Way back, before it all, the first coffee shop I ever frequented was a hangar-like place called Uncommon Grounds, in my hometown of Albany, New York. I always accidentally called it “Common Grounds”; stumbling over my words was a part of my adolescence I hoped to outgrow, but never did. It was located in a strip mall out on Western Avenue, near the state university, kitty corner to Sutter’s Mill, the underage bar and wing place designed to look like an old sawmill that has some of the world’s best bad Yelp reviews.
Albany has a lot of sub-par—almost expertly sub-par—wing places and underage bars, but it also has really, really great bagels. The kind of bagels that “real” New Yorkers get their pinstripes in a twist over: boiled not baked, almost hard to tear, glossy swollen crust on the outside, plush and pillowed on the inside. Hole in the middle not so much a hole as a belly button. As well as coffee, Uncommon Grounds sold these kinds of bagels.
Some nights my mom and I would leave my dad and brother to their own devices and go to Uncommon Grounds for dinner, order an overstuffed bagel sandwich to share. Unfortunately for me this was back when my mom loved sprouts, wanted sprouts on everything. The UAlbany student behind the counter was invariably bedecked in corduroy, thermal, and Fimo clay beads. That nineties-stoner garb belied his slightly terrifying dexterity with the knife. I would stare covertly at this person while he stacked our turkey club and deftly wrapped it in wax paper, knowing I’d be a college student soon, too. I wondered what that would be like: Could I start introducing myself as Lizzy? Would my roommate be cool? Would I finally get a boyfriend? Should I admit to hypothetical boyfriend that I had never given a blowjob?
One thing I knew—with all the certainty of a financially thoughtless, swiftly judgmental teenager—was that I sure as shit wouldn’t be going to college in Albany.
I’d have one of those gateway coffee drinks: a caramel macchiato, a chai latte. My mom would have a decaf cappuccino, the first sip of which would often send her into a spasm of reminiscing about her travels in Europe. Her summer in Marseille where she was surprised to find that no one served bouillabaisse in the hot months. The bartending job she’d gotten and held for a few months in Spain despite not speaking any Spanish. How she was convinced she had, in a past life, been a Portuguese fisherman.
I like to think now about these times with my mother: she at an angle of repose, I breathless to hurtle forward. Funny now, to be able to look back a little at myself, and see what was around that next curve. I didn’t know then all the coffee shops in my future. That I’d go to college in North Carolina. Spend a summer in England. Sail on a teak sailboat, smoke cigarettes, get lost on the internet, in reality television. That September 11th would happen. That yes, I would fall in love with my first boyfriend, who it took me far, far too long to get over, probably because I convinced myself that he would also be my last boyfriend. That I would move to New York City. Live on ramen, red wine, cocaine, one-night stands, hangovers. Learn to pay my credit card bill on time, buy toilet paper, go to church on my own. That on early winter mornings I would walk empty Manhattan streets, hands shoved in pockets, breathing visible in ice puffs, the sound of my boot heels clacking faintly beyond the Pet Shop Boys in my headphones. That I would be laughing on the subway to Coney Island, vodka stashed in purse, the sun slash-slash-slashing through the bridge supports. That I would flee from all that. That I would move to a small town down south, full of beach smells and friends who didn’t believe a black man should be president. Not could, should. That I would tie on apron strings, sidestep handsy old men, know Marines with PTSD who changed when they drank. Move to Charleston, with its multicolored side-halls, online dating, gay bars, worse hangovers. That I would know friends whose drinking became alcoholism. That I would know friends who passed on. The suddenness of death a surprise. The actual true-ness of the hook of that one Billy Joel song also a surprise.
Perhaps if I had listened more closely, I would have heard in my mother’s reminiscing the low tones of despair harmonizing. What people don’t tell you about your “me decade” is how lonely it can be.
But, not knowing any of this, I’d pick the sprouts out of my half of the sandwich and pester her for more information about these years, these evidently wild, fecund times before my mother was my mother. But she would escape my line of questioning—post-fecundity, she’d become a lawyer, too—and we’d end up debating the pros and cons of the colleges to which I’d applied, or come up with a list of pen names for me to use when, years in the future, I would be a rich and famous writer. It was there, among the bottles of then-exotic-seeming Torani Italian syrups and the mediocre local art hung for sale on the goldenrod-colored walls, that my mother and I met in the middle of some kind of bridge. At Uncommon Grounds, we began to talk, I mean really talk, the way we still do today.
Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.