by Dan Johnson
Among a bevy of superlative qualities, my single favorite aspect of Café Nine is that I have never seen any of you there.
Inevitably, some of you have patronized the ninth story haunt in the Spring Arts Tower over the many years they’ve been providing low-cost, but quality food items to building residents and locals with privileged knowledge of its inner sanctum.
I’m willing to bet we’ve come close to crossing paths there. Maybe we’ve missed one another by a margin of mere seconds.
The important thing is that Café Nine remains a temple where I am free to worship at the altar of solitude.
Pack up and leave for a weekend. Take that centrifugal journey outwards towards new geographies. You will notice that everything is quiet when compared with Downtown. Most of us who have been here long enough can tune out the noise. The sirens and shouts and boom box bull shit and screeching tires are standard fare. It’s our median line.
Even if we don’t always hear it, Downtown is obscenely loud. It is exhausting. Sound comes at cost. It is a physical energy that requires a certain amount of calories to process correctly. Otherwise the heightened effort stoops the body and drains the mind.
Ask anyone in Guantanamo who had to listen to Metallica’s St. Anger on high-decibel repeat. Noise will erode the consciousness you took for granted in a march to reveal something uglier and more animalistic.
These are things you don’t have to worry about at Café Nine. It’s Downtown at its best. Empty and elevated. From nearly 100 feet up, the happenings on Spring St look microscopic and hypothetical.
Others are hip to this trick of perspective. The Goodyear blimp trains its camera eyes downwards on something that resembles reasonable. Photographers climb spires and mount inaccessible helipads to revel in a skyline that scorns the horizontal daze of street level. Boosters and bloggers and commercial real estate players love the rooftop bar because the chaos of a tense city takes on a certain clarity from the top.
Down on the pavement, things seem less benign and mystic and more malevolent and grim.
Treat yourself. Ride that slow-haul elevator up from the lobby adjacent to the Last Bookstore. Café Nine understands its appeal. A sign on the counter happily reminds you that this isn’t McDonald’s. The production of food is contingent on industry best practices hedged on future circumstances that exist in a realm of unpredictability. It will arrive when it arrives.
A motley assortment of seating including some long-tenured plush chairs dappled in dubious stains that invite you to park your ass and take a moment off.
There is a canvas print of a curious 1894 Birdseye map of Los Angeles. It’s on-brand. If you grow tired of peering down at today’s Downtown, you can always train your gaze on the euphoria of days gone by when Downtown appeared cartoonishly small and deceptively peaceful. Rail lines snake in and smoke bellows out. The city of the past looks like a model carefully constructed by an idiosyncratic retiree.
It is distorted, of course. We tend to treat the past with the kid gloves of nostalgia. These renderings are too often mistaken for ideal and pastoral relative to our present circumstances.
The past was a horror show. People were dying on the streets of Downtown even then. Substance abuse and gun violence and racial tensions and endemic greed and bitter disagreements about the future course of individuals, cities, civilizations and species were all the rage then too. It was noisy as hell. I guarantee that.
Like us today, the people who lived in that little cartographic village had no idea what was coming their way. Some would ascend rapidly to the heights of renown while most were carried away by the avalanche that was the American Century.
They could have used a Café Nine.
Alas, I’m one of the few lucky ones who stand beside Café Nine on this narrow stratum of time. Everyone who came before is shit out of luck. This bacon, potato, cheese and pepper breakfast burrito with attendant cups of pico de gallo and sour cream is for me and mine. Luckily, on this particular day, it was all for me.
I know a lot of Buddhists who strive to emulate Siddhartha sitting there all taciturn and vacant beneath the Bodhisattva tree. Talk about good PR. Buddha’s story, however beneficial, is as much about a rich guy who ducked out on his family to go slack off in the woods as it is about enlightenment. As much as I envy him, I also worry that too much solitude is unnatural and ultimately ugly. The noise keeps us grounded in its own way.
Don’t let the Republicans fool you—we are as much a herd species as we are rugged individuals. Like the debate in physics that led to the enshrinement of the particle wave, we are solitary components enlisted in much larger waves of energy than we can ever appreciate.
We all have our fated place. That can be a tremendous burden. History, like Downtown itself, is god-awfully loud. Still it is essential to find a place where you can be quiet and alone, if only for a few long minutes.
I award Café Nine a “1” on the binary and quietly mourn Groundfloor Café.