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. Continue reading “At the Epitome”