It could be someone’s living room in 1969, say, just outside of An Hoa: open air — no bullet holes or mortar scars — a kind of scrub palm and bird of paradise dream of not a war brought home but a kind of carved-out peace. A small Buddha squats to my right, but this is not Vietnam. It is University Heights in San Diego, 1816 Howard Avenue, at Park Boulevard. It is Lily’s Garden Café, and it is unique.
Moons ago I promised this column would not be about coffee shops and such, nor did I lie. An exception will be made here because that is what MyHue Tran and Bill Rigg have done. Lily’s is to Starbucks what an English countryside cricket pitch would be to Petco Park.
“We have been here since January of 2008,” says Bill Rigg, 58-year-old co-owner of the small business, where Vietnamese iced espresso is a serious draw but hardly the main one. Rigg is a phlegmatic, quick-to-smile “old lefty, I guess,” as he describes himself. He wears a bush or “boonie” hat as he steams milk. Tran, an attractive former resident of Saigon — though not Ho Chi Minh City — has been a couple with Rigg for some “two and a half years now,” he says. As to Lily’s and its appeal, Rigg says, “What happens is what the place attracts,” sounding oddly like John Lennon, whom Rigg is fond of quoting.
“We met in Sorrento Valley, where MyHue had a small coffee shop. She was looking for something more. And me? I was looking for a way out of a cubicle.” The cubicle Rigg refers to would include a computer. He was an “information tech/administrator” in that previous incarnation. “I was trying to find a more natural life.”
Tran, a singer as well as entrepreneur, has been in the U.S. for 30 years. She left the old country in 1979, having stayed on past Saigon’s fall, as her father was an Associated Press employee. “I spent some time in a communist reeducation camp, although I was a high school teacher — history and geography. I worked for them for two years. I quit and took off. I got out in March of ’79 on a small boat.
“One baby died during that week on the ocean. We stayed there, in Thailand, because my brother was in the South Vietnamese military, and we were able to stay for four months until the American military brought us here. But I saw people running around [at the U.S. embassy in Saigon] in 1975. Before the fall, the AP offered to get my father and his family out, but we stayed. He thought it would be all right, and I still taught until 1977. After that I started looking for people who wanted to run away, too.”
Tran remains active in local Vietnamese culture as well as politics. She writes and sings to raise funds for human-rights concerns. She remains anticommunist. Her latest CD, only commercial in the sense of fund-raising for her human-rights concerns, is called Mat Dau Ngua Hong or roughly, “A Loved One Gone in the Mist.” Rigg provided the cover art for the packaged recording.
Tran’s first name, MyHue, means “beautiful lily.” She has named her daughter Lily as well.
Lily’s Garden Café, a kind of teahouse and/or meditation garden, is also host to what Rigg calls the core of the establishment’s business and that is a number of groups that hold meetings at the 65-seat-capacity (“more if you care to stand”) garden/facility. These groups include 12-step “fellowships” such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Overeaters Anonymous. The nearby board of education will hold meetings beneath the canvas shade at LGC, as will the San Diego Humanist Society, a women’s holistic group, various board-gamers, medical practitioners, internet Local Area Network gangs; San Diego Conscious has a meet-up on the premises once a week, an anime club, a massage therapist organization, and random card players in unofficial gatherings (no betting), to name some of those forming “the core.”
LGC also hosts music on occasion until 10 p.m. Often this consists of Vietnamese music, though not necessarily; acoustic/alternative acts will appear as well. Music is an area Rigg and Tran hope to expand upon in the future. A movie night is in the planning stages for, possibly, September.
This day, like many recently, is a hot one. Over a Sumatra roast (while considering the iced espresso with condensed milk — the Vietnamese special), I am reading Donald Westlake’s Kahawa, the Swahili and Bantu word for coffee. It seems appropriate. Reaching for my notebook, I jot down, “TGIF @ LGC?” Across the garden, a customer speaks to Rigg. “What’s happening, Bill?”
“Everything is happening, but nothing’s going on.”