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Café Flore, San Francisco

by Joy Magezis

Going back to the Cafe Flore in San Francisco after all these years reminds me of when they first built the place out of glass, some wood and metal piping. In those days it was full of idealism and green plants. I used to go there to write.
When the new owners took over the greenhouse cafe, the plants disappeared but I was still drawn to the place. It was the light and the diverse, casual atmosphere. Somehow I always felt safe inside.

As the kids and the job took over my life, I remember escaping to the cafe at night. I can just picture it . Opening the glass door, the music inside assaulted my ears. The heavy bass sound vibrated in my bones. Good. Take me over. Take me out of myself.

Walking through the darkened room toward the long wooden bar, I looked the place over. It was about half full with the usual assortment - everyone from young punks to ageing hippies. A good number of gays. A few black faces. A mixture of men and women. Somehow we all seemed to mingle here comfortably.

I bought a cafe latte and examined the tall glass. Layers of milk and espresso were expertly piled one atop the other. But the real test of the drink was yet to come. Would it clear my head of screaming kids and boring paper-work? I made my way to an empty table by the glass wall and plopped myself onto the long wooden bench which ran the length of it. Then I breathed it all in, blending the aroma of fresh-ground coffee with the lively ambience.

Taking hold of the tall spoon protruding from the glass, I slowly stirred my coffee. Then I took my first sip of the rich, foamy brew. My brain began to unfog. I stared up at the huge ceiling fan, watching the long blades as they spun.

A few more sips of the potent liquid and my mind was soaring, high on a wave of lucidity. Finding the currents of my inner thoughts, I rode them toward my future.

I never dreamed that future would take me to Britain. But I was swept up in adventure and settled in a foreign land. Now that the kids have grown, I've come back to rediscover my greenhouse sanctuary.

The glass structure hasn't changed much. Small rounded tables still dot the perimeter. Inside, the espresso machine steams on - though the place is strangely subdued.

I look around. It's not just the faces that have changed. There's something else as well. The mood seems almost ominous.

At the long wooden bar I order my usual. Right away I can see the cafe latte won't be layered. I suppose that's too much to hope for.

Sitting down on the wooden bench by the glass wall, I feel uneasy. What am I expecting? I sip my drink. The coffee still gives me a buzz. I think about the old regulars and the Tuesday-night poetry readings. Where have they all gone? San Francisco's a pricey town now. Have they moved out?

Suddenly a guy comes up to me, looking gaunt but familiar. "You back?" He says it like I've been gone a week.

I motion at the empty chair and he sits down. "Where is everyone?"

He looks away, out through the glass to the crisp, blue sky. "Gone."

"Where to? Portland? Seattle? Surely not LA!"

A heavy laugh pours out of him, deep and ironic. Then he stops short. "I'm going , too."

I stare at him. Something's really wrong.

He meets my eye. His are gentle now and wise. ''Died of AIDS,'' he says.

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