by William Nesbitt
It was one of those times when it seems almost everyone around me was upset with me in some way. You know the vibe; everybody stressed out with lips puckered up like an old lady’s asshole. I was halfway through college and broke. Mike came one night to get me from the playhouse/shack I was living in behind my grandparent’s house and took me to Tallahassee.
Mike and I ate at Denny’s, a favorite late-night stop on Tennessee (now closed). Then, we go to the Tennessee Strip which is right across from Florida State University and is an area of restaurants and bars that is a mix of prep, frat/sorority, and total skid row with the drunk and homeless asking for change, sometimes aggressively.
But at this point in time, there was one hip place and it had just opened a couple of months before—the Epitome, which has about half a dozen bars (at least) on one side as well as a piercing and tattoo parlor, sex shop, Greyhound bus station, city bus station, two pawnshops—one of which took a thumbprint even if you were pawning something only worth a dollar or two—and a self-professed beer barn on the other side with all manner of bum, ruffian, scalawag, ne’er do well, shill, outlier, outrider, and outlaw patrolling/hustling the street looking for whatever they can find, even if they don’t know what it is.
Despite the rough company on the outside, the Epitome was the kind of place that you could always feel comfortable in on the inside, a sort of refuge.
So Mike and I went to check this place out, or I guess he took me to check it out as he had been there before, and I loved it from the start. Bin Bin was at or near the end of the counter the first time I went. He was a muscular Asian with long black hair almost down to his waist and Chinese tattoos, the totem spirit of the Epitome. The inside a cool-glowing jewel blued with light and smoke—“Om mani peme hum: the jewel is in the lotus.” And I brought other people here, sometimes went by myself, and since it was right across from the University, and I was going to a college with zip for a library, I could often do some research and then head back over to the Epitome. (I always wondered if the “real” students could tell I didn’t go to FSU just by looking at me. I assumed everyone was brilliant. I was always anxious that someone on campus was going to stop me, question me, and discover that I didn’t go there, that I was an imposter. Years later, I got a doctoral degree from there, taught there, delivered multiple conference papers there, and even chaired a conference panel there.)
The Epitome had no windows and had been carved under something else. So one side opened right into a downhill road (Raven Street), and the back side opened onto a parking lot backing up to the area known as French Town. Sort of a bohemian bunker protecting us from the fallout outside. Inside, it was everything. A vegetarian restaurant with full smoking privileges. It was one big room filled with sofas, tables, some chairs, and a few stools, all ragged, dirty, and possessing a well-worn comfort that comes from years and years, maybe decades, of slow and easy lounging. Centuries of homeless Buddhas dirty and smiling.
The chairs and tables and sofas were in constantly shifting arrangements. Each section a small neighborhood, a community, a state, a nation, a continent, a kingdom, an empire, a world, a galaxy. Universe and Totality. Mazes and alleys formed. Each one with its own culture and population and language and customs and dress and culture, yet all united by that one great common denominator—Coffee and the desire or destiny to be different.
The bathrooms were in another room with a sink on the outside stationed between two closets for toilets. No designation or dualism or male or female, just first-come, first-served (more and more places do this now, but at the time this was much more of an “out there” idea, especially in the South). The doors were mostly horizontal wooden slats with a length of cloth pinned on the inside and a hook and eye to keep the doors closed. The graffiti rotated, evolved, painted over, and returned. Some of the lines were even philosophical or inspirational, or at least mildly poetic. Sometimes I’d go inside the bathroom just to read what was new on the walls.
Fairly close to the bathroom were bookshelves with books, many of them duds, but some good ones too. Over the years, I exchanged, among many others, Tolkien, Eliot, Nabokov, and books on chess (one was Hypermodern Chess) with books of my own, mostly old sci-fi that my friend (and we would discover twenty years later, third-cousin) James had given me in exchange for his father burning my copy of The Satanic Bible. During the peak, I took ten books a day to the Epitome. I made it into an unofficial lending library, trading post, for myself at least.
