At Home With Strangers

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April 30, 2002 // UPDATED 1:18 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Julie Landsman
Julie Landsman

The way to a new resident's heart is through cafs

My friend George Roberts has sent me a list of cafs near my new home, one of those intangible gifts that old friends know how to give, because they know you well.

George and I have taught together many times over 30 years; now both of us are retired from public schools. We have met at two of these cafs for tea already, to prepare me for the July date, when all the scenery of my nighttime/morning-time walks through rooms at dusk, midnight and dawn will change.

The Montana is a small coffee bar tucked into a side street across from Bookmen, where I bought stories, poems and novels for my students. As I waited for George, I stirred the tea in my cardboard cup, smelling jasmine that always reminds me of sitting on a balcony near Lake Fewa in Pochara, Nepal last year, as rowboats came in carrying children dressed for school in an array of white blouses, ties and blue jackets.

The wonderful thing about cafs is that they are places to be out in the world, while at the same time being left alone. I began to read. The music played, the spike-haired young man with the multiple rings walked out from behind the counter and sat over his newspaper.

George arrived at the same time as four men, after work, loosening their ties. We talked then -- about his building (now north Minneapolis' Homewood Studios), about kids and classrooms and literature. After an hour, we left, the four men continuing to sit over coffee and laugh. I could see them in the sepia window as I looked back at the building. I sang the whole way home, dancing and snapping my fingers, ignoring the stares of those who pulled up next to me at stoplights.

The next time George and I met we went to C. McGee's Deli directly across from my future home. It was warm for March so the back door to the loading dock was open. The sun shone on the deep green booths and a breeze came straight down the aisle between the counter and where we sat.

When I went to college in Washington D.C. I often had a beer and burger at a bar called Brownlie's. In the '60s, before gentrification really paved away the scattered restaurants and bars that had a neighborhood feel, all mixtures of people from all parts of D.C. gathered to drink, eat or just talk over cigarettes and coffee in small Mom-and-Pop places. Once I danced until midnight in a line of Greek dancers, weaving in and out of red-checked tables in a small immigrant-owned place not far from the White House. McGee's felt to me like Brownlie's, like the Athena, like the wooden booths of breakfast places in Wyoming, or the lobster place in Watertown, Connecticut where I went for my first date with Tom Cole, who wore a seersucker suit and played all the songs I requested on the jukebox.

With its gathering of artists, workmen on their lunch break, retired women out for lunch, McGee's has already made my transition to the Washington Lofts feel easier. Until now, taking the time to write about places new and old, I had not realized how important rooms full of strangers are to me. When the Blue Moon moved into my present neighborhood, it made me feel finally at home in a place I had already lived in for 25 years.

I write with gratitude to George, who found the way to help me walk out of neighborhood life and into condo living without feeling bereft. I am already planning which booth I want near the door at McGee's, where I will begin to write, buy a sandwich if all goes well, and keep going, a novel finally taking shape.

Next, we have to try Moose and Sadie's. George says to bring my knapsack this time, because there is so much literature about all that is happening in the city, I will need to bring everything home to check it all out.

Editor's note: the Montana's address is 514 N. 3rd St.; C. McGee's Deli is at 800 Washington Ave. N.; and Moose and Sadie's can be found at 212 3rd Ave. N.