I just read everything Wes Lee wrote about the café and the deadline this winter and most of it’s true. He’s got some stretchers in there, but most of it’s as true as anything else you’ll read in this world.
For starters, take Jimmy “Donuts.” First of all, we just call him Jimmy and he’s been off donuts for weeks now. Says he’s dropped 10 lbs., but no one in the café can tell the difference. And no one really cares because Jimmy found true love for the first time in his life, even though Lydia (her real name) is a White Sox fan.
You get the picture. Like Wes told me yesterday, that’s why they call it fiction. He says writing is sort of like what the Whittler does: you just carve away the little bits that don’t belong until you find the nugget of Truth, just waiting there for you.
If you came here every day for a cup and just shot the fat with the regulars like Wes did this winter, you’d get to know them, too. Sure, the Professor’s a little crusty, but he just says what’s on everyone else’s mind.
Helen’s the real deal, that I can tell you. Helen knows things that haven’t happened. Like she says, she’s just a psychic periscope peeking around the corner of time to see what’s coming. But drive one-way down Sherman? How could she? It’s like “Dodge-em” cars up at Six Flags trying to find a parking spot near the corner of Clark and Sherman.
Wes made the Whittler sounded a little nutty, but he’s a real artist. His spring show in that little gallery got great reviews in the Evanston Patch. As for Lissa and Oakey, Wes got them mostly right, too. Oakey was a godsend. But what Wes left out was that Oakey never did burn her hand. She made up her own little story and faked the burn so that Bobby’d have to take over for her in the barista challenge. She saw his true artistic potential before any of us did. And the rest of our little crew, Mrs. Worthley and the Knaughty Knitters? All spot on accurate, even the part about Dottie, one of the Knitters, giving the Professor a little chicken soup now and then, if you get my meaning. But Mrs. Worthley’s planning to warn her about the Professor’s batting record with women. 0 for 3 and he’s in the bottom of the 7th.
As for the other things you heard about, the Big Overnighter, or whatever Wes called it, and that incident with the Harvard MBA on the cell phone, it’s all pretty much the way it happened.
What else? Oh, how could I forget? Sherman. That cat’s as real as it gets. In fact, he’s sitting right here next to me as I’m pecking away on this old laptop. Other than Lissa, he’s the next best thing to happen to me.
Anyway, I know what you’re waiting for, what you want me to tell you: How did it all turn out on Saturday—the Great Evanston Coffee and Barista Challenge? Did we win? Let’s just say that in the end it came down to five of us: Yada Yada, Fourbucks, St. Pete’s, Dippin’ Donuts, which doesn’t really have a barista, and our little café, the one folks call The Deadline Café.
Well, how should I put this? You see, I come from Maine and folks out there don’t much appreciate showy summer people, so all I’ll say is that the voting was real close, according to the judge who called me a little after one on Saturday afternoon. She said every one of those coffee shops could’ve won, but that there was something about the flavor of our coffee, maybe it was the homey atmosphere of our café, that put us out front and might’ve influenced the judges, who managed to stay incognito. She said all those other places were nice, and their coffee was good, very good. But in the end, she said, our café has real coffee house ambience.
Apparently after a couple of Florida-style recounts, the judges determined 5-4 that the Deadline Café serves the best cup of coffee in Evanston! It was so close, though, she said that the Mayor of Evanston immediately decided to host another Great Evanston Coffee and Barista Challenge next year.
The barista category was wicked competitive. Bobby must’ve made two hundred of those Spring Love Blossom cappuccino foam designs that morning, never knowing which ones might be sipped by a judge. His arms got tired, but the Northwestern kids cheered him on. And when a half dozen members of the Northwestern University Marching Band marched down Clark Street in uniform and then turned up Sherman and stood there in front of our café, belting out the NU fight song with two drums, a trumpet and a tuba, conducted by Oakey’s boyfriend, well, there wasn’t a person left in Evanston who didn’t think that our Bobby deserved top honors. So we took that prize, too.
Now Bobby’s starting to think about Northwestern football when he graduates from ETHS. Evidently, a certain Northwestern University police officer told Coach Pat Fitzgerald about Bobby’s open field running skills. And I heard the judges like Jimmy’s suggestion to add a Donut and Pastry Bake-off at next year’s Coffee and Barista Challenge. So the word is spreading and good things are starting to happen, my friends. I even made enough by the close of business Saturday to pay our taxes.
