The first time I went into the cafe it was to take pictures. Since we’d come here I was walking around, kind of in a daze. Had I really done this? What was I going to do here? I had gotten a job to teach a class of photography down at the community college by Devil’s Lake. But after I got Leah up and off to school, I was alone all day. Wandering around the couple of blocks of downtown like a ghost.
I could see through the windows, the curve of the bar, the chrome rim to it. The chrome barstools. There were so many things in the room that looked like they had been frozen from the 40s or 50s, like the old chrome clock or the wooden and metal placards with those stupid sayings on them. Not the kitschy ones like they make now that are all ironic. There was one for an cream separator machine. Another one for a brand of gasoline. And calendars, six or seven of them hung up from the 1980s. It must have been closed a long time, and everything was just set in place like they were waiting for the owner to come back and open it back up. The vinyl in the booths was covered in dust but it had this faded look that I thought would photograph well. I could imagine a series of photographs, probably with the colors emphasized to look like old polaroids. I could picture them on a wall in one of the little failing galleries in Boston where I used to show things. So I thought, this would be my project.
It took awhile to find the owner. There was a ‘for lease’ sign in the window but the agent whose name was on it was long gone. I found out that the building’s owners had a farm just south of town. The flower shop next door and the plumbing business were the only places paying rent, and that wasn’t doing much more than covering taxes. They hoped it wasn’t going to need a new roof soon, because they might close it up then. I drove out to see them and they just gave me a key to the place.
I decided to take my time. I went there a lot, over a few weeks, seeing what the light was like at different times of day, like in the early morning when the sun crested the row of storefronts across the street and streamed into the windows. Or at midday when it shone from overhead. Or in the evening when the light cast reds and browns from the brick building across the street, the old theater, and the light played long shadows across the counter and up the walls above the grill. It was dusty in there and I tried not to disturb it at first. I found I liked it in all kinds of light. I just liked being there.
And my idea of what I was doing slowly changed. I stopped imaging the scene in these dusty Polaroid colors or in black and white. I wanted to see it crisp and new. I imagined it with people in it, talking. Having conversations that I wasn’t having with anyone. For awhile I thought about painting it so that I could have it look all spruced up, just empty and waiting for people. I wondered how much work it would be. Then I imagined actually having people in there.
That was right around the time my mother called and said they wanted to give me some of what I would inherit when they were gone. It wasn’t much, but it was more than I would ever save up, especially out here where it was impossible to find a job.
It took me over. I had fallen in love with it. Only someone as stupid as me would have imagined it full again of people and then said, “I want to bring it back to life.” And think she could do it, with no experience in running a cafe. I just knew something about seeing people happy. I wanted to see people happy, relaxed, enjoying themselves in a place. Maybe because I wanted that for myself. It’s like this place cast a spell on me and said, “I can be the place where you find this happiness you want.” I don’t know if it’s really made me happy — it’s made me worry, morelike. But it’s been better than sitting at home.