Sunday, February 14, 2016

THE AU BON PAIN BY DOUG HOLDER










THE AU BON PAIN


BY DOUG HOLDER


There has always been a cafe in my life—some haunt where I can read the paper, get my head on straight, maybe do some writing—and then move on. T.S. Eliot wrote that he could measure his life in coffee spoons. I guess I can relate to that. Back in the 1980s when I moved from the student ghetto of Allston in Boston to Cambridge, the Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square became my cafe of choice. This sprawling cafe was my home every morning after I left my small rent-controlled flat on Forest Street-- a short distance away. The cafe is located right outside Harvard Yard. On any given morning I would prop myself on a hard metal chair, put my feet up on the railing, and watched the pedestrians of every nationality, every slice-of-life, rush by for points beyond. After awhile I became part of the subculture that existed there-- a place marked by chess-masters, homeless people, students, poseurs, stumble-bums, poets, academics, you name it. There were a number of people who were castoffs from Harvard—unmatriculated hangers-on – people expelled from the academy—or people who graduated but couldn't take the next step. They seemed to caught in the orbit of the university. There was one guy I used to talk to who was once a promising lawyer. He showed me a newspaper clipping about a case he argued in front of the Supreme Court. But the years of booze and other demons defeated him and he was left to drift about the Square talking about his long-ago triumphs to any willing listener. There was Myron who was something of an expert on Indian artifacts, and made a name for himself in the field when he was younger. He was divorced, and survived on a dwindling trust fund. He was picked up by the cops for disorderly conduct now and then. He told me about his trips to Indian reservations, and would sometimes sell me Native American statuettes that I would present to my future wife. There was George-- a shambles of a man—who would pick newspapers from the trash cans and often would discuss current events with me—pointing to a soiled Boston Globe. He was forever talking about some scandal at Harvard that he was privy to. It was rumored that he had a daughter who was a Harvard-trained lawyer but that they were estranged for years. All the while I was taking mental notes—ideas for future poems, trying to get insight into my own confusing life—what to avoid—what to embrace. Later I moved on to other Au Bon Pains, and wound up as a regular at one in Davis Square, Somerville, where I started a writing group that has lasted for over a decade. I don't hang at the Harvard Square cafe much anymore, and many of the characters I have known have passed away or split the scene. But one day while sitting on the 2nd floor of the Starbucks overlooking the Square, I saw what I thought was George, picking through the trash like he was at a buffet. I rushed outside and scoured the Square—but he was nowhere to be found. I never saw him again. But that time in my life at the cafe—those long, hot summer mornings with a spinach croissant and a French Roast, my legs propped up, my limbo before the next phase, stage, or whatever, is something that comes back to me time and time again.

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