My Breakfast Spot
Perhaps to some (or most?) people, it’s a fairly easy question to answer. But when this mental task was first presented to me, I must confess I was stymied. Don’t get me wrong — it wasn’t as if I had no ideas; perhaps part of the problem may have been that I had too many. The seashore at sunrise; a quiet, cool forest; sitting atop a mountain; floating on an inflatable raft — they all lined up and counted off like well-trained Marines. I suppose this exercise is a bit like conjuring up your idea of heaven, the very place you’d most want to spend the rest of eternity. Not a decision to be taken lightly. Rash choices can only lead to classic Twilight Zone episodes and little else. So what could it be, this ideal spot where I could retreat to and find tranquility? I didn’t like the thought of making up a place from out of thin air, so, drawing from my experience, the front runners I eventually hit on were mainly scenes from childhood: my grandparents’ house in West Virginia, my old summer camp, a river I once camped beside in New Hampshire, and so on. Good choices all, and over time I have put them to productive use in my never-ending quest for quietude. And yet, desirable and peaceful though each setting might be, they still seemed a bit wanting.
I suppose I was searching for my ultimate home of harmony in all the wrong places. Perhaps it’s the sort of thing that has to find you and not the other way around. However, I am now happy to report that I have finally discovered my personal citadel of serenity, and it was there in front of me all the time: my breakfast spot.
Let me back up a bit. Years ago, my oldest daughter, Lindsay, was part of a youth string orchestra that rehearsed every Saturday morning at the New England Conservatory of Music on Huntington Ave. in Boston. They rehearsed for an hour — from 8:00am to 9:00am — so it made no practical sense for me to drop her off, fight the traffic back home, enjoy ten minutes of leisure and battle back again to pick her up. Many parents stayed and listened to the rehearsal and, in the beginning, that’s what I did too. The maestro was a statuesque woman nearing the end of her middle years who somehow, through sheer force of a kindly demeanor and an expectation for her students to do well, controlled these forty or so kids. But a stringed instrument is either scraped well or not so well, and sounds resulting from that latter category can have an unsettling effect on the nerves. So after several sessions I began looking for other ways to fill up the hour.
It chanced that I missed breakfast one of those mornings, so I hunted for a place where I might grab a muffin and a cup of coffee. There was a Burger King nearby, but I wanted to do better if I could, so I walked in the opposite direction. Within a block I found a sub and pizza shop called Cappy’s, a greasy spoon that offered what my heart most craved, a hot breakfast.
For the next year and a half I visited Cappy’s every Saturday morning while Lindsay and her fellow musicians sawed away at their violins, violas and cellos. I’d bring the newspaper with me and read it while I had my breakfast. During that time of the morning, Cappy’s never really got too busy. Usually the customers were students from the Conservatory or Northeastern University. There were also some blue collar types who came in, but the only two regulars (beside myself) who I always saw were two black men, one a security guard who I suspect must have just gotten off his shift, and the other a light-skinned black man somewhere in his seventies who I guessed was retired. Certainly, from his accent, he came from another country, although from where I couldn’t determine. It could have been Haiti or somewhere in Africa. He sounded more than a little like Rafiki from The Lion King.
The security guard (whom I secretly called The Sergeant) was talkative and picked Rafiki as his interlocutor. The Sergeant was from Georgia and he liked to tell stories — often from his youth — in a slow, musical drawl. He was loud but not offensively so, and you had the feeling you were sitting with him on a veranda while he whittled away on a stick. Rafiki didn’t seem to appreciate his company very much and gave only monosyllabic replies in hopes of frustrating this conversation that had been foisted upon him. But The Sergeant didn’t need any encouragement; he continued to tell stories or comment on local news with an easy manner and a calm assurance that what he said was interesting. I admired that. He had my attention not so much due to the content of what he said but because I enjoyed his style of delivery. Meanwhile, Rafiki tore apart slices of stale bread the manager gave him into tiny pieces piled on a paper plate so he could later feed them to the pigeons.
