October 20, 2005
Cafe of the World
I’m about to go on vacation, and my flight is scheduled to land in Florida at about the same moment that Hurricane Wilma is scheduled to land in Florida. I find myself tempted to exploit this coincidence as a metaphor , but hurricane metaphors seem particularly inappropriate this year. The whole country is still standing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, scratching our heads, trying to make sense of it.
I’ve always loved New Orleans—for all its weirdness, it wears its soul on its sleeve while other cities hide behind masks. One of my favorite places is Café du Monde, a large outdoor café lined by chess tables. Every time I’ve gone to that city I’ve gone to that place. New Orleans without Café du Monde will not be New Orleans for me, but then again, why should I have a say in defining a city I only rarely visit? At my most sympathetic I remain a tourist; the residents of New Orleans can’t afford to indulge my sentimentalities as they come back to themselves.
There’s widespread resolve to rebuild New Orleans, and I find myself imagining what life in that city might be like on the far end of that recovery. I picture an old man lingering around the café on a Sunday afternoon . . .
Wanna know something funny? Back in the seventeenth century they called coffee houses “penny universities.” You paid a little money and you got to argue for hours about whatever you want.
Here at the Café du Monde, nobody wants to argue, they just want to play chess over café au lait and beignets. Play the wrong person and you get schooled, though. I’ve seen some folks play two, three games at a time, and they wipe the floor with the tourists.
You can beat a tourist at chess in four moves—four moves! Maybe people just don’t learn chess right up north, but I like to think that some people come to New Orleans to get a little schooling.
Me and Charlie were regulars. Had our own table right here. We’d spend hours on Sunday working the board, talking over this and that. I beat him most times, but he made me work for it.
We met in the service. I taught him chess ‘cause I needed a rival. He grew up out west where chess never got played much, but he took a liking to it. We’d pass time by playing chess, and he’d tell me about his girl back home, and I’d tell him about New Orleans. The more he heard, the more he liked it, so when we got discharged, I hooked him up with a job in the city.
New Orleans is a beautiful town—you hear about wild nights and gators and voodoo, but that’s all just cream and sugar. New Orleans is hot music and spicy food, heart and soul, coffee and chess. Nothing like it anywhere else in the world.
Charlie took up the clarinet for kicks and played with a combo Thursday nights at a little bar down the road from Tulane. Me and Sharon would meet Rachel there every once in a while and just listen to him. After Rachel died, though, Charlie quit playing. His boys would come home over Christmas and beg him to play some Dixieland for the grandkids, but he wouldn’t do it; once you stop playing, you lose your chops.
He never quit playing chess, though. There’s no game like chess: at first it seems you’ve got an infinite number of moves you can make from one turn to the next—you can do anything. But the further you get into the game, the more you realize there’s a method to it. So you try to think five or six moves down the road, and you try to think of all the tricks ole Charlie might pull on you. With a little luck, you pull a few tricks of your own and Charlie buys the next round of café au lait.
You never quite master chess; you just enjoy it. You’re there hovering over the table, watching it unfold like the whole universe is coming into being and then coming to its end. And it just makes sense as you watch it, even if you’re bewildered by it. No matter how hard the game gets, you know each piece has its spot and every ending, even when you lose, is a happy one.
Once I got “retired,” me and Charlie added a Wednesday game. Sharon didn’t seem to mind, and Charlie was kind enough to buy the beignets. Then, of course, the hurricane hit. Wasn’t the first, probably won’t be the last, but Katrina did a number on us in 05. Beat us in one move, like a bunch of tourists! Me and Sharon were able to salvage the house, but once Charlie’s castle came down he just gave up. We all left town, but Charlie never came back.
He’s up in Chicago with his oldest now. We talk every once in a while, and once a month I send him a can of coffee and chickory—best coffee in the world. One cup keeps your mind sharp; helps you plan your next move. And with all the changes that hit you when you least expect it, you need all the help you can get.
Me, I’m here for life. This is my home—no place like it in the world. Life’s gotten me into check once or twice before, but I just keep on playing. I come down here Sundays and sit here at me and Charlie’s table, sipping my café au lait, waiting for a rival. Four moves or four hundred—doesn’t matter; I’m just looking for a happy ending.
I'm busily preparing to give four talks at a high school retreat in Alaska next month. I'm really looking forward to it, although I think November in Alaska qualifies as "off-season." My theme is "We Could Be Heroes," which has been a recurring theme for me for the past two years because of the book. But I think it's a good theme for kids--who wouldn't want to be a hero? Who knows what a hero really is?