Letting Music TAKE You in a Funky Cafe

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After another discouraging round of looking at flats with berber carpets San Francisco building owners seem to love, I ducked into Atlas Café on the corner Alabama and 20th in Portrero Hill.

One of my fears is that Starbucks, like McDonalds, will make it harder for places like Atlas Café and unique coffee bars like it to exist. You can’t imagine my truly wonderful neighborhood experience in a place where I was taken to a romantic lake, Paris, Budapest, New York and then back to San Francisco.

Was it the music that took me there? Ah yes, the music. The blend was so unusual, that as I sat at the bar watching the two handsome Mexican chefs with backward facing baseball caps, preparing my salad, I started to have a surreal moment, one which lasted a couple of hours. Perhaps it was just pure and beautiful imagination. Perhaps the music tore me open, as it should.

At first, I thought that Bach was playing in the background, but then I started to hear the Accordian — Hawaiian style. As I closed my eyes, I went to a tropical island, until of course the track turned Vaudeville. It was a slow, damp but quietly happy Vaudeville.

I open my eyes and see a long row of flavored coffee syrups on a shelf behind the cash register. The girl who takes my order has pink hair with a matching dress and arm tattoo.

Despite her appearance, there’s innocence behind her eyes. It’s a reminder – she’s not Flo and this “ain’t no diner.” She wears black knee socks with dockers and has the kind of body I proudly wore in my twenties.

A large symbol of Atlas is painted on the wall behind the stove. Imagine a greenish blue hulk draped in blood red scarves holding a large cup of steaming coffee.

A professor walks in with his dog. Vaudeville blends with Vivaldi. Odd combination. Where am I? Where does it take me?

I’m faraway. Lost in a 1930s black and white movie being chased by a sexy British man around a romantic lake. He’s a gentleman but very playful and in the mood for romance. Our bikes lean up against a large birch tree, not unlike the bikes propped up against the pastry display underneath the windowpane in this café. Old, rusty and sturdy.

Then I become aware of the organic muffins and teas and realize, “I’m not there.”

So, I turn my attention back to the Mexican chefs in front of me. One is shaving a sweet potato, the other is making a Caesar Salad. I can hear melodrama in the background – is it an organ combined with a harpsichord and flute? There’s no horns and the sound is extremely tinny and hypnotic, especially after a 1930s affair. Makes me want to dance.

To my right, there’s a black woman wearing a gorgeous red wool coat with jeans. Two men with pony tails enter and behind them, a guy no more than 35 in a wheelchair. It looks permanent.

Another man reads the paper – Mexican and Asian. It’s hard to tell but he has dark brown eyes and an inviting warm smile. How gorgeous is that?

The place has wifi so a few people are glued to their laptops and unlikely hear the music at all. Or if they do, can they really “pay attention?” I can’t read what they’re looking at – are they surfing or studying?

The walls are a warm yellow and somewhat barren, except for a few white poster board sketches. One shows two black shadows – are they fighting or making love? I can’t quite tell. Another black shadow is bursting with ideas, demonstrated by color images in bubbles extending from his head.

I’m now wandering around the streets of Paris, so I finish my herbal green tea and order a cappuccino. And……I’m still in the mood to dance.

It’s clearly not a European city however, for outside, the buildings are dingy and delapitated, and the view of the city lights to the north are far too vast. And its not New York, yet the eclectic diverse mix of people who wander in and out of this café would suggest it could be.

The bulletin board airs the community character. Flyers plaster the wall – Astrology Classes, Shotgun Wedding Quartet, Trivia Tuesday Nights, Re-Create Yourself Seminar at the First Unitarian Church, Third Annual Film Festival, the Brazil Cultural Center, and HellFire – a band?

Two attractive women just walked in, a blonde with a pony tail and a dramatic redhead in sneakers. She carries a teenage-like baby blue purse with an embroidered garden. The blonde is aloof and diverts eye contact with me the moment I make it.

The music continues to dance in my head and opens me to possibilities, like a child. Music has the power to rip you open and take you to far away places. Far away places with awareness. I am completely present. The voices, shapes, colors all become one, they become me.

The theme song from the 1960’s film Summer Place starts to play in the background, but this rendition includes a Harpsichord.

A man in his late sixties walks in and sits next to the woman with the fabulous red coat. He has a wooden cane and a presence about him, not unlike Joe from Maine, but he wears no hat and his old fashioned tan courderoy blazer take me to a fabulous Budapest café I went to in 1986.

I decide to move to the couch and notice an open page of the San Francisco Chronicle Arts Section. I’m not in Budapest anymore. No Renee, it’s your new hood. Can this really be California?

Someone orders a sandwich but asks if its organic. Yes, its really California. But the man with the cane and those glued to their laptops don’t seem to have an organic life. It’s a blend – the best of all of us in one little café, a place where you can decide – or not — to let the music take you.

Check out Jonathon Harvey’s Improve Your mind with Music.

This post was originally written on my personal blog in 2004, but I am republishing it here. Photo credit: hermashelix.com.

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