I had my first clove that night with Mike, unfiltered in a thin square tin that when you tapped on it sounded like hollow silver rain. A fragrant, tingling sort of kind smoke that left a thin, sweet resin on my lips, like the first kiss from your true love.
Food and drink menus loaded up. Eastern teas green, black, and fruit. English, Irish, and cold remedy tea (throat coat). Hot or on ice, same with the coffee. Just sugar. Milk or cream distorts the flavor of those light, airy tea leaves opposed to the dark, shiny, heavy beans of coffee that need a little milk or cream or half-and-half to push the harsh part of the bean down and release the natural black light of the bean. Creamy, vanilla milkshakes. New drinks like Planet Ice and Love Potion #69. Peanut butter and banana sandwiches with meaty chunks of firm banana, drops of honey on organic whole wheat cut in half top to bottom and purple nacho chips on the side; it was called Love Me Tender. Pizza hoagies on a big half-loaf with spicy, tangy pizza sauce and all-natural cheese served warm. Root beer in the slick, glass bottle or with ice to wash it down. All sorts of pies and desserts, including huge, moist brownies for only a dollar. Coffee, four flavors rotated daily and always hot and fresh, also a dollar. Grasshopper and my favorite, the chocolate cloud. There was a special section of the drink menu featuring high-powered drinks including Bald Blast, Cuban Insanity, Paranoia, These, and Dementia with eight shots of espresso that might change your personality permanently. All organic. Raspberry chocolate bars (there is a Zen parable about raspberries). Brown sugar that looks like it shook down from the great dunes of the imagination, the remote beaches of the unconsciousness. Sweet. The dried dew taken from giant blue mountain firs just as the sun shears mountaintops. Treetops scratching the yellow belly of morning. No end in sight. Not now or ever.
There was nothing as pure as that first cup and smoke. For a moment, I could see my own face or become oblivious to it, heavier than heaven. And there in the first five minutes of that first night’s buzz, we had It. A dream breath, a mind breath. A part of all time and yet timeless in those fragile moments.
Lana and I write these poems together, taking turns writing lines, passing the page back and forth. She always wrote in all caps. These are a few lines she wrote in March 1997, three months before I left for Valdosta that give a few concrete images of the Epitome:
SNATCHES OF CONVERSATION,
PIT BREAD SANDWICHES,
For a while, the Epitome ran a side venture inside called The Purple Circle, which was a glass display case or two with some esoteric goods and some clothes, copies of High Times, shoes, and such. They advertised themselves on a sign outside that read “Gifts. Tobacco. Books. Magik.” Later, part of this became two rows of computers with dudes (all dudes playing Quake and such all night). They had the Anarchist’s Cookbook in another glass case. The cookbook is a guide for activities such as hand-to-hand combat, Molotov cocktails, explosives, various formulas, and so forth. And the guy behind the counter that night said that the morning they got them in, two guys in black suits and sunglasses sat there all day watching the case. The implication is that they were feds or something. Maybe it was true, or marketing hype, or a guy just wanting to mess around with a couple of small-town folk, or just plain paranoid crazy talk. Anyway, Lana and I each bought a copy and hid it back at our homes. I felt dangerous. Like I was breaking a law. On the way home, I watched in the rearview mirror to see if we were being followed. We weren’t. I almost wish we were.
And then I moved to Valdosta, Georgia for graduate school, which put me an hour in the opposite direction. I only made it up to the Epitome a handful of times in two years. Bought a purple Epitome shirt right before I left. Two on the rack. One purple, one black. Figured I had enough black to last me a while, so I went with purple.
I moved to Tallahassee in 1999 to go to FSU. I went to the Epitome an average of once a day. That first summer living in Tallahasee, I met Chico and Bryan, two guys hitchhiking their way to New Orleans. Bryan carried prayer beads wrapped in linen, had been a manager at a Steak N’ Shake, read Dharma Bums, and decided to get out there and “just do it” (art is advertising, advertising is art). They asked me to come along, but I didn’t let myself do it. (One of) My last Great Crossroads. I hope they are out there Somewhere, still riding through the American Night in the back of pickup trucks. Stay free.
