25 December 2005

On Hiatus

On Wednesday, December 28th, I am jumping a plane to Panama City, Panama. I will be back in the USA on the 15th of January.

Panama has always excited my curiosity. It is a former Spanish colony that was liberated into an America colony, then granted its independence. The country boasts the closest distance between the Atlantic and Pacific (50 miles), more species of birds than all of North America, two distinct climates on each coast, a currency called the balboa, which has a picture of George Washington on the $1 balboa note and looks, feels, and spends exactly like a US Dollar because it is one. Oh, and the weather is heavenly.

When I originally booked the trip I decided to recycle the concept my roommate and I used on our trip to the South American continent last January. Fly into one city and out of another. Last year we flew into Buenos Aires, Argentina and out of Lima, Peru. Part of the trip's success depended upon this planning; "We don't need to be anywhere for a month, but we have to get to Lima. That's all we have to do." I booked a flight to Panama and out of Venezuela and said to myself, "I'll take care of the little details later."

The little details have become quite enormous challenges. Apparently, Colombia and Panama are separated by a jungle so dense that no roads pass through it. The Pan-American Highway, which in theory runs from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Rio Gallegos, Argentina (I've done both ends) actually ceases in Panama's Darien Gap. From there, you put your car on a cargo vessel and start again 90 miles into Colombia. The area is so difficult to traverse that the US government and every travel guide I've read suggests, "Don't even try it." Its run by Colombian drug traffickers and rebels. This is from the Lonely Planet Guide to Panama:

"The US State Department warns travelers not to cross an invisible like that extends from Punta Carreto to Yaviza and south to Punta Pina. The area from Nazaret to Punusa is like a low intensity war zone. The paramilitaries and rebels move in big groups armed with rocket launchers, flamethrowers, and machine guns. Panamanian border police buzz the sky in helicopter gunships and tote AK-47s. Travel to the towns of Pinogasa, Yape, Boca de Cupe and Paya is foolhardy at best."

The Darien Gap is considered by some to be the rainforest least affected by human contact. The Spanish lost thousands of men trying to get through it, and it has changed very little since western explorations in the 1500s. There are still no precise satellite images of the area. What does this mean? It means I gotta get on one of these cargo vessels.

So that can be arranged in Panama City, or Colon on the northern coast. This 4-day boat ride puts me in Cartagena, Colombia, where it is very easy to catch an 8-hour bus ride to Maracaibo, Venezeula. Flying from Panama to Colombia is certainly cheap, but problems arise when you end up in Bogota, and all the available bus routes to Venezeula are a tad dangerous.

Further complicating matters is the visa required for entering Venezuela by land. If you fly into Venezuela they could give a shit how long you stay or why you came. "You came on a plane! Oh my! Please rich man, stay with your iron bird a while!" Arriving by land or sea is totally different. You need to get a visa before you leave, and you need about 6 pieces of information that prove you exist. Employment letter, bank letter, birth certificate, passport, photographs, driver's license, immunization records etc... The Venezuelan Embassy is on 51st and Madison. I think I can get a visa on Tuesday but if they give me one of these, "Oh no, this won't be ready for six weeks," I'm screwed.

Plan C is just to pay for a $400 one-way flight to Caracas from Panama City. But since I feel like I got a JFK-Panama / Caracas-JFK flight for $600, and could have gone to India for a grand, AND I'd be missing a considerably more exciting traveling itinerary, I'm hesitant to do it. Part of me just wants to show up without the visa and say, "Oops, I forgot." But I don't know how to say "Oops" or "I don't want to go to jail" in Spanish.

But... as I've done more research, I realized Venezuela is not just a place to get to but a vacation in and of itself. A 6-day hike up a table-top mountain in southwestern Venezuela (on the Guyana/Brazil border) costs $300 all inclusive. You spend two days on top of a mountain where 70% of the plant and animal life exists only on this mountain. An isolated eco-system. Venezuela has rainforests, deserts, white and pink sand beaches, archipelagos, the Andes Mountains, the continent's largest lake, and 15 cents/gallon gasoline. So a flight might be worth the extra time in Venezuela.

