I started writing in cafés in the early 90s. The café was called Radio Valencia, on the corner of Valencia and 23rd. It closed in 1995, after two fire trucks racing with sirens on collided and came through its front window. (Here’s the story. Here’s a photo. Language is NSFW.) The space is Beretta now, but it’s been a series of other things in the interim.
In those days, Valencia Street during the day was pretty much no man’s land. There was a gay bar called the Crystal Pistol where my friends hung out at night, but other than that, the street was lined with sleepy taquerias and dusty fix-it shops. I wouldn’t have come to the neighborhood at all, except that my friend Christine lived there (until her house burned down from faulty wiring).
Radio Valencia was an oasis. It was bright and sunny. The owner would create playlists of music that he liked and wanted to introduce people to. Each table had a little card listing the songs and artists. Whenever the staff changed the music, the waitress would come around to each table and change the playlist card.
Christine had read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, in which she advocated writing in cafés as a way to shake things loose. Christine and I had met in a residential writing program the year she turned 18, then she’d come out to camp on my sofa in the Castro until she found herself a place to live. At the time she suggested writing in cafés, we’d known each other five or six years. We didn’t know if we could write side by side, but it was worth a try.
I found the whole process of having a date to write extremely useful. If I knew someone would be expecting me, I could get myself out of the house and into a mindset to work. The agreed-upon schedule was that we’d gossip from the time we sat down until we finished our lunches, then we’d open our notebooks and work until we couldn’t sit still any longer.
The process taught me a lot. I learned about paying table rent: if you plan to sit for a long time, you buy more than a cup of coffee and you tip well. One day when we were writing in Just Desserts on Church Street, the staff got tired of everyone hanging out. They put the “That Girl” theme song on repeat. It was funny for the first 5 or 6 times. After everyone left but us, Christine went up to buy us both cookies and request the song again. We all sang along. Then she and I got back to work and the staff left us alone.
It took me a while to work up to being able to write alone in a café. Now that’s a large part of my process. I do all my editing over breakfast with a cup of tea at my elbow. I draft essays. I make lists.
Still, I miss meeting up with a friend to write every week. There’s something about having someone waiting to sit quietly across the table from you that concentrates the mind wonderfully.