Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Coffee clutch

I love university towns in general, but Madison is special. Despite Scott Walker's cretinous effort to have the words "pursuit of knowledge" removed from the state University system's mission statement, Madison still has an energetic air of intellectual striving about it. My older son has lived here for the last 7 years, working on his PhD: his job has been physics research; mine, supporting him however I can—verbal encouragement, hot cookies, checkbook, vacuum cleaner, or anything else I think may make his life a little easier.

Saturday morning, I was flopped in a squashy chair at Ancora Coffee on University Boulevard...the best possible start to a holiday weekend morning. Seven years we've been going there when we're in town, for good coffee, respite from the world, and to watch the other folks doing the same. I had a mug the size of a young washtub, full of cappuccino, and the boys were good to sleep in for a couple of hours yet. Realizing this was likely to be the last time I did this here left me with a distinct tug around the heart.

Ancora is my favorite coffee house anywhere. A small craft roaster, it's everything (in my own opinion, anyway) a coffee shop should be: a small, quirky place, gas fireplace with two battered armchairs next to it, and perhaps half a dozen little tables with vases of fresh flowers. Warm-toned wood and local art on the walls (the current display is floral close ups and nature shots), with good music in the background (Saturday, a mix of Daft Punk and Canned Heat) make Ancora very welcoming.

The door was propped open, with a fresh breeze coming in to mix with the scent of coffee and cinnamon scones. The sun coming in through the east windows washed gentle warmth over the rest of the folks enjoying the morning here.

Like most university towns, Madison provides some of the best people-watching ever—almost as good as London's Victoria Station—and it seems most of it comes through Ancora on weekend mornings. Saturday, there was the usual kaffee klatsch of eight or ten professors and professors emeriti and their spouses (t-shirts, Birkenstocks), who have been coming to Ancora nearly as long as I have. They had just finished dissecting 'this social media stuff' ("Can't I just TALK to someone without hashtags?!") and comparing trips: one guy's to Australia and Antarctica, two different trips to Italy ("Roma? Forget it—so crowded!—Amalfi is much better!"). They'd already argued about the best constituents of a dinner party, skiing, earthquakes, the veracity of ouija boards Gilligan's Island, and an antibacterial coating inspired by sharkskin, for use on hospital-machine dials. One wife appeared to have been married for her beauty, rather than her brains: "It was inspired, like, by some writer...." They began squabbling about the half-marathon being run in Madison over the weekend, with plenty of 'expertise' offered by the guy with the Baaahston accent who has clearly never run in anything more than in from the rain, and my attention wandered to the other customers.

At a table for two by the north window, a guy in a black-and-white striped Izod and beret (yes, really) was drawing my portrait (surprisingly accurate) on his napkin and talking about 'the formal cultural experience' in Nepal with a drop-dead elegant Red Hat lady who was somewhere between 90 and 300.

Two design students at the corner table were wearing their own creations, surely—no earthly clothier sells cerulean-blue skirts made of what looks like seines cast off by a fisherman who decided there were too many holes in them to be of any further use to him.

Over by the counter, there was what must surely have been an escapee from a cow-town bordello: laced boots, corset, floral skirt, talking with two tall, silver-haired gentlemen and Crocodile Dundee about replacing all the parts in some mysterious device, and sharing digital photos of birds over mocha and croissants, with full details of an approaching 'birding' weekend in Minnesota. Should significant others be invited? Would they be bored enough to spoil it?

Rasputin in a ratty grey hoodie and pink Crocs—he had to be a computer science grad student; a copy of Aho's 'Dragon Book' was tucked under his arm—dashes in to get a mocha latte, and then out again like he knew where something was buried. (Who knows; he might.)

A Pre-Raphaelite girl with flaming ringlets, wearing a flowing pale-green blouse, brought her own mug—the size of a flower pot—decorated with sequins and glass jewels. That wasn't her name on it, I hope; it said "Rapunzel"....

Three Japanese girls in bum-skimming striped dresses (or are they shirts?), clearly undergrads, who couldn't decide whether they wanted White Zombies or Caffé Miel jostled with a tall lanky guy who ordered, then, while waiting for his doppio espresso, discreetly stretched out his calves against the counter.

A major clutch at my heart tells me how much I'll miss Ancora, and Madison. Sure, I could drive up any weekend—but with my son moved to Canada, Madison would be a ghost town, populated by the spectres of unstructured, unplanned good times. Long hikes around Lake Mendota; great food and better craft beer; long afternoons in Avol's used bookshop—now only a memory anyway, thanks to the elderly owner's retirement. Grad school is over for Christopher, and a chapter of family life is over for all of us.

Addio, Madison.