In any case, this trip should prove to be completely unpredictable. I won't go on and on about things I hope to do because my itinerary at this point is shaky Sanskrit scrawled on a cough. What I do know is, thanks to Long Island University Hospital, I won't be getting Yellow Fever anytime in the next ten years. Uncle Sam and I say, "Screw you mosquitos."

Enjoy your New Years festivities. If you need anything please email.

Meme of Four

My brother posted this on his website and I thought, hey, pretty clever. I think I'm gonna do one myself. Anyway, a nice Christmas post.

Four jobs you've had in your life: McDonald's cashier, Drive-in movie theater snack bar attendent, clothing store manager, sole proprietor.

Four movies you could watch over and over: American Movie, Casablanca, Back To The Future, The General.

Four places you've lived: Brooklyn, NY; Montreal, Quebec: Maastricht, Netherlands: Manhattan, NY.

Four TV shows you love to watch: Wow. Umm... Curb Your Enthusiasm (on DVD) and Daily Show clips from Comedy Central's website. No TV at home.

Four places you've been on vacation: The Yukon, Patagonia, Peru, Staten Island.

Four websites you visit daily: NYTimes.com, Yahoo! Mail, Guardian UK, and who am I kidding... my own.

Four of your favorite foods: hummus, salmon, granola, Tostitos with Lime.

Four places you'd rather be: Argentina, Argentina, Argentina, and the Lower East Side.

23 December 2005

10 NY Cafes: d.b.a.

d.b.a.
1st Avenue and East 2nd Street

It is only fitting that New York's finest coffeehouse doesn't serve coffee at all. d.b.a. is a bar, and most Friday and Saturday nights a despicable one. But on weeknights, and Sundays especially, the place is like Cheers For Intellectuals. "Sometimes you wanna go, where everybody reads Montaigne..." or something like that. It is not uncommon to see two Ph.Ds havin' it out at the bar, with the Oxford Dictionary underneath a pint of hand-drawn ale, a Scrabble board between them. Aside from one night - when a drunken 25-year old ballet dancer and model berated me for reading at the bar - books, taxes, short stories, legal briefs, subpoenas, conversation, and blank pages have always been welcomed.

Recommended:
"The Juice" - Espolon Anejo, $11/glass.
Fuller's Special Bitter, $5/pint
Booker's Small-Batch Bourbon, $11/glass

22 December 2005

10 NY Cafes, #2: The Hungarian Pastry Shop

The Hungarian Pastry Shop
Amsterdam Avenue at 111th Street

Across from St. John the Divine (nation's largest cathedral, eerily beautiful and unfinished) this place has invented a new approach to cafe atmosphere that has yet to catch on anywhere else. No music. Thank the fucking Lord, there is one place in this fucking city you can go where there is no music playing. Even in the daytime its dark in here (I don't know how they do it) but the walls, tables, low-low ceilings, and obtrusive columns all make this brilliant atmosphere secondary to the main attraction: the coffee. With so many fantastic (and incredibly simple) coffee drinks, you can spend a day and a half in the place and never notice the passing time. You order at the counter and then they bring you your drinks. Table/counter service hybrid. The Russian and Viennese coffees are both highly recommended. Everyone is smarter than you, but the competition is healthy. They don't get much better than this.

10 NY Cafes, #3: The Cheyenne Diner

The Cheyenne
9th Avenue and West 33rd Street

So much the dive bar of Manhattan's cafe culture that it doesn't even qualify as "cafe culture," The Cheyenne exudes a certain swagger that the rest of the list just can't hack. I like the burgers, I mean, they're okay. The counter isn't that great. The lighting leaves something to be desired, and if you could see out the windows the view would leave something to be desired too. A sad sack of a place, it is one of the few diners on the West Side that hasn't turned into a diner. Its dying to be renovated and hip. So until that happens, come here and enjoy the strange homonculi of Manhattan nightlife that happen across this murkwater oasis at the anus of the Lincoln Tunnel. And grab a booth all to yourself, because this place will not last.

