August 6, 2012
The Monday Mystery Tour feature used to get regular attention here on Round Circle. I'll try to revive it by posting this story of a place where I lived, Ashland, WI, and a visit there some six years later.
Sitting at the Black Cat yesterday morning, I was alone at first. I had gotten out of the house early and went to the lakefront and just kind of spaced out for a while. The holiday doldrums have had a hold on me like I see mentioned in so many posts on the blogs I read.
I went to the Cat a little after eight AM. Shortly after, some of the regulars started to hobble in. We sit at a big oval wooden dining room table with a hodge podge of chairs that creak and groan and wobble. The table wobbles too. Lean on one end and the other end does a dance.
Amy stopped by and went to the counter and ordered up her morning brew, straight coffee. Mark had his coffee in the largest mug available and Darl came from the bakery across the street with a ciabatta roll. He gets a mug of coffee and a small ramekin of butter from the coffee shop folks, but buys the roll across the street. And although the same woman owns both businesses, she keeps them totally separated.
I was drinking my double Americano. I desire that strong coffee taste more than the caffeine. Curtis was next. Curtis is the head bread baker. He brought his own “to go” cup from the bakery. They serve coffee there as well and its cheaper than the coffee shop. See, I told you she keeps the businesses separate. Not many places you can get away with bringing in your own coffee to a coffee shop. Folks do it all the time here at the Cat.
Barb came in, Mark left, Amy left and we were all joined by Dale and Donna. These folks live in Florida during the winter. Snow birds you’d call em’. They had just left for their winter abode when a death in the family summoned them back to Ashland for the funeral. Wayne and Donna were right behind them and Jody passed through and said hello, but didn’t sit and stay.
The women came through, Deb and Pat. They are there most mornings and rarely sit with the crowd at the oval table, but banter across the room at us, usually giving our politics a thumbs up or our manners a thumbs down.
Conversations run the gamut here. Anything and everything is discussed. Local and National politics. Fishing and hunting reports. Weather from the Twin Cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis to Duluth/Superior to Ironwood Michigan and everywhere in between. A form of weather, ice conditions on the Great Gitchegumee, Lake Superior, and the bird watch reports and counts. How many deer were seen or hit on the local highways through the forests. How so-and-so is doing after their operation and has anyone heard from this or that guy lately and how are this or that one’s wife or this or that one’s husband or Mom and Dad.
We are a family of strangers. We all know about each other’s pain and suffering to some extent. What the doctor said last time we went, what church you go, or don’t go, to. What kind of cars we all drive. Each others likes and dislikes and how we drink our coffee and what kind of rolls, bagels or muffins we eat. You know, friends.
There is art hanging on the old brick walls of the Black Cat. Each month, an artist puts up his or her works and a short biography of themselves and their work. Paintings, clothing and jewelry, sculpture, photography. It is scrutinized by the folks at the table. Someone, almost everyone, knows the artist. Other artists tell us which month their show will be on the walls and what they are working on and hope they have their stuff ready by the deadline.
I tell them about my friend that makes her own ceramic tiles to break up and make mosaic masterpieces. I mention the person who draws the figures or uses color so dramatically that I see on the blogs. I’m asked about my snowshoes and my Drum and Dream Catcher making. I don’t consider myself an artist. I just make stuff that people need.
The baristas are a great bunch. I know there are about seven or eight of them. I’m not sure what day which one will be there. Five of them know what I drink when I come in. Four of them know my name and use it. Three of them talk with me at length about a wide variety of subjects. Two are mothers and one is a published writer that says she’ll split firewood for the right to go to the Cabinette and put her pen to paper because it is such a quiet peaceful lovely spot to work.
I’ve only lived in Ashland for 16 months. But I have been coming to or through Ashland for quite some time. The Cat opened probably about eight or nine years ago. In 1998 I was working in Ashland on a filming crew for the movie, "A Simple Plan". The Black Cat was a sure stop off for a cuppa joe when in town doing errands. On my trips up to one of the artesian wells that flow 24/7 to fill my carboys and sustain my water snob reputation, I always stopped in at The Cat for a look see. I’ve been drinking this water exclusively for the last ten years. Pure, no chemicals, rich in minerals, icy cold, refreshing. I’m no snob, just thirsty.