I finally made it to poetry night and Ninjazz. Could never get there before 11 on Thursdays when I lived out of state. Giancarlo and I would have made it one Thursday night, but we got hung up waiting for Lana in her dorm parking lot. She kept saying five minutes as she was busy playing around with Lourena. I think we ended up waiting forty-five minutes. You’re right Giancarlo, we should have left her and gone. Rumors and wondering about what dark madness these people scribbled in the lines. Most of the poets were still building their craft, but the delivery was a lot more unique than anything I had seen or heard in a classroom, and this was almost all of the live poetry and spoken word I had ever seen up to that point. But I did get tired of hearing a few people play their one same original composition every week (“Halley’s Comet”).
The irony was they closed a year later.
The final poetry night, I read briefly. I picked something short so I wouldn’t have to read off the page and could get on and off the stage quickly: “The neon sign says God bless our Christian fathers / but I ask what about our Hindu daddies and Buddha poppas?” I mainly wanted to read it just to be able to know later that I had read something. Not sure how many people heard it or how much of it as I mostly mumbled it, but I was up there and I read/spoke. I did it.
In the mornings, I’d come for an hour or so before class, around 9 or 10. This was early. Everything was so downshifted. The softness of fans cutting through the vast silence (Night were always LOUD). Old men sitting with newspapers. The crowd is thin, still, and quiet. Lives up to the name “community coffee museum.” But it’s not depressing. It’s a crystal clear reverence and peace. A chance to catch your breath before plunging into the day. A bottle of cold root beer and a hot bagel with a little poetry from whomever I was currently reading. I’d get a King’s Breakfast, a bagel with peanut butter, bananas, and honey. Maybe I’d see someone I knew and we’d have a little light conversation. I was on my time, just relaxing before the urgent grind of the day starts throwing up sparks. No pressure. Not yet.
Come in mid-afternoon. Lots of college kids between classes. Now, some music is running, and more people are here. The customers are steady. Later afternoon and early evening, chilling to mushroom jazz, feet propped up, reading the new Wednesday Break, a free weekly—the horoscope (always accurate for everyone), Dr. Youngblood’s sex column, and upcoming concerts. That little mag used to have it all. I first found it in Thomasville. One location, by the vending machines at Thomas College, at the edge of town closest to Tallahassee. The edge or the center; there’s no point in being anywhere else. The newspaper was a glimpse of something bigger and the only way to know about anything cool happening in Tallahassee. But, like most things, as the years progressed, the quality decreased, until it went out a year after the Epitome, and I was glad to see it go, put out of its misery before the final stumbling embarrassment, legs swept out from under it and a final fall straight on the ass, the shameful knockout, and my eventual refusal to read it.
I’d watch the day turn to evening through the open side door. The sun shooting in at an angle and hitting the side of the door, a bright pool.
(Summer) looking through the Epitome door that opens onto the side street. If you look at the bottom of the green doorway and keep looking straight ahead, this is what you will see. The dull, red floor of the vestibule right before the chipped, dirty white sidewalk. After that the black metal railing of the sidewalk. The blue pavement. The white concrete wall on the other side of the street, below the green neon light of a fast food restaurant (Miami Subs). Between the two, the brown and green bushes. All the open Sky above. The dream is there.
One night, the power went out. You can tell who would go ahead and end it all in the event of Armageddon. They were the ones who immediately gave up hope and left the building while the rest of us lit candles, made hope, adapted, rebuilt. Each table a compressed, flickering island of light floating on the waves of darkness and dark shapes tumbling against each other on the sky of the ceiling. My finger a mountain. My body a splinter. The change of perspective in the Darkness. New conversations sprang up like mushrooms in misty, rainy cow pastures. Some people even continued playing chess without light. The room, a chattering ball of ink, and us masquers in the court of night costumed in the patchwork of shadows. Because there are always those who go on in the face of unforeseen catastrophe. T’will always be thus until someone turn off the lights of this tiny toy planet.