Oh, and the coffee? Not that great. I mean, its watery and served in short, wide cup. But its fine. Really, I mean, who needs to be picky?

21 December 2005

10 NY Cafes, #4: Dean & Deluca

Dean & Deluca
University Place and East 10th Street

This is a grocery store chain found in posh neighborhoods. This is their coffee shop. You can get a beer or a glass of wine (which I recommend), because the coffee is no different than any other chain store. Big "American" cappuccinos (basically lattes) in enormous paper cups. No "for here" mugs. As for the ambience: Dean & Deluca ads masquerading as "art," the same music over and over and over, and the brightest lights in any establishment in New York except maybe Bellevue Hospital. But there are great pluses: a horseshoe shaped counter for getting to know people (the bright lights add to the congenial feel), enormous space between tables, great tile floors, cathedral ceilings, big windows overlooking University Place. The place is a workaholic's dream, a quintessential New York cafe: efficient, clean, scholarly, and charmingly overpriced.

10 NY Cafes, #5: Sicaffe

Sicaffe
Lexington Avenue at 70th Street

In a stretch of five blocks, from 69th to 74th, Lexington Avenue has 11 places where a person can get a cappuccino. The Upper East Side is far and away the place in the city where strolling, contemplating, staring, chatting, and shopping are the main cultural contributions: a testament to the wealth and leisure of its residents. Sicaffe is the best of the neighborhood. It is a chain store of sorts, though I believe its an Italian chain with only two Manhattan locations (the other is on John Street). The place is brightly lit, white, and small. What separates this place from any other "efficiency" coffee houses in Manhattan is its absolutely incredible espresso. This is, without a doubt, the best place to get a cappuccino in New York. The difference between good espresso and bad espresso has little to do with taste. What makes a coffee here so much better than a coffee anywhere else is that when you leave this place you feel euphoric. Absolute bliss. The caffeine is some fine shit, I mean really, homegrown or hydroponic or some shit. Damn son, its good. Its also very easy to get a hell of a lot of work done, as the music is inobtrusive and the patrons keep to themselves. The sterility of the decor is offset by the comfortable chairs and tables. Highly recommended.

20 December 2005

10 NY Cafes, #6: Payard

Payard
Lexington Avenue at 74th Street

The crown jewel of posh cafe living, there are some tightly woven arrangements of tables and chairs in the center of the entryway. In the back is a restaurant that does a $50 per person all inclusive lunch. "Tea," served from 3-5, is $30 and includes some nibbles and some scones. I think its safe to say you'd never want to go anywhere but the bar. The bar has a bartender who makes cappuccinos from a machine that does everything. Its like a bionic espresso maker in the middle of a posh bistro. But put your elbows on the bar and dig in: the four dollar espresso drinks are the cheapest thing in the house, and the service is professional and brisk. The crowd can be a little geriatric at times, but the posh-ness makes you feel infinite and a hell of a lot younger than everyone else. A damned fine cup of coffee, and real lumps of brown sugar (none of that granulated bullshit). A great stop-off between museums.

10 NY Cafes, #7: Cafe Pick-Me-Up

Cafe Pick-Me-Up
Avenue A and East 9th Street

What a fucking terrible name. The coffee is average, the tables are not tables at all: a strange disarray of wobbly desks and nightstands. The music is usually very good, but the service is borderline hostile. There seems to be a hell of a lot of Eastern European women chatting away. However, Pick-Me-Up has very recently exploded. I used to be able to get a table without even glancing around the room. Now you've got to stalk. I think the East Village community has finally resigned itself to the fact that it will never have a truly great cafe, so this place gets mention because it is by far the best place in the neighborhood. I wish there was more I could say about it. The backroom is like a separate cafe, completely out of view from the business at the counter. Wood interior, dull lighting, great crowd. Windows looking onto Avenue A. I love this place.

