Post- Magazine

haunted grounds [narrative]

a love letter to places and those within them

I found out recently that my favorite coffee shop in Providence will be closing in less than two weeks. This is both heartbreaking and, in some ways, strangely fitting.

I love The Shop not just because it has the best espresso in the city—although it does—but for the way their cortados come in mini mason jars and their breakfasts come on wooden boards. Everything feels simple and fancy at the same time. The Shop isn’t the sort of place I go to do work—that distinction falls to The Coffee Exchange—and perhaps that’s part of its charm for me. Instead, I come on Friday morning for a breakfast date, and sit at the bar by the window, basking in the dappled mid-autumn sunlight. There, out of the way, sipping on my coffee, I’m perfectly situated to eavesdrop on the conversations bubbling around me as the door creaks open and closed. I listen in as the owner—who doubles as The Shop’s only barista and employee—banters with customers he knows by name. These people, one imagines, have been going here for years. They’re not of my sort, not transient student-ghosts destined to play only a minor role in any story one tells about this city. In a corner nook, someone perches so that all you can see are their well-worn leather boots, which hang like an advertisement for East Coast autumn. They’re working on a crossword, and once in a while they call out to the owner behind the counter or to a familiar customer in search of an answer to a particularly tricky clue. A man in dirty construction clothes breathes a sigh of relief at the fact that The Shop is still open, and he can get his hot cocoa and chocolate chip cookie. A woman in a flowy skirt I admire orders a brewed coffee “for here” and takes it outside to sit in the October breeze. It seems like its own world, this place to which people return day after day, season after season, to get their caffeine fix and to smile and talk to the man behind the counter, exchanging bits of news about their friends and acquaintances.


Watching this tableau unfold, I feel myself floating above ground. I’d like to haunt this place, I think: to put myself in a corner, unseen and unnoticed, to let my soul mix with the smell of fresh coffee and spiced parsnip muffins. I am a person with a deep attachment to places, but this is always the way it goes for me: no planting roots, no letting myself become intertwined with the everyday of a place. In some ways, this probably just comes from a deep-seated sense of fear. I can get involved with a student community, because the label of “student” explicitly delineates a space meant for people like me. But the social circles of a city feel far and out of reach, something to observe from the outside. And so I watch the regulars chat with the bartender at Glou, my favorite dimly lit Providence cocktail bar, about the local arts scene. At AS220, an arts space downtown, I eavesdrop on the conversations in the slam poetry circles, everyone cheering each other on, and think about what my life would have been like if I’d chosen to build my life around creative writing, rather than pivoting to psychology. At Riffraff, a bookstore-bar that has one of my favorite book collections and hosts well-attended readings, I watch people reunite with past professors and friends, congratulating each other on book releases and reminiscing on days past. I’d like to imagine what it would be like to be a part of this, but it feels too scary, too out of reach. After all, how do you let yourself grow roots, become entangled, when your time in a place has an end date? When you’re certain to have to leave, and don’t know where you’ll be going next, or how long you’ll stay there? It feels safer to appear and disappear unnoticed. To become a collage of all the homes I’ve made, but to leave myself out of their stories.

Growing up in the Bay Area, where one would suppose my roots to be, I’d gravitate back to the same coffee shop day after day, studying in a corner all through the year. Philz Coffee may be a chain, but the Philz on Middlefield road has left a deep crease in the fabric of my soul. In my high school years, I haunted it religiously. Perhaps, in some ways, I became a bit of a background character there—one of the faces that becomes familiar from the pure number of times they’ve skirted in and out of the corner of your eye. I never went beyond that, though. I never talked to anyone: not to the baristas, not to the customers, not to the people I learned, from hours of distracted eavesdropping, to know by name. Once, when an exceptionally gregarious cashier acknowledged that I was there a lot, I became so distressed that, for a while, I started frequenting another cafe, until my ghost inevitably floated back. I feared and longed for that sense of rootedness, craved the comfort of a disembodied existence. But I loved that place, and even if my existence in it meant little, it left fingerprints on my heart.

Last February, just under a month after I left the Bay for Providence at the end of winter break, I learned that Philz Coffee Middlefield had burned down when a fire broke out at the laundromat next door. When I came home for the summer, I saw its mural-covered walls half-hidden by a green construction fence, the area deserted and silent except for the rush of cars in the background.

Some remaining sense of home rubbed away from the Bay that February afternoon. I didn’t cry, but I felt my heart clutching at an emptiness where Philz used to be.

That’s one of the curses of academia—to be eternally accumulating home after home, just to have to let yourself float away, to tear the faint threads that you’ve begun to spin in one place or another, watching the fabric of your self form and disintegrate. These days, Providence feels almost more like home than the Bay does. I find myself running into my love for this city as I walk past the house with my favorite stained-glass windows, as the uneven bricks of the sidewalks trip me up when I try to hurry down the hill, as I watch the stars mix with blinking electric lights reflecting in the water at India Point Park. I love the sound of this city’s silence—the cars and the breeze and the cicadas all coming together in one dull hum. And the way communities seem to bubble when I leave College Hill. In every bar, bookstore, or cafe, I see people running into their friends, smiling at each other, seeming so at home and so rooted here. 


And yet, I can’t let myself forget that I am not one of them. I do not get to settle, to put down roots, to build a home in this city—in any city. Unlike them, I am a transient apparition, with no story to give to this place. As a senior, I am becoming more and more attuned to endings, to the ways in which I’m walking towards an endless, foggy blankness.

My favorite coffee shop in Providence is closing in just a few weeks, and I’m beginning to feel myself floating away.

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