So there you have it. A lot can happen in 90 days. Marine Boot Camp, a semester in college, a summer of love, a Hollywood marriage, the lifespan of a black fly in Maine, you name it. Everyone’s got as least one 90-day period in their life where things seem to converge, where there’s so much going on—good and bad—that time seems compressed and you live a lifetime in three months.
And deadlines? Deadlines, schmedlines, I say! Who needs ‘em? Editors, ok, maybe. They’ve got to get things out on time. College applications? Ok. But you ask me, the world once functioned pretty well without deadlines. I understand, if you’re a farmer, you can’t plant seeds in December or milk a cow a week late. Everything has its due time and some things need to take their sweet time. Can’t rush a soup on the back burner.
Furthermore, why do they call them deadlines? Worst thing that happens if you’re a little late (by the way, that part was right, about Oakey being late, if that’s what you’re wondering) is that your term paper’s on the professor’s desk the next day. Maybe he drops you down half a grade. So what? But no one’s ever died because they missed a deadline. Not that I know of.
I’ve learned a few things this winter and one of them is to pay less attention to some deadlines, like those damned notes that Lissa kept posting, and to pay a little more to rent and tax deadlines.
Now maybe you thought it was Lissa all along, leaving those countdown deadline notes. But not me. Heck, at some point, Jimmy had a theory that it could have been just about anyone in the café. And the Professor thought it was all some big conspiracy. Helen, when I finally asked her, knew all along what was up. She even said to me, “Hank, you don’t need to be a psychic to know that Lissa’s in love with you. It’s written all over her face.” Helen still hit me up for 20-bucks, but she was right.
As for me, I was thinking it was some kind of Dr. Moriarity, at first, taunting us. Then I was sure it was Mr. Big from Yada Yada. But Lissa? Never in a million years. I mean, we’d traveled a little together when we were students, seen some sights and done some things and had our little entanglement, as I call it, but that was, what? –nine or ten years ago.
Back then we were both still talking about our majors and what we’d do after graduation. Then something happened—on that point Lissa and I disagree—and we lost track and there were other people. I mean, back then, someone really could pretty much drop off the planet and drop out of sight. No Facebook and all that then. Then she comes back, we start up slowly, just business partners and all. And I guess she just thought up this nutty way of getting my attention with those notes. Never figured it’d get out of hand and never in her wildest imagination did she think that Yada Yada would come to town. Pure coincidence. (Helen’s got a different opinion on that point.)
Anyway, cafés are a little like women. You can look a long time and not find a good one, one where you can say, “This is it. This is a really fine café. Just right.” Some of them are too bright and shiny, some try to look old, some are too loud, some just draw the sort of crowd you can’t see yourself in. Goldilocks was lucky—only three tries and she could say: “This one’s just right!”
But we’re not talking about bowls of porridge or stuffed beds in a fairy tale here. What I was looking for was right there, all along. Like that old joke in Maine where a tourist asks the Mainer, “Which way to East Vassalboro?” and the old guy says, “Doncha move a goddamned inch!” That’s how it was with Lissa—she was right there all the time, right under my nose and by my side.
She says she found me then I found her. I prefer to think of it as though Life found us. Some love hisses on the griddle. Ours is a slow-cook love where we had to steep for a little while and grow together.
So now what, you ask? Well, Oakey and Bobby said they can take the café right into June for us, enjoy some of the fruits of being Evanston’s top café, while Lissa and Sherm and I head back east. What Lissa said on Friday about folks in Maine not knowing a good cup of coffee from steamed clams got me thinking that maybe we should take Sherman with us and go Down East for a while, see what happens. My cousin Farnsy’s a cop out near Sandy Point and says we can stay there a while. Maybe I can win some $2 bills playing cribbage with Pappy Bradford. After all, without a deadline, there’s a lot of life to live and we’re just gonna take the whole thing slowly, step by step. Like I told Lissa, “One lobster at a time.”
That’s it, folks. I hope your next 90 days are just as sweet. And if you see Wes sitting there in the back of the café, why just introduce yourself. Keep an eye on the Professor. And have a cup of coffee and slow down a little. Life’s too short.