19 December 2005

10 NY Cafes, #8: Max's Cafe

Max's Cafe
122nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue

This is the only cafe on my survey that has couches. I have always despised couches in a cafe. The place becomes lounge-y, people talk louder and get a bit too comfortable. Coffee has never made me comfortable. That's why they serve those brownies, muffins, and pastries everywhere. Here's a little espresso to make you edgy, here's a little butter and sugar to calm you down. This place would be "one of those fucking places" if not for a few unique features. One: the music is always stimulating and sultry. Two: The front windows dominate the place, and what you see is Harlem. Three: The brick walls are humbling; they suck up light and make everything look, well, mysterious. Not a daytime cafe. My old roommate and I used to come here when at certain points in the late evening, everything in the world seemed amiss. Practically any existential crisis can be smoothed out at one of the rough wood tables at Max's. And the women... ah the women...

18 December 2005

10 NY Cafes, #9: 71 Irving Place

71 Irving Place
Irving Place and 17th Street

71 is a below street level, one room haunt between Union Square and Gramercy Park, a few blocks up from Irving Plaza. What makes this place a gem is its tables. They are crammed and strewn half-hazardly (a different arrangement every day) and there is a beautiful low ceiling to keep your thoughts from getting too lofty and pretentious. The house blend is probably the best in the city. Although the mugs are nice, clean, white, sitting with one of their paper cups at one of their beautiful circular tables reminds you that there is no unnecessary pomp and circumstance surrounding the New York cafe. The place is lit like a dim study, which makes up for the fact that they close shortly after dusk. Its always dusk at 71; you're always savioring a few minutes of downtime before a night on the town.

17 December 2005

10 NY Cafes, #10: The French Roast

If we had to spend a lifetime confined to one institution, I'd pick the library. If we had to spend a lifetime in a commercial establishment, I wouldn't pick the bookstore. I'd pick the cafe. Sure, I'd get scurvy (there's no Vitamin C in any respectable cafe), and progressively filthier (those bathrooms are not washrooms), but I'd be happy. In the next few posts I'll be reviewing ten great cafes.

Briefly, the necessary criteria for a great cafe.

1. Unobtrusive music.
2. Lighting, whether dim or bright, must be consistent
3. No focal point. You shouldn't have to look at anything, and the seats can't be arranged to that effect.
4. Women.

That's it. That's all you need.

The French Roast
11th Street and 6th Avenue / 85th Street and Broadway

Of the two locations I prefer the down. It's more of a restaurant til about ten, but then the eaters tend to pack up and the coffee drinkers arrive. If it wasn't open 24 hours it would be just another French cafe. But the tile work and tin ceilings are reminiscent of late 19th century Paris, where the cafe was invented and was king. It is a desperate rip-off, but the atmosphere is irrepressible. After 2am, no place in New York is this charming. Cleverly placed mirrors, a fully stocked bar, and lattes served in bowls. After your third bowl, well, it may be 3 am but you can still get a damned good omelette. The prices are relatively inexpensive for what you're getting, which is a coffee theme-park. The real EuroDisney is on 6th Ave. The cappuccinos are top notch.

15 December 2005

Raymond Carver In Brief (exactly as he would have wanted)

As of late, I have become increasingly disinterested in writers with conservative, distinguished, and long careers. Although I like the infallibility a James or a Hemingway affords you while you peruse his bookstore shelf, I've recently been drawn to writers who lack the Noble qualifications. Richard Wright, Joseph Brodsky, Theodore Dreiser, Raymond Carver, and . Carver is never consistent; even within his best collections you back yourself into a corner with him for a number of stories before you emerge in the daylight of his best prose. He has five stories that have no rival, at least in the last 40 years, and its nice to be able to say that about a writer. Although I enjoy Richard Powers, David Foster Wallace, and Don Delillo, I cannot point to a stack of pages by any of them and say, "You won't find better by anyone." Carver has these five stories and for the reasons below, he's the best short story writer of the past generation.

Cathedral

This is by far the most anthologized piece of Carver's writing; so effortlessly teach-able that I hesitate to say anything about it. You have the unreliable, biased narrator; the story within a story; the effects of drugs and alcohol on perception; the realist's conventions; the believable dialogue, and the simplicity of physical presence over action. Here's something that may do nothing for you but I find it to be a unique example of a writer's confidence in his narrator's limited scope:

The camera moved to a cathedral outside Lisbon. The differences in the Portuguese cathedral compared with the French and Italian were not that great. But they were there. Mostly the interior stuff. Then something occurred to me, and I said, “Something has occurred to me..."

