Saying Goodbye to Old Friends

Published 4/18/09
Column, “The Caffeine Eccentric,” EDGE Media Network

I’m single again. After years of resounding sweetness, love, trickery, joy, insecurity, questioning the past and planning the future, I’ve called it quits with the boyfriend. It was actually quite amicable, our final conversation—no expletives, no screaming, I can do what I want with the Crate & Barrel desk in the hallway and if anyone asks, there are no negative words to be said.

Days later I deleted the Facebook photos and unfriended our mutuals, trashed the emails, shut down the joint blog and ditched all of the phone numbers. A week before the decision came down, I went out and bought a new plant, a peace lily. It was as if I expected something else to die. The flowers were beautiful, the leaves robust. It brightened up the living room. Funny how you can erase whole parts of your life in an instant. I wondered how this rollercoaster of a relationship might leave its legacy. How much gained? How much lost?

Loss

Weeks before, I lost my friend Ihsan to diabetes. A prolific writer, father, husband, and beloved art community leader, Ihsan left an impressive legacy. To me he symbolized independence and tenacity—the highest crest of creative flame; his body failed him, not his mind or his spirit. Someone at the service said that he was “on a trip.” I like to think of it as a spiritual journey.

Friends and lovers, though hard their departures may be, are not the only things to leave a legacy when they vanish from sight. And despite my complacent sense of self-reliance (I thank my father and Emerson for that), saying goodbye is still quite difficult. Perhaps because, at times, it comes with a ticket of guilt, regret or uncertainty. Perhaps because there’s a genuine void to fill—a sort of forced introspection that catches me off guard. Or maybe I just need to be stronger.

People lose things and people everyday. In fact, we just have to look around to see traces of lost jobs, failed marriages and broken hearts. Voting a black American into the White House hasn’t cured racism. Feeding money to the banks hasn’t put people back in their homes. Planting surveillance cameras on street corners hasn’t made us safer. Winning marriage in Iowa and Vermont hasn’t made gays and lesbians any less hated. The hatred, in fact, has even spread to the classroom. Several years ago, Ohioan Eric Mohat, 17, shot himself after being mercilessly bullied by classmates, and just this year an 11-year-old Massachusetts boy, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, hung himself. And of course we can’t forget the story of Lawrence King, the 15-year-old California boy shot in the head by his classmate.

This recession isn’t just a bunch of talking heads on television. It isn’t just about retail store blowouts or the big bad wolf on Wall Street. It’s not about fare hikes or union strikes or threats of cutting police forces or dreams of muggings and planned arson; it’s just as much a reminder of what we’ve lost as it is of what remains to be gained.

When I introduced The Caffeine Eccentric a few years ago, I wrote about the coffee shops that helped mold me, recalling the experiences and the teenage drama, and reflecting on how, in the late 90s, these oases began to close one by one. The safe zones for us gay and lesbian freaks were evaporating into thin air like steam. After graduation, social life imploded, and so began my haphazard quest to fill the vacant seats and rebuild from the inside, alone. Over the years, new meeting spots emerged, bringing new conversations, new views on the world. This is the growth that saved me.

The end of an era

I’m concerned that many of today’s LGBTQ youth have lost their safe zones, too. Many are affected when coffeehouses with deep roots in the community close. For them, it’s not just a matter of finding another coffee shop.

In 2008, Rapture Cafe in New York closed its doors forever. The shop was an East Village institution and safe haven—a creative zone for writers, artists, performers and eccentrics of all ages and genders. As owners Hattie Hathaway and Joe Birdsong might say, people left their judgments at the door. Rapture was just what this town needs: something different.

Sucelt Coffee Shop, the Latin American eatery in Chelsea, packed up just before Christmas. Skyrocketing rents had put a chokehold on the business. The shop opened in 1976, in a time when the area was heavily Latino. Jenny Navarro, who took over the shop with her sister Yvonne after their father retired in 2000, said she’d rather not serve the rich, but instead wants to serve the poor because it was they who kept the shop open for more than 30 years. In February 2009, Eastenders Coffee House on Long Island closed after five years. In addition to fresh-brewed coffee, the owners brought music to the community by lining instruments along the shop’s counters and encouraging daring patrons to experiment with them. And on Christopher Street, the legendary Factory Cafe was turned into a boutique clothing shop, because clearly we need more of those.

Renewal

Yet, despite these recessions of body and mind, there are glimpses of spring and renewal: lone buds shoot from thick branches; refreshing rains part the polluted air; the city’s potential energy stirs beneath the surface. There’s something to be said about urban resilience; take something from us and we’ll find something to put in its place. Out of the ashes of Rapture came Ost, a euro-style coffee shop on 12th and A—a stone’s throw from where Rapture used to be. On the other side of town, Ihsan’s body of work continues to inspire a new generation of artists, including the three children he left behind.

Meanwhile, in the next borough, my lessons in failed love serve to reinforce what has been inside of me all along—the willingness and desire to make things better—the same kind of independent energy you’ll find in any good New York coffeehouse.