It was November. Late enough that the very eager were atop precarious ladders hanging boughs of lights, and early enough that the very dispassionate had a few more weeks of ignorant bliss before the scramble to buy gifts. The coffeehouse had, of course, been abuzz with workaholics on conference calls (black coffee, no sugar), burnt out teachers inching ever closer to their holiday (cappuccino, lots of sugar) and bubbly teenagers meeting to “work on a group project” (like, a frappé thing?). From overworked retail employees to underworked beneficiaries of nepotism, the sonorous siren of the espresso machine was a summoning of hope.
In Chelsea, it was that season when the leaves of ginkgo, oak and maple trees whisked into a crisp sidewalk susurrus, which wasn’t subsequently slathered. From behind the counter, my view into the outside world was composed of two large windows on opposing sides of the entrance, where candlesticks slowly dissolved and dusty books lay half-read by those waiting for a friend to arrive. Sometimes, if the all armchairs were occupied by couples quietly scrawling, if the line was to the door, and if the warm steam from the espresso machine was great enough, the bottom third of these windows would steam up, just enough so passers-by were reduced to shoulders and hat-topped heads. On this day in late November, it was so, and just beyond the wispy coating on the glass, and between strokes of steamed milk on espresso, I saw the first drizzles of rain begin to smite the windows.
Then there was a flicker: you question whether you blinked as a reflex to some gust of air or falling bit of dust. Another flicker, maybe this time you’ll ask for someone else’s evaluation. Third time’s the charm. As the bulbs began to shiver, it became undeniable. Faces looked up frantically mid-email, those by the glowing fire were hardly aware, and the air thickened with reverberations of panic, asking “will it really?”
With a sigh, the light was gone, save for the candles scattered amongst the windowsills, bookcases, and table-tops. But even with this, not a face was to be seen, the café was shrouded with a dark, heavy blanket, still warm from the dryer. The world outside the windows was no different: the newly hung Christmas lights were snuffed, skyscraper office windows went out like tiny campfire embers, and the headlights of cabs sat, nihilistically, at blacked-out traffic lights.
Without the coffeehouse’s venerable wifi, Skype meetings were cut off, emails wouldn’t be sent, and everyone was scrambling to tell respective bosses that they may be a few minutes late. This was an interesting time to be a barista; though I blindly kept foaming milk and pumping syrups, the people in line were concerned with something other than how quickly I got them their coffee confections.
Amidst the tangible micro-waves of panic emanating from the crowd, there began an after-wave of something much more peaceful. We were suspended in amber, a moment of pause. There was no pressure of self-presentation in that aquarium of darkness; Here, there were no meetings, presentations, deadlines, kids to pick up or debts to pay; there were only flickering candles in the sea of onyx, and the tacit belief in object permanence. For a dimly lit moment, we were there, in an intermission of life, existing.
When the power crept back no more than ninety seconds later, so did each city slicker’s routine. Like paleolithic animals that archaeologists dig up, we, perfectly preserved, carried on. Though not a word was spoken during our time in the outage, everyone left the coffee shop that blustery morning a little more intimate with each other, like the darkness had told each of us a secret about the rest of humanity. Pouring foamy milk into the shape of a wispy, lopsided swan, I intended to keep it.