Where I'm Calling From

The tradition of American storytelling has always existed as an inherited tradition, and the inheritance has two lineages: the literary story and the oral story. There are convenient places in time where these two styles coexisted in straightforward examples, I'd say it was Henry James contrasted by Mark Twain, Washington Irving versus James Fenimore Cooper, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Vonnegut and Updike, the list goes on and on. Carver falls sharply in the oral tradition in this story. The first lines:

"JP and I are on the front porch at Frank Martin's drying-out facility. Like the rest of us at Frank Martin's, JP is first and foremost a drunk. But he's also a chimney sweep."

The loose, elliptical telling allows for form to be hinted at, never dominant, which is the great skill of all descendents of the oral tradition. We feel the narrator lending structure with his attachment to the story, not with his conventions. Resolution never satisfies the first person narration. We enjoy telling stories about ourselves, but Carver reminds us that our self is never resolved.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

This story has no hero. It has no characters. It has four vaguely sketched people drinking and talking in a kitchen. The silences are unbearable. This is an extraordinary story.

Careful

Careful is narrated from the last vision; a narrator so close to his own abyss, that what is offered cannot sustain any reader for any length of time. 10 pages scrapped together. A man sits on his couch in the afternoon and decides there is absolutely nothing wrong with drinking warm champagne. By the end of the story he sees nothing wrong with drinking warm champagne directly from the bottle. Along the way he is paid a visit by his wife. The details are his, not hers, so the reader understands very little about the past or the future. Between drinking from a glass and a bottle, she needs to be "careful." There is earwax plugging up one of his ears. She gets it out. That's the story. By the last page I realized, for the first time in a piece of literature, that this was the last page. Even when I finished Camus' The Stranger or Kafka's "Metamorphosis," I thought, "I'll hear this voice again. Someone will assume this voice in another piece." But the narration in Careful is fractured, unreliable, instinctively self-destructive; when it leaves the reader (ever so calmly), we feel our own loneliness and not his.

A Good, Small Thing

A tough situation for any writer to handle. A death that Carver invents and discards. He kills a kid who has never spoken in the story, does it to build emotional tension within his characters, not to get sympathy from us. Doesn't go into it (car crash), doesn't give us the sobbing and the woe-is-me's that are easier to write. The voices of the grieving parents are lifted, and we are left to listen with them as a man who knows no one involved in the story we're reading teaches people who are more experienced in life than he is precisely how to grieve. Can't say enough about it so I won't.
---

All of the above stories can be found in the collection, Where I'm Calling From; the collection Cathedral has all but one.

06 December 2005

A Victory Over Tyranny

For those of you who have often pondered the retirement activities of your former 11th grade History teachers, I have a splendid update to share with you about mine. On December 14, 2004, Jim Coccia, in the Open Forum of the Queensbury School Board Meeting, offered a suggestion, the only suggestion, on behalf of the general public. He brought up the issue that the Open Forum of the Queensbury School Board Meeting should be moved to the beginning, presumably so he could leave immediately afterwards. Well, this fall, I am pleased to report that Jim Coccia, my completely insane 11th grade History teacher, has gotten his wish. The Open Forum now comes first. Congratulations Mr. Coccia, for continuing to be a pain in the ass of an organization that was a pain in my ass for almost a decade. Keep up the good fight.

Mr. Coccia's requests and inquiries at school board meetings have only gotten more monotonous over the years. Yet they have become so persistent that the county clerk who types the meeting minutes often adds small modifiers such as, "Jim Coccia again asked..." or "...and Jim Coccia added..." He has also begun listing Coccia's name last in the section "Other Members," as a sort of big-name supporting actor of a Hollywood blockbuster: "Starring Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis, Emilio Estavez, Tom Berenger... and Jim Coccia!"

Now that he's retired, I'm proud to see the old scoundrel is changing history, rather than fabricating it.