Tara, the manager of the Cat, has a singing career here in Ashland. We went to hear her sing last Friday night at the 2nd Street Bistro. Cait, she’s the one that will split the firewood and was published by Random House, is an energetic friendly sort. Her good nature spreads smiles all about each time she works. I just bought her book. Take a look by Googling her name, Cait Irwin.
The other day I was talking with Cait and we both pretty much agree that the Black Cat is a home of sorts to us regulars. There is always a place to sit with someone you know. Discussions flow freely and friendships build strong foundations.
It’s nice to have such a place in my life. I feel that way around the blogs as well. Some are places where I know I can go and hang out and read and comment and ask questions and generally make a fool of myself if I want to. Good to have these outlets.
Now, the sun is high in the sky. I’m leaving for Chicago tomorrow morning to visit Mom and Sister. Brother will be there too as he is traveling over the holidays from Arizona. The whole family will be together for a day or two. I’ll be home Thursday. Then, it’s crunch time. The ability to get through the next four days and that long weekend will rely solely on me and the way I will be thinking about things. Looks like a cakewalk.
Peace to you all.
Author’s Notes and Epilogue:
I wrote this sometime in December of 2006. I returned to The Black Cat in Ashland, WI last weekend, August of 2012. I get to and through Ashland once in a while. Sometimes on purpose, sometimes as an aside to a trip I might be on.
This time, I saw Amy. She was just closing her stand of art cards and jewelry she makes and sells at the Saturday Morning Farmer’s Market. The Farmer’s Market is held in the parking lot adjacent to the Ashland Bakery, across Chappell Avenue from the Cat.
I walked across the street and stepped into the Cat. Tara was there and recognized me. I got a smile and a big “Hello”. I hadn’t been to Ashland in a while and hadn’t seen Tara in a really long time. It was great to be remembered. While I stood in line to order my Americano, (some habits are hard to break), I saw Sue come out of the back room. We caught each other’s eye and smiled and said, “Hi”.
Behind Sue was a good friend. Her name is Cheryl, but I only know her as Marsha. I call her Marsha, Marsha, Marsha as if I’m talking to Marsha Brady of The Brady Bunch fame. We stood in line, talking, hugging and smiling. I ordered my coffee and a cinnamon roll and went out front and grabbed a table on the sidewalk.
I was joined by the group of motorcycle riders I was riding with this particular weekend, then Sue and Marsha, Marsha, Marsha came out and we got more chairs from inside and had a regular circle that spread almost to the curb. I asked Marsha, Marsha, Marsha about Rick and Wayne and the others, but lately, there had been no sightings. I haven’t seen or written an e-mail to either of them lately myself.
It was funny as I think about it. Sue wanted a bagel. She had to go across the street to buy a bagel, then bring it to the coffee shop for them to toast it, put it on the plate with the cream cheese and serve it. I wonder if she got a discount. The funny weird part about this is that Darl, who I mentioned in the original story, the one who bought the ciabatta roll from the bakery into the coffee shop every morning, used to date Sue. What syncronicity. Both Darl and the woman he dated get their bakery and hand carry it to the coffee shop. We lost Darl a few years ago.
As we sat there and I introduced my motorcycle riding friends to my Ashland friends, Liz got out of her car to shop next door at the co-op grocery. Liz was a barista here at The Cat years ago when I used to live in Ashland. She was the morning person and chose the music CD’s that played when I walked through the door. We noticed way back years ago that we had a very similar eclectic taste in music and became friends quickly.
Liz had quit the coffee shop before I moved away from Ashland. There was talk that she was going to move out East. I mentioned it and she shrugged her shoulders and said, “Oh well, some day I guess”. Then she turned the tables and asked me, “What about you? I thought you were going to move back to Ashland?”
My response was similar to hers, “Some day I will!” Then I asked Marsha, Marsha, Marsha if I could put a small RV trailer next to her garage off the alley and plug it in so I’d have a place to stay when I came to visit. She said, “Sure”.
It was a good visit to Ashland. To see the friendliness and slow-to-change day to day world of a small town. I liken it to Mayberry. Every time I get to Ashland and go to The Black Cat I feel this way, like I really would like to move back there, or at least have a place so I can come back more often on a regular basis. Not too many of these holdouts left in the world. I bet if I showed up there more often, things would be back to normal in no time flat. I’ll have to see what I can do about it.