Stomping Grounds

These memories, which are my life – for we possess nothing certainly except the past – were always with me. Like the pigeons of St. Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl.

– Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

I don’t return often to Seattle these days, but when I do, I have a habit of revisiting old haunts — as I suspect many do when they come home after a long spell of being away. The feelings that accompany the experience differ by place. If a store or building has changed a lot, then I am distracted, surprised and maybe saddened at being unable to revisit that particular corner of my memory. If it has stayed the same, then it acts as a canvas: How have I changed, what roads have I taken since I last left this ground? More often places have undergone only subtle alterations, creating what feel like surreal pockets of the city where personal history and new realities converge.

Cafe Allegro is one such place. I slung coffee there as a college student before moving to the Midwest and onward. When I started it was summer and I was still living at home in the suburbs. I made my way through several late shifts a week, loading up on caffeine and free day-old pastries, and shutting it down with the help of a co-worker after eleven o’clock. Then I would make the drive south along an emptied Interstate 5, eyeing routes east as I plunged through the heart of downtown.

The cafe was fronted by a pay parking lot that was almost perennially empty, giving patrons and the baristas a full view of the leafy University of Washington campus through the tall windows. The vista was even better from the upstairs deck. But even while I worked there, the threat of development loomed. There was a petition to bar the construction over the lot — which would close Allegro into an alley — and to turn it into a park instead. It almost goes without saying that, in a city hungry for growth, the effort failed.

A friend and I visited the cafe on my most recent trip back to the Northwest in late November, and on the night we arrived it was predictably chilly and damp. People sat outside on the bench smoking cigarettes in a wash of yellow light, facing the wall of the new building. My friend remarked that the feeling of the place was different. Though Allegro had remained in the same spot for more than 30 years, it now occupied someplace hidden; it was easy enough, in the winter dark, to pass by the alley without turning your head to notice the coffee shop’s existence.

We went inside, ordered drinks and looked around. All of the workers were new (or new since I’d worked there).  I saw three regulars that I still recognized; one of them did a double-take when he saw me but couldn’t seem to place my face.

It was strange that the cafe had remained — mostly unbowed to change — with people flowing in and out of its walls like the regular ebb of the tide since a time when my friend and I would have sat there discussing the stresses of organic chemistry and planetary science. And now we had washed ashore so many years later, altered, new, only to roll out back into the night a few moments later, with no thought of when we might find the place again.

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