04 December 2005

The Book of Daniel, Part Two

I meet with Daniel (an 11-year old student of mine) every Friday. In his weekly assignment, and because of the Thanksgiving holiday I got a double dose of him this week. I asked him to write a paragraph satisfying the following guidelines:

1. Write a letter about how long it takes you to accomplish simple tasks.
2. Explain my advice for correcting this flaw. Develop your own solution.
3. Address the letter to an audience of your choice.
4. Use the following words: bustle, banish, blackball, brash, brutish, bias, botch, banal.

Dear Mr. Nobody,

Mark wants to banish me for being slow. Mark's very banal mind thought of a british [sic] plan to move me faster. I feel bias against what Mark wants to do. I want to botch Mark's plan by sneaking up on him and hitting him until he gives up. I don't want to bustle through my evil plan so I'm gonna take my time.

But Mark will blackball my plan because I'm too slow. That's why Mark is so brash. Because he will lose.

Thank you Mr. Nobody,
Daniel

03 December 2005

The Email Archive 1997-2004, Entry #6.

It's been a long time since I've violated the privacy of my friends, so I decided to break out a fresh edition of The Email Archive. Why do I have emails dating back to 1997? Because of the horrible program I used to use to check my email all those years ago, my old computer stored every email I ever received. So like a beautiful nostalgia file, I can dig through the waste of correspondence for truly remarkable tidbits. So as not to offend the sender, I have blacked out the names here as best I could.

The first email is from one friend to me, after a night of heavy drinkin'. The second is another friend's response, after I forwarded the first email to him.

Enjoy!

To: malkmus@global2000.net
Date: Sun, 5 Dec 1999 00:33:14 -0500
Subject: Re: hey XXXXXX
X-Gateway: NASTA Gate 2.0 beta 3 for FirstClass(R)
X-Status: A

Lo.
Holy shoit I'm hammered.. It; smy vbietrhday.. Hehe.. Its; been a
ogddo night for me.. i got to start it out with a 4 ack of Murphy;s
Irishe Stout. .much like guiness.. Then I have been drinknign starginh
vodka and runm froth erest of then ight.. No vicodin ;left// Wish oyu
were here. I had a great birthday.. wlhtough I haven ;t
gotten anoytihing graet.. A good frien of mine Honey gave me some root
beer and ice cream for a prsent.. Unfortunately se wasn;t therewhenI
got back reom from the gym.. She rules.. alhtough I am not dating her I
found out she and her boyfriend broke up today.. I would like ot ask
her out.. but I don't want to ruin a friendship.. Im confused and
depressed aout the whole situation.. Anyway.. thanks for the e-amail
and all. acan;t wait to get home to [party withyour ass.. I'l catch ya
later.. Hope yaoi can understand this meeasege.. I know I am really
drunk.. Adios..

diggers


To: "Low"
From: XXXXXX@pobox.mcgill.ca
Subject: Re: oh man
Date: Tue, 7 Dec 1999 02:23:36 -0000
X-MSMail-Priority: Normal

fuckin hilarious..wow, i really enjoyed that. tack that one right up there
next to the erection photo and we're well on our way to an outstanding
XXXXX collage. actually the only sentence that is completely correct and
coherent is 'i know i am really drunk' . i could almost smell the booze.

01 December 2005

Saratoga Thanksgiving.

Last year I hosted Thanskgiving for the first time, in Harlem of all places. The attendees included my 50-year old Haitian doorman, a 30-year old Japanese student of mine, my 28-year old Californian boss, Floridian sisters, and a crew of family members. This year I trudged up to the Arctic brutality of Saratoga Springs, to visit old memories.

On Friday, November 25th, I visited the Starbucks on Broadway in Saratoga. It was not my first visit and, predicting the trend of future Matt Spence sightings (an old, old friend of mine), not to be my last. But the visit made me a little heavy with nostalgia for a version of me who would have thrown a brick in my face if he’d seen me in there.

