"Tell me about a favorite café, diner, luncheonette (do they use that word anymore?), coffee shop."
I’m working through the Natalie Goldberg deck of writing subjects. Each card in this world-renowned author and zen teacher’s Deck contains a writing topic on one side and a short lesson on the reverse, delivered in Natalie’s honest, heartfelt urgency. “This is my wish for you:” she says. “[T]hat you take these cards, grab the topic on one side and write, write, write . . . Remember no good or bad. Just words on the page.” That’s what I’m doing with this series. Just working my way through, and sharing the results with you.
Whidbey Island, 1999. It was Y2K days, and I was married to a Halim, who was a programmer for Microsoft for years. He knew a thing or two about what the ramifications might be if things went south.
Whidbey Island was a long skinny island that ran roughly north/south, and was clearly divided into three demographics (please forgive the momentary slide into un-woke generalizations): in the north, you had the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station—the military. In the middle portion of the island, you had your fundamentalist Christians. And in the southern part (Langley and Clinton, WA), you had your crystal-gazing, vegan, save-the-whales liberals. I remember a freelance website designer saying he was really tired of working for people who, when they couldn’t afford to pay him, would offer to balance his chakras as an alternative.
Halim and I moved to the southern part of Whidbey Island at the end of 1998, because we had very dear friends there, and that’s where we wanted to be if things went dark. As we were weighing whether to move or not, the definitive Yes came when, during a weekend visit to Langley, we went to a movie at the Clyde on Main Street. We were in our seats, and the previews had finished. Just before the feature started, the lights went up and the owner of the theatre came out.
“Welcome to the Clyde,” he said, then yada yada…about no smoking and keep your feet off the seats in front of you, etc. And then he said, “I think we have a birthday girl here. Sarah? Are you here?” A blushing 15-year-old raised her hand, and her gang cheered around her. The owner started us off, “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…” The whole packed theatre sang happy birthday to Sarah.
Halim and I looked at each other and said, “That’s it. We’re moving here. Now.”
On Main Street (all three blocks of it), there was a coffee shop called Sapori, the Italian word for flavors. It was run by two women, a little past middle age but not yet fully ripened into Old-hood. I wish I could remember their names, but I am fully ripened, so…that information is gone.
Sapori was nothing short of magical. I think part of it was that we got to know the place long before tourist season. During the summer, even though it’s only a 15-minute ferry ride from the mainland to the island, it can be a two- to three-hour wait to get on the ferry (in either direction). But when we moved there, it was almost winter, so it was just us. The true inhabitants of south Whidbey.
Everyone on our part of the island knew and loved Sapori. We went there for breakfast, for lunch, for business meetings with potential clients. We went there for for open mics, and poetry slams, and book clubs. We met there to gripe about our jobs, or confide in close friends over coffee. We went there to write in our journals. It was never empty, that place. The food was delicious. The coffee was great. It was perfect.
One of my fondest memory of Sapori was when Madeline, a woman in my women’s group that met weekly to delve into the deeper issues of our lives, finally gave birth to her baby girl, Grace. We’d all been waiting for this child, and so finally—I don’t remember how many weeks later—she brought little Gracie to Sapori. Everyone got a turn holding her, feeling her as ours, collectively. I’d never felt that before. We were a tribe and this baby belonged to all of us.
Eventually, the seasons turned and then, almost overnight, we walked into Sapori and experienced this quiet, territorial outrage. Who are all these people? We don’t know any of them. Where did they come from? There’s nowhere to sit! That was our first introduction to tourist season.
It was an interesting feeling, this tribal You don’t belong here feeling. I was irritated. I understood them as a necessary evil. I virtually chafed at their Otherness, and I must’ve oozed with GoAway. This is absolutely not how I see myself. I am the compassionate one in an argument. I am the voice for inclusion, for understanding, for welcoming even the worst criminals into a space of tenderness. Who is this woman sliding side-eye daggers at perfectly friendly travelers who just wanted to get away somewhere beautiful for a weekend?
But I digress.
The point is that, at Sapori, I found such a sense of belonging, such a larger sense of ‘home’ that it mattered when it wasn’t available to me in the same way during the summer. But when it came back to us, we loved it again, loved it fiercely, probably too much because if we wouldn’t leave, they couldn’t have enough of a turnover to make the rent. Or a profit. But it was special and we held it dear.
As all things do, it was eventually sold, and became something else with a different name. It was never the same. I haven’t been back in years, but it doesn’t matter. Sapori lives in my heart, in my mind, in my memory of passing little Gracie around in our arms, each of us pouring out our individual blessings on her heart and her family. And when we were done, her mother nursed her as we listened to each other’s stories, sipping coffee, talking about Hillary Swank’s peformance in Boys Don’t Cry, and some rushing off to make the ferry line on time for the trip to Seattle.
Blessings to all the coffeeshops, the cafés, the luncheonettes, the diners that create that sweet community, the space that feeds us body and soul.