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Being Alone With Other People: Arabica Lounge Closes

The divide between public and private space is notable in a city because as our city becomes more densely populated, we are forced to become closer to each other and we must often enter the public realm to do intimate things. But even in this closeness, there is a desire to maintain some anonymity, even in public. My favorite cafe, Arabica Lounge, closed on Sunday for good. Arabica was that place where I went to be alone with other people, to experience some solitude in a crowded space, an activity as important to any city as high rises, transit, or compact, walkable neighborhoods. The cafe or pub is a critical element of any dense, walkable, neighborhood, and as people seek less living space they find themselves replacing the parlor with the cafe or local bar.

When I think of eating and drinking in public, I think first of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI eating in front of the public at Versailles.

According to contemporary accounts . . .The etiquette required the King and Queen to take some of their meals in public, in front of the courtiers and visitors. Anyone decently dressed was admitted in Versailles, and many came to the Palace to watch the royal couple eat.

This image, of the King and Queen undertaking a biological function in public, stands out to me as uniquely French, but also especially urban. We eat in front of other people all the time. And for some of us, it has become a routine of urban living. City dwellers often don’t buy in bulk, and spend their food dollars at local dives or even at fancy local bistros. We get used to the barista knowing our name, exchanging life stories, sharing good and bad news. The Cafe becomes the small town coffee shop, local soda fountain in the variety store, the watering hole, the place to get news and check in. The cafe is where we connect with our neighbors.
But then there is that need to disappear in the crowd as well. MFK Fisher wrote the best essay on eating alone in her Alphabet for Gourmets, which she starts with “A is for dining alone.” I will quote liberally from the essay:
A is for dining alone . . . and so am I, if a choice must be made between most people I know and myself. This misanthropic attitude is one I am not proud of, but it is firmly there, based on my increasing conviction that sharing food with another human being is an intimate act, which should not be indulged in lightly.

There are few people alive with whom I care to pray, sleep, dance, sing, and (perhaps most of all, except sleep) share my bread and wine. Of course there are moments when such unholy performances must take place, in order to exist socially, but they are endurable because they need not be the only fashion of self-nourishment.

There is always the prospect to cheer us of a quiet or giddy or warmly somber or lightly notable meal with “One,” as Elizabeth Robins Pennell refers to him or her in The Feasts of Autolycus. “… one sits at your side feasting in silent sympathy,” this lady wrote at the end of the last century, in her mannered and delightful book. She was, just there on the page, thinking of eating an orange in southern Europe, but any kind of food will do, in any clime, so long as One is there.

Myself, I have been blessed among women in this respect … which is, of course, the main reason that if one is not there, to dine alone is preferable to any other way for me.

Enjoy the poetry in Fisher’s prose. Doing intimate things in a public place alone and in anonymity is uniquely urban and part of being in a large community. We need each other, even when we don’t or don’t want to.

Arabica met this need for me; a place to be known but also unknown, to be part of something but also apart, watching and listening to others. Arabica was where I wrote many, many blog posts, personal reflections, e-mails, and Facebook posts. Even as I write this, I have to note that I write it as an Arabica refugee, part of the Arabica diaspora, in another cafe.

It was where I met many people fleetingly, sharing great conversations that would never have a conclusion, or a second. There were smiles and glances shared, laughs, but a sense that when it was needed, one need not share anything, convey any secrets, betray and weakness or flaw. It could be a place to simply be with beautiful people and beautiful food. Or sometimes,”just the usual please” and “have a great day!”

To bring it back to our business here, this is what I said about housing in the city, especially microhousing:

Valdez explains micro-housing this way: The apartment acts as the bedroom of a traditional house, where residents spend some of their time, but venture out for everything else.

“People who live in micro-housing see the cafe as their living room, the bar as their kitchen, or a friend’s place as their den. They see their micro-unit as their room and the wider community as the rest of their house,” he says.

“The idea that ‘It’s unbelievably small, how could you live that way?’ is disconnected from the way a lot of people live in the city. They don’t see their apartment as the be-all and end-all of their living space… That facilitates human interaction and human connection. If we all live in giant houses in Sammamish, we don’t need to see anyone else.”

Apologies to Sammamish. But as I pointed out in an old post somewhere else, cities can change us for the better especially because they push people together. And there is, after all, nothing more transformative than another person who is our neighbor whether down the hall or at the next table. One of the great Urbanist writers in the English language is Charles Dickens. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens describes how cities create the closeness and opacity of intimacy:

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! . . . In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?

Arabica was a microcosm of the Capitol Hill neighborhood and every day it offered a fleeting glimpse of  those “darkly clustered houses,” my neighbors and fellow human beings. It’s loss is notable but not irreparable since we need what Arabica offered; people always find each other no matter where they are. Cities make finding each other easier, whether we need acknowledgment or just the warmth that comes from being alone around other people.

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