It only took a year of living in New York City before I began making plans to leave it. In the end I lasted there two and a half years, and only because it took me that long to hoard enough pennies to be able to afford the move. That moment I finally crossed the George Washington Bridge in my eleven-year-old-but-new-to-me Volvo station wagon, all of my small New York life crammed into its hull (mini-television, twin bed, fake fur coat purchased for eight dollars at Housing Works), the Hudson wide with promise below: freedom, commingled with diesel fumes, never smelled so sweet.
In what may be considered a reactionary gesture to my unhappiness in New York, I had decided to relocate to Beaufort, South Carolina, where some 12,000 odd souls populate a disorganized cluster of sea islands. Beaufort residents fish in skiffs on meandering creeks. They drive rust-rotted pickups very slowly down two-lane highways. They live in tumbledown trailers with bedsheets in the window and burning leaves on the lawn. Beaufort’s single-street downtown strip is, to the town’s credit, still heavily used by the populace. Bay Street is as overstuffed with boutiques and galleries and gift shops as the shops themselves are overstuffed with linen tunics, seascape watercolors, dreamcatchers, lighthouse ceramics, and meandering clumps of retirees. Weeknights the streets go dead quiet under still pools of street-light. Weekends are a different story: the bars that back up to the river overflow with thick-armed Marines in tight t-shirts, grizzled chain-smoking bachelors who live in houseboats in the marina, the squad of local gays and their bangled, blonde housewife hanger-ons, bank tellers and lawyers clutching fistfuls of Coors Light, USC girls home for the weekend in cheerfully pastel minidresses. If you ignore the aggressive binge drinking and drug snorting, it’s just a wonderfully old-fashioned microcosm of American society.
So: the coffee shop. In the very center of downtown Beaufort—just under the free-standing stained glass bank clock (yes! really)—there’s this perfect little coffee shop called Common Ground. It occupies a narrow space sandwiched between the riverfront bars. Its windows open onto a sweeping view of the Intracoastal bordered by ruffling, gold-tipped spartina on the far side and a green expanse of park on the near side. There’s a porch, too, and you can sit there for hours watching that spartina nod and tip, the sun travel in an arc down the river, the aforementioned meandering retirees strolling through the park in high-waisted shorts.
Oh, that Common Ground porch did my soul good.
I was writing a novel then, and when I really felt I needed to buckle down, which didn’t happen often, I’d sit inside. You could occasionally hear the contralto voice of the slab-cheeked, unfailingly pleasant girl who worked behind the counter every day. It would drift up through the hum and clack of the espresso machine and the whir of the blender (Common Ground is famous for its frozen turtle lattes), usually when she paused her efficient operation of the appliances to ring someone up. She’d make small talk with everyone, and ask you how your day was, where you worked, if you had kids, where you were from originally. Never once did I hear her exchange that most common currency of downtown Beaufort: gossip. About how one of the coffee shop’s proprietors had had an affair with one of the blonde housewives (or was it the proprietor’s wife and one of the blondes’ husbands?). Or how for thrills they’d have sex in the walk-in refrigerator of a local restaurant (or maybe it was in the park pavilion?). Or how that restaurant’s manager was a recovering crack addict/heroin addict/gambling addict who would, after closing, take a nip of cash from the safe and drive ninety the whole way to the casinos outside Savannah?
Sometimes you’d catch sight of a Palmetto bug scurrying across the worn wood floors of Common Ground, darting from the dark underneath of a musty armchair to the damp underneath of a countertop. A Palmetto bug is what people in South Carolina call the giant flying cockroach. The whole of downtown Beaufort is wildly infested with them—it being so near the water and there being so many restaurants and the whole town being a delightful little microcosm of America and all.
Good coffee, and the best porch in the entire world.
Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.