Ernest Hemingway called Paris a movable feast because of all the cafes where he could sit and drink and listen.

I used to watch Maine’s Gerry Boyle (“Random Acts”) sit in the old Jorgensen’s Cafe with yellow legal pad and make notes.

Sometimes he just sat staring into space. I knew that look; I left him alone. He was writing.

Of course, Boyle is a novelist. He has time. Columnists with weekly deadlines don’t have that luxury. We need something fun, interesting, provocative, and we need it yesterday.

First, let’s define writing. When writers stand staring out the window, or don’t respond to the sixth time you’ve addressed them? They are probably writing. When you tell them that your girlfriend is pregnant or you’ve won the lottery, and they get that “thousand-mile” look in their eyes? They’re writing. Everything else is typing. When it comes to hitting those keys, the “writing” part is over. Okay, let’s go on.

Desks and offices are for the typing. But when the well is dry, you have to go to the street, find a “cafe.” Voices are required.

Months ago I began this series in the big glass hall of the Toyota display room. It was very quiet there, like the chapel in a hospital. It worked so well for me that I took to going there even when my car was healthy.

I watched couples debating finances with salesmen, making notes and ripping them up, walking around and around the car (their first?) rubbing and touching. I got a good column out of that, and it was written right there. Then I started typing.

When the Toyota folks got wise to me, I discovered the local Starbucks Coffee House in another part of town.

In the fall and winter months, the limited brown space at Starbucks is largely colonized by Colby students and faculty tethered to their laptops in academic silence, glasses aglow with blue light, earplugs smothering the world.

On warmer summer days, I may sit out under the umbrella covered tables on the “veranda,” with a splendid view of Walmart, eyes closed behind sunglasses, waiting for an idea to float in.

A girl at the next table tells her boyfriend in a sharp, audible whisper, that it’s all over. He objects. She slams her hand on the table, takes her dog and walks away. I know what John Cheever or Philip Roth would do with that. Novelists with time.

When an idea arrives, one with meat that will produce a column with “legs,” I pull it in and retreat to the quiet of my car, lock onto Starbucks’ wifi, and type.

When the winds blow cold, clouds darken and the icy Starbuckian corporate hands take away the tables and umbrellas, I retreat to my next “cafe,” my phone store.

Phone stores are the best “cafes,” they’re rich with shared voices. When it’s busy and bustling, you can sit on one of their red leather cushions, and listen to the “retail wireless consultants” handle questions with a smile. Most customers don’t ask about 5G. The questions are basic, human. The middle aged woman whose hair is green in front, orange on the side, with a swoop of blue on top, asks, “Does it come in melon?”

“You mean like watermelon?”

“No, more yellow, like cantaloupe melon. ”

“Like gold?”

“Gold is cool.”

When she gets her choice, she will be, like every customer, escorted to the door and thanked for her purchase.

Some of the conversations are touching: Two grandparents, probably long retired, living on a Social Security check, a meager pension, sit beside their teenaged granddaughter, for whom they’re buying her first cellphone for her birthday. She explains how it works, why it’s so important. She rattles off the names of six friends who have them. They listen and nod.

An aging, rural gentleman sporting a gray beard he’s had since it was blonde, and a well-worn feed store baseball cap, is moving from one brand to another, touching, rubbing, frowning. He grumbles to me about his problems with one brand.

“Damn thing never worked right. Piece of junk. I’d never buy another one.”

Still, he’s here looking for “another one” with his sweet wife standing aside, rubbing her arthritic hands and trying to be invisible. She looks like she’d prefer a new washing machine, maybe a new comfortable chair. But he will get a new phone. The world is moving too fast for him, but he’s hanging on.

There are hundreds of stories in my little town and this has been one them. I’ve got 21 deadlines left in this year, so I guess I’d better get out there. Thanks for listening.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer. 


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