For the last two Sundays that they were open, I went for their breakfast which stopped at 4:00 PM, a close shave for me to be there by 2:30, so that I could enjoy it. Omelet, whole wheat toast, some fat slices of fresh, zesty orange and a nice, big, cool cup of fresh orange juice to wash each hot stocky bite down. Wonderful, big omelets with all sorts of cheese mixed in and definitely there but not overpowering the taste, as if egg and cheese were each taking turns at lead vocal while the others sang background, the other ingredients playing other roles and instruments. Of course, there’s always something different about a Sunday breakfast, some added special-ness if for no other reason that Sunday is the easiest morning.
The Epitome hit financial trouble. Shadow catches bones as flesh catches spirit. Ross and Candy, the owners, let it go because they didn’t want to sell out and change the place into what it wasn’t and what nobody wanted to see it become. So soon all the people would be gone. The carnival is over.
The final closing. May 31, 2000 (date checked against the original newspaper clipping, which I still have). I was there and it was grand. People interlocking arms, swinging, doing the can-can and singing “Bohemian Rhapdsody.” Me at the bar, where I rarely sat, back against the bar, watching from my cheap skybox, and just now I realize this is where Bin-Bin sat the first time. I had already decided to sit at the bar, since I usually didn’t and could watch all the action. Geruddha, a Hari Krishna who played with a band called the Harley Krishnas, lost avatar or soul, was also at the bar and read my palm after a quick three-breath mediation, “just listen to the breath”—the most concise meditation instructions available. A small square piece of ripped notebook paper with “fortune reading” scrawled in black pencil backlit by a short yellow candle flickering in time to music inside a short, glass sphere.
I had never seen the Epitome so full before. So many people, so much light. Speeding down to zero. But Candy and Ross didn’t really want to shut the place down. Candy worked eighteen hour days on occasion, no less than twelve every day, trying to keep it going or filling in for staff who thought that just because it was a coffeehouse and the owners were beyond cool, no one had to be on time or work, or even call in. People thinking they could extend endless credit to friends/cliques or give away stuff. But someone has to pay for all that. Not the false but perhaps the undelivered—perhaps undeliverable—promise of the ’60s in which no one has to work and everything just shows up for free.
While I am amazed at the small variety of drinks I had over the years—I lick my lips now looking over the drink menu and thinking about what I wished I had tried—mostly getting the coffee of the day for financial reasons and lots of grasshopper and root beer and Coke floats after I moved to Tallahassee because they were so good, I always averaged out to at least one drink per visit, only going in once and not buying anything because I was broke and waiting for someone and wouldn’t be there long, and I feel guilty even for that even though there were many nights I bought food, multiple coffees, smokes, and friend who bought stuff (or I bought it for them), too.
Candy’s father’s house was security on the loan secured on the Epitome at the start. That night Ryan, her daughter, worked the bar alone. Ross was in denial and depression about the closing, Candy shot from the long days after letting all the staff go the week before, Margo (Spider), the youngest sister, somewhere else and as she said years later, “too young to really understand what was going on.” Sound of liquid filling glass and brisk slam of the cash register. Turning around to repeat the process in a frenzy. As if somehow she could keep it all running by herself, as if it were all up to her, as if as long as she kept going, it would keep going. The lines increasing as everyone crowded into it to be there and say, “I was there! I was there!” or have their favorite drink just one last time. Phone constantly ringing, “Epitome, we got Java!” People asking, “Is it true that Jeb Bush and the Secret Service came in for lunch?” or “Is there anything left? Someone said that everything was being auctioned and that sofas were selling for thousands of dollars” and “Is it safe to come in? Are the riots squads and the roadblocks gone?”
By early afternoon (I got there a little past three after poetry class), it was almost full. By late afternoon, packed. Early evening, stuffed. By 11:00 or a little before, it was standing room only in this strange, loud waiting room. All of us wondering where we would go next and having no idea. At 12:00 Candy stood on a coffee table in the middle of the room. Ryan stopped, back red and glistening with sweat, panting at the finishing line of a coffeehouse marathon. Everyone put down their glass, fork, and chess pieces, smokes placed in ashtrays, and turns the spotlight of concentration on her. We were a single eye. One nerve. United at last. Candy gave a brief but passionate thank-you speech and eulogy. “I have no more product to sell you. It’s been a great five years. I don’t want to turn this into the kind of place with waiters at your table and linen table clothes that’s just like everywhere else. I’d rather just let it go. Thank all of you. The Epitome is closed.” Ryan ran to her mother, they hugged and cried. A yell, “The Pit is dead!” Chorus of JavaHead voices, “Long live the Pit!” The last night. The best night.
