Walking to work in the morning, the sun not yet having cleared the hills to the east, with the biting wind, blowing snow, the crunch of ice when the temperature is no longer close to freezing – I am reminded of my last year as an undergraduate, at the University of Minnesota. I was a student there, but I was a commuting student – I lived in a sort of commune of friends in Saint Paul, 10 miles away to the east. Being a commuting, full-time student and working nearly 30 hours a week meant that I didn't spend much time at home. I would leave before dawn, and I would get home around 11 or midnight, each day. I had no car – I relied on a combination of extensive walking and buses – much like my lifestyle now.
There were many Winter mornings or nights when I would walk the mile along Fairview Avenue from where the house was on Portland Avenue in Saint Paul to where the number 16 buses ran along University. With the Minnesota weather so cold, this always made me feel like an arctic explorer. My walks from my apartment to the bus terminal in Yeonggwang along highway 23 are very similar, these days. Both hikes have the feel of being an arctic explorer of a bustling suburban wasteland. Sounds about right.
[broken link! FIXME] I used to set up in the Expresso Royale in Dinkytown, in Minneapolis. That's where I did my studying back then. I never studied at home. Just like I did my graduate degree in a certain cafe on Locust Street in West Philadelphia. Now that I think about it, I believe the Expresso Royale wasn't called that name, back then. But it utterly escapes me what its name used to be. It was – and remains – the archetype college cafe, for me, even now. Although its more recent incarnations are less funky and more gentrified, it's still there and still hospitable. Back in the 80's, it was open 24 hours a day, and there were several times when I ended up studying all night there, not so much in the desperation of a typical student all-nighter but because I'd missed the last 16 bus back to Saint Paul, and rather than walk home 10 miles in 0 degree (F!) weather, I would just put in a night of casual study. There used to be a big shelf with board games, that denizens could use.
I had a couple cafes in Ilsan that I would frequent, in similar spirit. Most places that I have lived, there have been cafes – or rather, I have found them – and I have lived in those cafes, more than in any other spot. It's just my nature. In Ilsan, there was the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf franchise in the La Festa shopping center, only two blocks from my apartment. And there was the Rotiboy, a block down from where I worked. When I lived in Uptown, Minneapolis, prior to that, I would spend many, many hours in the Dunn Brothers location on Lake Street at Humboldt Avenue. Prior to that, there was that rather bland Starbucks in Long Beach, off of PCH a block east of the Circle. Before that, there was my favorite single Starbucks location anywhere, in downtown Burbank, where I must have racked up veritable man-months over the years of working close by. I can work my way backward in the ladder of my life by hopping from cafe to cafe. It's a continuum of coffee and close reading.
If there's anything I miss about my many previous incarnations, in my current life, that's it: there are no real cafes, in Yeonggwang. Not the kinds of places where people hang out for hours and maybe vaguely work or socialize. I will race off to Gwangju, sometimes, only because I'm desperate to spend a few hours sitting in a Starbucks or one of Korea's many native cafe chains – Hollys is recommendable, if only for their always reliable and free wifi. As I think about what's next, for me (my current contract is already winding down, with about 3 months left), I wonder if that could be a deciding factor. Probably not – it's not really an indispensable aspect of my lifestyle – it's only a much-liked one.
Hmm. I set out to write about Fairview Avenue, and commuting through snow. I ended up writing about cafes. In my mind, because of Expresso Royale and Fairview Avenue, trekking through sub-zero temperatures in blowing snow to get home at night is indelibly linked to the idea of long, enjoyable hours in cafes. Such is memory.