the seat.” Is it a boast? An admonition? A regret?

I’ve wandered into Alfheim, the abode of the light elves in Norse mythology, yet another place that is not my true home. A table of them in black-yellow-red spandex outfits are chatting about their transcontinental bicycle tours: eighty-five miles a day, finishing in mid-afternoon so you can shower, relax, fix your bike. They speak with awe of people who do more challenging tours than that, people who do a hundred and twenty miles a day for thirty days and hallucinate Martians on the road. This summer my table-neighbors are planning a Britain-and-Ireland tour, and when they get a layover day in London, what wild outrageous thing are they planning to do? They’re going to see the changing of the guard.

A sixtyish guy comes up to me and starts a conversation because I’m reading Auden; he asks if I know a certain quotation that was used in a movie. Yes, I’m so knowledgeable, it’s from "Funeral Blues," the poem that begins, “Stop all the clocks.” I look it up, he’s tickled, he writes it down: “He was my North, my South, my East, my West,/ My working week and my Sunday rest/…./Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;/ For nothing now can ever come to any good.” Asks me the titles of my favorite Auden poems and writes them down too, on the top margin of the local newspaper. He comes here two or three times a week, he says.

Like everyone, he has an extraordinary life story, and I know how to extract his without giving much of mine. His has washed him up on the shores of a twenty-four-hour coffeehouse on a Sunday night, dreaming of meeting someone who reads great poetry. And wonder of wonders he’s done so, and I can’t do him any good.

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