One day, Lindsay did the unthinkable: she quit the orchestra. Her mother was devastated, because she put a lot of store in Lindsay’s violin playing. Myrna was convinced Lindsay really had talent (and in truth she really wasn’t bad). I, too, was heartbroken, but for a different reason: I could no longer justify my Saturday mornings at Cappy’s.
So for five long years I stopped having my breakfast there. Cappy’s was practically on the other side of town, parking there was a mess, it just wasn’t worth it. I tried establishing a new breakfast spot closer to where I live in Brighton Center, but none ever worked out. One place, the Mirror Cafe, is the nicest little spot anyone could ever ask for. Tables by the windows, a long counter with stools, pretty waitresses, great home fries, but it just didn’t work. It was all wrong. It wasn’t Cappy’s.
Two months ago, on a whim, I started going back to Cappy’s again. What can I say? It’s in my blood. And the place hasn’t changed at all. The same Greek couple work the counter where you place your order. The wife has a stern look, but I remember from the old days that she sort of took a shine to me after a while. The husband is, as he always was, very approachable. They both don’t remember me from five years ago, but, after two months, the husband has relearned my order: cheese omelet, home fries and toast with black coffee. And, as I said, everything is the same: the round, red, Coca Cola clock with a white, ribbony swish going through it; the Formica wood-grained tables with attached tomato-colored benches (tables that are, by the way, never clean); dingy, white tiled walls and counters accented by a single horizontal line of green tiles that run their twisted path through every corner and nook; the pitted linoleum floor; the dull metal pizza ovens not yet in use. All wonderfully the same.
The Sergeant doesn’t go there any more, but Rafiki maintains his post at the side of the counter where the pizza ovens are. My first time back I thought I noticed a hint of recognition in his eyes, but it wasn’t what I would call welcoming. In the old days we said hello to each other and took things no further, which was entirely to my liking — I was there for “me time,” after all. But now I’d say Rafiki regards me more as an interloper. His hair is perhaps a trifle whiter than it once was and he wears it more closely cropped. His light brown skin has a yellow tinge to it and his droopy eyes have dark circles that remind you of a panda. He always sits in the same booth just like I always sit at my corner table. He still tears up bread for the pigeons.
I follow the same routine. I stroll in and place my order, then sit down at my table, pull out my book and book holder and set everything up. After I’ve read for about five minutes my order is ready. I bring the food to my table and then collect my plastic eating utensils, napkin and tiny packets of salt and pepper. I reseat myself and proceed to enjoy forty-five minutes of escapist bliss. For some reason my reading comprehension seems heightened there (there are studies that show using a book holder can do that for you). I am in my own little world.
Next door within view of my table is a sort of drug rehab or halfway house. I get that impression because there is a sign listing visiting hours next to the front door and, on gloomy days, I can plainly see right into the lighted lobby to the person working the desk. It’s not a student dormitory because the residents, who frequently step outside to smoke their cigarettes, are too old. They all have a careworn, used-up look. I see middle-aged women with their long hair still styled as they had it in their youth. Men wear clean blue jeans, J.C. Penny spring jackets and white sneakers, and the thought always crosses my mind that they were dressed up like that by their no-nonsense mother.
As strange as it may sound, I envy them because I imagine they are all getting a fresh start. They are working out their troubles and people are rooting for them. They’ve hit bottom and there’s nowhere to go other than up. Here they appear, standing in front of their building smoking their cigarettes, newly washed in clean, wrinkle-free clothes, “reborn,” as it were. They’re given another chance. Expectations are low and any success they have is counted as a miracle. It seems hard to lose.
So what is your spot? Is there a place you can go to — either physically or in your mind — to find forty-five minutes of peace? Is it a lagoon or a laundromat? A country landscape or a broken down, wooden park bench in need of a coat of paint? Where is your Cappy’s?