The Café Noir on Ninth Avenue near Island Avenue is painted a flat charcoal so that it disappears after sunset, leaving only the small, red-neon rubric, "Café Noir," unblinking, a cyclopean Cheshire cat's bloodshot eye. Were it not for a few stylized advertisements for "2 Buck Beer" in Halloween black-and-yellow, the neo-Victorian structure would look like the setting for an H.P. Lovecraft story, something like "The Rats in the Walls" or "The Thing under the Stairwell." The house looks as if it might host a coven of witches or an opium den. It will be, I have decided, my new capital of the October Country over the next few weeks. I need a new coffee shop anyway. I have become alarmed at how dependent I have become on Starbuck's just two blocks away, how agreeable I find the music from that chain's own satellite radio station. I fear I am becoming slowly conditioned to a near lobotomized state of mediocre contentment while blowing happily on my latte foam, giggling to myself as I groove on my antidepressants and listen to chick singers who have all been victimized by the same pig or dog of a man. It is too much like a scene I once took in years ago in Santa Barbara.
It was in a Howard Johnson's full of elderly retirees, vacationers, tourists, or locals from the nearby assisted-living facilities for the aged. Row upon row of tables over which were bowed the white heads of seniors, all of them examining their plates of identically white food: mashed potatoes, chicken breasts with white gravy, cauliflower, white bread, a glass of milk, a pale slice of apple pie. Dice-like dentures sat next to plates as patrons gummed the entrées, humming, bobbing their heads to Muzak versions of You Are My Sunshine, Lemon Tree, or I'll Be Seeing You. (The Chicken Pie Shop in North Park is another perfect example of this recurring tableau.) The music and certain particulars have changed, but both Starbuck's and that long-ago Howard Johnson's--of-the-mind have taken on a personal symbolism for existential defeat, metaphors for resignation. A bit heavy for a coffee and/or pancake-and-patty-melt franchise possibly, but then I have similar associations with, say, Velveeta cheese and reruns of The Lawrence Welk Show.
Importing a bit of Starbuck's to the Café Noir, I listened to Bob Dylan's new CD (bought at Starbuck's) Modern Times while I stared out the windows of the second-floor parlor to the lights of Petco Park. Although usually closed at 2 p.m., the café remains open for baseball games at night and does a good business in Pacifico or Miller Genuine Draft beer; one can get an identical buzz at the café for exactly half the price one pays at the ballpark.
I made notes on a short-story idea I had, inspired by that image from Howard Johnson's or the Chicken Pie Shop. The story was to be titled "Dead Man's Plate" and was/is a ghost story about the dead being haunted by the living; the idea being that life is a far more horrific proposition than death. I had done something similar with the werewolf gimmick for Twilight Zone Magazine in a story called "Nightskin." Using passersby leaving the ballgame as models for the hordes of living souls plaguing the dead, I jotted phrases like, "Obese families feeding each other dripping nachos masticating hot dogs...laughter like psych ward patients...Chicano gang members wearing Chargers shirts, shaved heads...say they have bullet holes in their foreheads, etc., waxy, doughy flesh...bloated like bursting sausages...pleasures of the flesh...young girls, mothers dressed like streetwalkers...guy puking beer at the curb...."
Had anyone read over my shoulder they would have instantly put distance between themselves and me. Headphones clamped over my ears, chewing gum, sipping a chai latte and my head nodding sagely to Dylan's "Beyond the Horizon," like an old pensioner grooving to a scratchy 78 rpm of Rudy Vallee that played nonstop throughout his Alzheimer's-riddled gray matter.
At some point I decided I would sit in this same chair here, Friday the 13th. If the Padres were playing that night, the café would be open, and this seemed the ideal place to be on such a night in the heart of October. I returned my attention to notes on "Dead Man's Plate." I thought I should write down the initial inspiration.
"DMP is the cellophane-covered portions of recently served meals, usually kept in walk-in refrigerators of restaurants under scrutiny by the health department. Idea is to have samples of every item on menu served within past week to be analyzed later in case of food poisoning. As plot point: method of killing the living chosen by the dead." I spent another happy hour thinking of descriptions I might employ of entire families of pale, redneck cretins, Jerry Springer guests, writhing with the torments of fatal E. coli poisoning.
The building is an official San Diego Historical Landmark, which explains its escaping the wrecking ball within spitting distance of the ballpark. I allowed myself a brief fantasy, a footnote in the historical society literature on the house built in 1886 at 447 Ninth Avenue. That entry would read: "In October of 2006, Nobel Prize for Literature winner John Brizzolara conceived the celebrated short story 'Dead Man's Plate' while having tea during the house's incarnation as Café Noir. The short story was the basis for the 2008 comedy musical Jackass VI."