I would write in my journal at age sixteen, looking out of a café window onto a casually bustling Broadway one Sunday afternoon, that Saratoga Springs was “a two café town.” For me, it was never a horse racing town (the locals hit up the Saratoga Raceway usually once a year, to show the tourists who owns the place), never the turning point of the American Revolution, and never a college town. There was Uncommon Grounds at the north end of Broadway, and Madeleine’s at the southern end.

At first, the idea of the Starbucks moving in appeared less threatening to me than it should have been. It was to occupy the corner of Broadway at Washington Street; a place where, if you were to measure out Broadway in terms of a “strip” (that section of every town that’s a little more lively and compact than the rest), Washington ended Saratoga. Washington itself starts at Broadway, veers up a hill, and merges with the quiet residential streets west of downtown. There are two abandoned churches, and a Domino’s Pizza the size of my apartment on Washington. That’s it. I thought of the Starbucks as a laughable extension of a strip gone dry. In hindsight, I realize that not only was the chain coffee shop placed directly across the street from Madeleine’s (the less fashionable side of Broadway, but still across the street), it was between the 200-odd room Adelphi Hotel, and a proposed Banana Republic that would be up in a year. By the time the green awning had been fitted with green painted spotlights (no neon allowed?), Madeleine’s had vanished into thin air. Now there are three monstrous facades on the far side of Starbucks, making Congress Park a part of “the strip,” and Starbucks just another face in the line.

Madeleines: The entryway room was fitted with wrought-iron chairs on a white-tile floor. The back room had its books shelved and its plush seating. Matt and I would go back there and drink exaggerated coffee drinks that would render us incapacitated. Whip-creamed.

Maybe I'm just inventing this, but I'm pretty sure I walked down Broadway the evening the doors were shut. There was Madeleine, all alone, still wearing that apron, her hair pulled back in a knot slightly to one side. She unplugged the display cases and stacked the dishes into boxes. I walked back to Uncommon Grounds, a little lost from the speed of the change on my favorite street. Madeleine would open a new place just around the corner, not a café, but something Saratoga probably needed a little bit more. The Natural Foods Café opened about two months later, and although it has none of the charm of Madeleine’s, it has become an essential part of downtown Saratoga. A year after Madeleine’s demise, a third coffee house returned to Saratoga, Bailey’s, replacing an ugly bar at the corner of Phila and Putnam. It is, ironically, right across the street from The Natural Foods Café. And it has, ironically, become an ugly bar.

The last time I saw Matt Spence was in March; I can’t recall what brought me back to Saratoga, but he made a concerted effort to tell me about a new coffee house just opened on Broadway. He said that it occupied the previous home of Madeleine’s. I told him we had to go. He said, “It’s called the Opera Café, they play opera. That’s their shtick.” He was right. Opera greeted us. I was looking for something to remind me of Madeleine’s; the tiled floors, the strange stairwell in the back that descended to nowhere, the wrought-iron chairs. Nothing like it. Drywall painted red. No places to sit. Opera blasting. We left without ordering a thing.

Instead of giving up on coffee houses when Madeleine’s shut down, I have done the opposite. I am the consummate café snob. There are the clean, white, efficient coffee houses with their white paper cups and generous portions, and there are the dusky, quiet places where work and conversation get done, where either way the patrons conspire accordingly. Then there are the chains. I owe my ability to walk into a café and discern either, “The people in here are brilliant/full of shit” from my time at Madeleines.

So this weekend I went back to Starbucks to watch the longest Matt Spence performance in history. For the opener, I was treated to dinner with the man himself and his girlfriend (fiancee never came from his lips but it slipped from hers) at their cozy apartment at the corner of …Washington Street and Elm. Still a couple of churches and a Dominos, it now offers a few new posh residences just out of reach of Broadway. After dinner, we strolled to the end of his street for the performance.

Saratoga still has a slew of great places, that make a trip home for leisure or obligation a rewarding experience. But if the Parting Glass, Hattie’s, Caffe Lena, The Saratoga Public Library, Congress Park, and now, Matt’s intimate peak-roofed apartment, all vanish like Madeleines did almost ten years ago, I’ll be going back to Montreal for Thanksgiving, and expecting Mom to move accordingly.