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Espresso Royale: An Ethnographic Glance

Page history last edited by Rick Lybeck 10 years, 1 month ago

Dinkytown - 9/21/2010 - 6:30 P.M.



It was dangerous going to Dinkytown this evening due to a power outage that had just occurred. Men, brave men from Excel Energy, were working heroically overhead, atop the telephone poles on the west side of 14th Avenue to restore service. Pedestrians were permitted to walk beneath them as they drew new cables from three big spools placed out on 4th Street, blocking off the righthand lane. It didn't feel very safe walking to the café -- the cables were wobbling like mad far above my head -- but in the end I made it to Espresso Royale, witnessing no casualties.

The café was closed when I got there. A makeshift sign in the window told, with frowning face, that the establishment was closed temporarily. How was I to complete my ethnographic study, being expected back at Peik Hall by 7 o'clock? Luckily, there were a handful of loyal Royale customers sitting at the metal tables outside along the sidewalk, easy subjects for my preliminary observations.



How to size them up? Hmm. Alternative. One with a bike helmet on his table looked alternative in a sporty kind of way. There were cigarette smokers. People who didn't care about their hair. Urban intellectuals. Leftists, perhaps. The latté sippers I had heard about in a number of politically-charged radio rants.

I snapped some shots of them.

After five or six pictures, the red-neon Cappuccino sign lit up in the window, causing a slight stir among the Royale loyalists. The door soon opened and three or four of them got up to enter. The weather was lovely, explaining perhaps why the rest remained seated.

The proprietress -- I love antiquated, sexist terms like that -- the proprietress (where would we be without blatant prejudice to sully our ethnographies?) was quick to announce that she had no coffee on hand. All of it had gone cold during the outage and fresh pots had to be brewed. It would take time.

Ten minutes into my data collection, there was still no coffee to be had, and it looked as though I would have to return to Peik Hall without enjoying a single drop. Royale staff -- the proprietress and her assistant -- worked busily behind the counter in their java restoration efforts -- just as the brave men continued to labor outside -- and I realized that my disappointment was due only to chance and the time constraints of this study rather than to any indolence on the part of the natives.

I cased the joint. Rap music played at a low volume. Colorful canvasses lined the walls: scenes from the City of Lakes, classic rock, European masterpieces. Exposed brick gave way to green plaster here, blue drywall there, mirrors along the back wall. The bar offered a variety of pastries under glass, myriad bottles of coffee flavorings, and a price list organized on four tablets hanging above.

Earlier in the day I had come in for a small cup of orange juice. Price? $3.18.

Small round tables and chairs mingled across the creaky hardwood floor. It was long before any of them were occupied. Large windows gave on the street. Potted plants filled their sills, providing perfect habitat for houseflies. I sat down and proceeded to wave my hand over and over, trying to shoo them away from my double-dipped oatmeal cookie as I typed. A unnerving task, to be sure.



The door stood wide open. Noises flooded in from the street to compete with the rapper's voice, his driving beat. Engines from Excel Energy's trucks revved. Hydraulic lifts droned. Cherrypickers lowered. Reverse alarms beeped incessantly; all of this only a few short feet from the loyal Royale outsiders who went on sitting and sipping as if undisturbed beneath the green awning. They were absorbed in their readings, their laptop compositions, their solitary intellectualizing.

My seat is in the front corner by the window, beneath a bright orange, impressionistic rendering of Keith Richards. I used to come here and sit and read in the mid 1980's. This is the exact same spot where I once read Knut Hamsun's novel Hunger in one sitting and came away never quite seeing the world the same again. And I'm not trying to set that up as some positive transformation or epiphany kind of thing. Hamsun was tough. He was manly. He wrote in short sentences. He cut to the bone, cut to the chase, indulged in his prejudices, and somehow managed to undermine Western culture through the strange, psychologically complex transactions of his characters. Alternative characters. Types I could have been sitting amidst this very moment had the power not gone out. Hamsun was dark. Diabolical. He was magic.



This spot used to be elevated, if I remember right. A little stage. And this is how it goes with Dinkytown. Interior spaces alter. Some disappear, new ones are created, and people who've been around like me, many of them much longer, go about carrying all of it inside their heads, their own private, ever-shifting Dinkytowns. Businesses go out. New ones take their places. A handful of landmarks like Vescio's and The Book House remain, however tenuously. Older people complain of gentrification, and they are right, but I remember The Varsity Theater being vacant for a long, long time and now it has life. I will happily pay $3.18 for a small cup of orange juice -- or $6.25 for a pint of beer at Blarney's or more than $5 for a box of Cornflakes at The House of Hanson -- if it means the businesses can stay and I get to go back and sit from time to time in the same place where I first read, no, was seduced by Knut Hamsun.

How many, like me have sat here in Espresso Royale, Giocco Café, or whatever else it has been called over the years, and had life-altering experiences of the mind? Hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? Maybe one of them is having one right now out there on the sidewalk as I write, as the brave men go to draw the cables further up the block, as the women fill the steaming coffee pots. I hope at least one of them is.

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