Ja spoke of this the last night. Asked why we were all upset. Said it’s just another type of graduation. Still we always mourn the passing of great and difficult beings, Old Souls whether people, places, or grand traditions.
Garage sale the next day. I couldn’t go. I mean, who can put a price on memories? I had my chess set (last one from the night before, five dollars, minus both kings, appropriately enough. I asked Ryan, “How much for the chess set?” right after midnight and the official closing, her face still wet with tears), and my food menu, my glass mug, and banner smuggled out by kitchen staff, and I saved my newspaper clippings, and got my internet articles later, and have my memories—a change, a currency that grows fainter, duller in sheen, features wearing away with time, changing shape and conforming to the curve of my fingers and whomever else I pass them on to.
Somewhere, someone is always drinking coffee in the night.
Construction and remodeling took months. A new banner strung over the old white sign with black lettering that had read Epitome and the Purple Circle. The Irish Pub. We went, sat right underneath where the coffee bar used to be, a new window made from one of the old tables was behind us showing the side street, Raven. The window just letting in more darkness and letting our more light. The protection, gone. Hacked and slashed. Strip mined. Lobotomized. All painting inside gone. Mirrors of alcohol logos and pool tables, trashing the place, replacing the framed coffee bags that hung on the wall. Cheap and common; this could be anywhere, but nowhere you wanted to be. Ragged furniture gone, replaced with hard tables and booths. Art gone. Graffiti outside gone. The People were gone. The Light was gone. The light that was the people was gone. And so we went only a few times. Gutted. Emaciated. And the best times were neutral at best. An empty white cup, the bare skinless skull of a severed head, an ugly mass of gone thing. Desserts over-priced and under-tasted. Coffee cold and bitter with grounds. Slow, solemn service. Generic music and rough beer talkers and people sitting blankly and dumbly staring at the television, not in pursuit of a Vision, but just too lazy to do anything else. Not with it. The people in there, the people I wanted to get away from when I was at the Epitome.
And finally they got rid of the new sofas, put in another bar and some pool tables, and that’s it. The whole place sour, and rotten, and ruined. A broken arrow. A busted compass. A fractured circle. A stale fish. A wasteland. Torn and ripped. And we don’t go anymore. The Old Wor(l)d cut into stuttering syllables. The worse hells were once heavens. Black coffee blues. And still I walk in the fall breeze and pretend for a minute that it’s open and I’m going in. Cross Tennessee Street from FSU, go down the slope. Something’s already off. There is a gray rectangular machine where the payphone once was. It’s already breaking up. Get to the window that wasn’t there before. Stop and look through the eye. And see how dark it is inside. Dark where once it was light behind a third eye of stone. Empire of exhausted suns. Light without heat. People without friends. And it’s people with faces that I don’t recognize, shadowy jackals, wearing slacks and polo shirts, no dreadlocked people locked in on their gentle groove laughing in thrift store pants, faded t-shirts, and leather jackets with chains and spikes, talking about compassion and philosophy and other sensitive bullshit. Glowing. The people were the poetry, the life, and the love, and the light more precious than anything we’ll ever get from a remodel. Love draws roses open.
It’s not giving up what you love that’s so hard; it’s giving up what you hate—the rude, ruined thing that what you love has become.
King Love, where are you now?
These words breaking my heart. Facing the dragon of attachment. This is what makes us. What makes us break.
Midnight. We are all smoke and stardust.
