It was the place to go in the mornings where you could get the best cup of coffee and pastries that were good enough to be illegal. The coffee and pastries were expensive, but you forgot about the expense when you took that first sip of coffee or bit into one of their pastries. You had to get their early to get a seat because it filled up by eight. If you were lucky, you could get one of the tables around the cafe next to the large windows that looked out on the downtown area of the little town where I lived in the Ohio countryside five miles east of the 270 Columbus outer belt. The cafe was at ground zero of the center of our town, next to the round about where traffic came and went in all directions. To the north were the new shops and city hall. To the south the golf course and the big gardening store. West were the popular restaurants, the library, and more shops. The Starbucks was this way and it used to be the morning coffee cafe before this one opened. To the east was the CVS drugstore across the street from the cafe and then the Ohio countryside.
In those days, I would arrive a little after seven when I finished walking and feeding my greyhound Genna. It opened at seven and was beginning to fill up even at this time. There was little question that this was that early morning place each town needs. Usually, the tables next to the windows were filled up and you could only find a place at the long table in the center of the cafe with the two Ficus trees in the center of it. I would bring my MacBook and check my emails and perhaps write another blog or work on another piece of writing. Sometimes I would take a book. Often, I’d be squeezed between a few mothers with their young children or a few people hard at work on their computer. The noise level was loud, but I had my noise cancelling earbuds on and my iPhone streaming the Bay Area jazz station KCSM so that the noise in the place was little more than a low hum in the background.
When the pandemic came the cafe closed like all the other places in town. Gradually, it was open for orders if you rang a little bell and went into the place one by one to get coffee or pastries. But to my mind it was really gone.
A year after the pandemic started, places in our town started opening again and masks came off. I looked to see if the cafe had reopened but it was always dark inside. Then, a week ago I drove by in the afternoon and thought I saw people in it again. But then this seemed too good to be true and I thought that it might just be employees. There was absolutely no announcement about its reopening anywhere and there was no answer when I sent an email to the cafe’s website.
Today, I walked and fed Genna early and got in the car and drove the few blocks to the cafe. I could have easily walked but I had a few errands to do. It was going to be another hot day in central Ohio. The forecast was 90. I parked in front of the cafe and walked up to the door and went inside. The cafe was open again. A few women waited by the cash register for their orders and there was just one other person at a table by the window. I almost had the entire cafe to myself. I had never seen it so empty. But then again, no one in town knew it had reopened.
I got a cup of the expensive coffee and a pastry to take home and then sat down at one of the tables by the window and put my earbuds in. I didn’t really need to block out the noise of the cafe as the only thing playing on the cafe’s music system were some old Beatles songs. But it was nice to mix my morning coffee with jazz from my favorite Bay Area jazz station. I brought a book to read but just sat there and didn’t read it. A golden wedge of morning sunlight fell into the cafe over the long table in the middle. It was empty. Maybe the mothers and children and computer workers would soon come back. Maybe not. I sat there and reflected on things.
I reflected about how the start of the pandemic was much more defined than the end of it. The start came in mid-March of 2020 with a storm of media. But the end of the pandemic has had the definition of the boundaries of a hazy water-color painting. Some places people still wear masks and other places they don’t. The two women waiting inside the cafe for their order have masks on. But the servers behind the counter and the other customer at the table in the cafe are not wearing masks.
Through the cafe windows was the golden light of the rising sun. Just a few miles to the east, rising from the Ohio farmlands, were the huge new data centers for Amazon and Facebook. This is not your grandfather’s Ohio farmland anymore I thought to myself. The new countryside. A few people came in. Its opening was slowly being discovered.
Yes, the end of the pandemic is hazy and ill-defined for most. But for me, it has a distinct demarcation line. The cafe was my real pandemic barometer. When it was closed the pandemic ruled the world. When it was reopen, the pandemic was finally over.