Café society



At Caffé Nero, on Thursday mornings, there’s a chance to see a slice of the world sit in varying poses, attired in the daytime frocks of winter. Today, two young men with their computers and headphones, a single woman dressed in black sipping her coffee, and a middle aged man reading Girl With a Dragon Tattoo. Others include a threesome of two women and a man discussing medical negligence and the role of nurses; all three dressed conservatively, in greys and blues.


The barista is a girl, Anna. She’s large, blonde and full of humor. She wears the obligatory blue jeans and regulation black tee shirt. Her hips are broad as are her thighs and buttocks. Botticelli? She is formidable but gives the impression of suave impetuosity, if such a temperament existed. Her laugh is a willful roar, provocative and alert to flirtation, even to the faintest ever so faint interest in her womanhood.


The tables, surrounded by easy chairs, remain cluttered with used cups. There’s spilt sugar and the floor requires a quick going over with a broom or a mop. The urgency to clean, to keep home, to be house-proud has long been consigned to history. Is there is an absence of shame? Embarrassment like wrinkles on the face is a sign, perhaps of being old and past it, and is hence, best avoided.



On Thursday mornings, I go into town on the Bus 50, from Moseley to the Bullring. I leave when the serious minded wage earners are already settled behind their desks. At this time, Bus 50 is like a beer parlor, first thing in the morning. The light reveals what the walls look like, the mistreated floor, and the real state of the assorted furniture. Yes, the Bus 50 can seem like an empty beer parlor in Lagos: the tables, plywood knocked together, battered aluminum, even rattan cane, tablecloths of lace with ragged edges, the occasional velvet, embroidered cotton and starched and ironed brocade. Everything about the colors says dinghy, says off-white, pale off print. And the smells are of boiled onions, palm oil, chilies, over-fried plantains, except on the Bus 50 it is coriander, ghee, and turmeric roasted and left to fester overnight in winter. Well New Orleans on Bourbon Street first thing is exactly the same!



One Thursday, a spray of flowers comes into the parlor and then another. One is quite a bunch, lilies and tulips, variegated and colorful but draped in gauze, so that you can just barely glimpse the beauty. The other is all open to view and the closer you look at the bunch you notice that it is plastic, artificial, with dust, maybe even grime dampening down the colors.


This is a beer parlor, only when the folk that work have left and those like me, who are idle or on the sidelines, I suppose like sleep at the corners of the eyes stare out at the mirror of life, set out for the day.


The poet of these café mornings is César Vallejo when he sings


It was Sunday on the bright ears of my donkey,

my Peruvian donkey in Peru (Excuse my sadness).

But today it’s already eleven o’clock in my personal experience,

the experience of just one eye, nailed in the sheer chest,

of one sole foolishness nailed in the chest,

of one sole hecatomb nailed in the chest


Or when he is sad


            I like this life much less today,

but I always enjoy living: no wonder.

I almost touched part of my everything but refrained

with a shot on the tongue behind my word.

Today I finger my chin retreating,

and in these momentary trousers I tell myself:

so much life and never!

so many years and forever my weeks!…



Caffé Nero on these Thursday mornings is an assembly or a stage, a clearing where masks are worn and the dance of heron and fish can be observed. I come with my books and sit. Or I come and lounge as if I was back in time, in Vienna, waiting for Karl Kraus, Musil, Canetti, or Kafka to turn up. I watch “The Book of Nature” as Vallejo would say


            Teacher of sobs – I have called a tree –

a quicksilver stick, murmuring

linden tree, on the bank of the Marne, a good student

in your playing card, in your dead leafage reads,

between evident water and fake sun,

his three of cups, his horse of golds…


And I have read the book of when a woman fancies a man that she is having coffee with that there are subtle facial expressions that signal interest perhaps even desire. A young woman across from me, again at Caffé Nero,é is lunching with a young Chinese man. Her lips are glossy 1960-pink. It is as though they are larger than usual. She puckers them, pushes them out towards him, smacks them together, and slightly parts them to show her front upper teeth. And the eye gaze is direct and unwavering, the eyes lined (might as well be with kohl) and large, compelling. She leans in towards him, cocks her head to one side, and stares out coyly out of the corner of her eyes. This is a pantomime of desire. Every move is unconsciously calculated to call attention to every aspect of her body, that above the table: shoulders, hair, bare chest that lifts or drops into her décolletage. A black slip of a blouse contrasting sharply against the white of her skin.


Then there’s the narrowing of the eyes. What does that say? There’s an intensity, a concentrated focusing that is between quizzical and inner lust. A gesture almost as revealing, naked as nudity. She rubs, caresses her own ear lobe, tucks the straying strand of blond hair behind her ears, cackles, throws a laugh that convulses the body, a kind of abandon, a disquieting loss of control that promises ecstasy, perhaps?


Everything is in the eyelids. Apart, fleetingly closed shut, kissing one another, slow, delirious, again wide apart. If you’ve watched a butterfly, drowsy in the tropical humid mid-afternoon, then these eyelids are cousins to the butterfly’s wings. Oh, to be seduced simply, solely by this dance that is choreographed for one person, enacted to the music of smiles and cocked head, brandished like a flag that is held for all to see, a flag that flaps in the wind, sustained and drawn out, sustenato.


These Thursday mornings, like Marguerite Yourcenar when writing Memoirs of Hadrian, I think


The human form and structure hardly change: nothing is more stable than the curve of a heel, the position of a tendon, or the form of a toe. But there are periods when the shoe is less deforming than in others…


In our period the inner life is rendered visible, sometimes flagrantly often stealthily, but nevertheless on show like “the rustle of silk or whispered caress”.



Photos by Jan Oyebode

3 thoughts on “Café society

  1. Si.
    I could hear Vallejo, the poem, so now I have to find and compare, is it what I guessed it would be.
    Sharing, and will be back to read it a few times. Thank you. Because many reasons.

  2. Let me explain: I thought Vallejo’s words were translated lyrics from folksongs. What do you call that slowed-down Mariachi storytelling singing style? That’s what I thought it was.

    1. Tosin, Thanks for your comments. Vallejo was Peruvian but died in Paris, poor & destitute. English translations aren’t particularly good. Mariachi is Mexican I believe. I was merely hinting at the idea of poetry being in between speech & song! Take care, Femi

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