Everybody goes somewhere. Eric said, “Cool people live in sad worlds.” Mike West, the bluegrass banjo player, and Mishkin from New Orleans who sang Marxist gospel tunes and odes to garage sales. People who wear the same pants for two weeks and read books like The History of Bread. Doz son of a doctor—that’s a secret—who fronted Velvet Pelvis and sells five-dollar CDs titled Doz’s Premarital Funk rapping, “I move more buns that Subway,” breakdancing to jazz and rapping to xylophones. The guy I saw for years who is too broke (or indifferent) to replace the cracked lens in his eyeglasses. Maybe to see a broken world, you need broken glasses. Ben—booming, “Jazzy Java to go!” Gordon, who believes in genetic testing as a way to find true love. Nip who looks like a soft cartoon character, poses nude at FSU for the art students, and reads poetry that starts off with lines like “In the beginning there was meat.” The ghosts of Dead Poets drinking from the empty cups; the cigarettes we abandon are burning for them. Marilyn, the dark fairy princess of the Underworld with who I went on secret Bourbon Street adventures just a few days after we met at the Epitome in ’99—still together all these years later. Jason, hair half-black half-red like Edshu the Yorubian trickster god. Worked there and took the first picture of myself and Marilyn. The only one we had until the summer before we got married. When a customer asked about the effectiveness of a piss-cleaner, Jason said, “If you can’t trust Tommy Chong, who can you trust?” Shiloh, the urchin merchant with his tongue pierced three times, selling whizzing whirling bottles of space dust. Coffee Machines with espresso blasts like the howls of angry cats. Roberto, who said of the Epitome on the final night, “When I was lonely, you gave me company; When I was lost, you gave me guidance; When I was horny, you gave me women.” Joe said, “If I make it to Thursday, I’ll be roaring Friday night” and “When I was a kid, I was taught that my mother was an archangel who would come back after she died to defeat Satan. My mother died two years ago from cancer. She still hasn’t come back.”
More names from the roll call and hall of fame: Tiggur McPlaid. Patrick. Ziggy Monster. T Mark. Mitchell. Steve. My mother. My father. Craig. Jason Rock. Keith. Cloud. Priscilla. John. James. Paul. Brandy. And more names I never learned, but with faces I still remember and Marilyn and I made names for like El Remoto, Nasty McGhoul, Penzance, The Cybershaman, Le Poseur, Achtung, Ozzy’s Love Child, Big Mama Dread, Sushi, Young Stephen King, Red Bag, Wednesday, and the Ten-Cent Cigarette Man.
Me, I hear my soul coughing; I cry for more caffeine and a poetry most furious.
Later, when this place is as jejune as the moon in a dead pale heat, like pagan temples after the Crusades, after the small article in the paper about its closing has appeared below a picture of Bill Gates—CEOs are our new heroes and pinups; snipers will be the sex symbols of the future—people with ordinary lives and ordinary faces and ordinary jobs will stop and ask themselves, “What used to be here?” But we, we are the ones who remember, and I, palms pressed against its walls, eyes to the sky, will whisper to the Epitome the old Latin saying: “Everything changes, but nothing is lost.”
And since then I have been to world-famous coffeehouses. A Major Arcana of coffeehouses. Café Flore and Deux Maggots in Paris. Strong coffee. Stomping grounds of Sartre. Here intellectuals and academics are superstars. Café Mediterraneum in Berkley. Birthplace of the latte. Chakra on the spine of Telegraph Avenue. Meeting and sitting and talking with Julia Vinograd. Washed Ashore. Caffe Trieste in North Beach, San Francisco. Origin of the cappuccino. Fog drifting like coffee foam. Ginsberg hung out here. Jack Hirschman sitting with his back against the old Italian mural. City Lights around the corner where I met Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Theory Shoppe at Jacksonville Beach. Vincent’s Ear in Asheville. Aurora in Atlanta. Austin’s in Orlando. Still more to find. Still more to drink.
What am I doing now? I’m getting beautiful. (And you?)
From graffiti in the Epitome bathroom:
You are Holy.
You are Ready.
William Nesbitt has published articles, reviews, creative work, and interviews in various scholarly journals, newspapers, and websites. His books include Forsaken: The Making and Aftermath of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four.