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Fly Deborah

San Francisco - Cafe FloreI walked into the mottled sidewalk that is lit up by patches of sun in the cloudless blue sky. No fog, not even a light caress of wind. The stuffy air promises another really warm day in the city, which, for the month of June, is rare but nonetheless very pleasant. Activities are sparse at about quarter shy of seven. My rut of a morning routine will begin at Cafe Flore, where I take up the corner table and read over coffee. Christopher beats me getting there first with the New York Times (crossword puzzle) in his hand. Then in strolls Karin with her trendy and chic bag. But no Deborah.

For 31 years Deborah has been a regular at Cafe Flore, where she takes her coffee, helps out with perplexing crossword puzzle clues, reads her buddhist books, and just threads everyone together. Literally she knows everybody like the back of her hand–not only the names, but their jacks of the trade, gossips, and pedigrees. Yesterday, her last day at the cafe, all her friends came by and paid tribute to her friend. They showered kisses on her. Hugs were exchanged. It was indeed an emotionally charged moment to see that everyone were holding back their tears. I cannot even imagine how tough and difficult the decision is for her to move back to Connecticut after living here in the Bay Area for half her life.

I know we are all feeling the impact of the ups and downs of daily politics and deteriorating economic news and, to one degree or another, the toll it takes on each one of us. I think she feels comfortable and at peace with the choice she has made–to retire in her hometown where gas prices are not as staggering and to be near her sister. As she has gladly puts, “Life here has been wonderful, more than I could imagined; absolutely no regrets! Now, off to the next adventure, one filled with Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring!.” Deborah, I wish you the best and you will be remembered. But the cafe will never be the same without your being there.

Solver’s Shouts: AHAS

In a recent post I mentioned that I’m not good at crossword puzzle, which requires a more well-rounded mind. Lately my friends at Cafe Flore are converting me to the New York Times Crossword Puzzle. Straight off the bat I realize you have to tackle the clues with with an open mind, especially if they are indirect or might imply multiple meanings. I’m sure many of you have already known these tricks, but it’s all new to me!

Crossword clues and their solutions always agree in tense and number. If a clue is in the past tense, so is the answer: thus “Traveled on horseback” would be a valid clue for the solution “rode”, but not for “ride”. Similarly, “Family members” would be a valid clue for “aunts” but not “uncle”. Some clue examples:

1. Fill-in-the-blank clues are often the easiest in a puzzle, and a good place to start solving, e.g., “__ Boleyn” = Anne

2. A question mark at the end of clue usually signals that the clue/answer combination involves some sort of pun (and this usually stumps me), e.g., “Grateful?” = ashes (since a grate might be full of them).

3. Most widely distributed American crosswords today (e.g., The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, USA Today, etc.) also contain “speech”-like answers, i.e., entries in the puzzle grid that try to replicate our everyday colloquial language. In such a puzzle, one might see phrases such as WHAT’S UP, AS IF, or WHADDYA WANT.

4. What really stump me are the abbreviations, use of foreign language, variant spellings, or other unusual word tricks are indicated in the clue. A crossword creator might choose to clue the answer SEN (as in the abbreviation for “Senator”) as “Washington bigwig: Abbr.” or “Member of Cong.”, with the abbreviation in the clue indicating that the answer is to be similarly abbreviated. The use of “Var.” indicates the answer is a variant spelling (e.g., EMEER instead of EMIR), while the use of foreign language or a foreign place name within the clue indicates that the answer is also in a foreign language. For example, ETE (French for “summer”) might be clued as “Summer, in the Sorbonne” while ROMA could be clued as “Italia’s capital.”

5. Equally challenging but fun are clues to be taken metaphorically or in some sense other than their literal meaning, or require some form of lateral thinking. Depending on the puzzle creator or the editor, this might be represented either with a question mark at the end of the clue or with a modifier such as “maybe” or “perhaps”.

Do you do crossword puzzle? Are you good at it? What is your favorite crossword puzzle?


Along the same line with the post on labels, Sartre’s essay “Portrait of an Inauthentic Jews” provides the necessary framework for us to explore the “inauthenticity” of an identity, whether it is Black, Asian, of gay. In Sartre’s formulation, “authenticity for [the Jew] is to live to the full his condition as Jew; inauthenticity is to deny it or to attempt to escape from it.” In other words, a Jewish person had to accept the reality that others saw him as a Jew, with all the prejudices and mythologies that went along with that identification, before he could truly be himself. The alternative, according to Sartre, was pursuing “avenues of flight” that made the Jew complicit with anti-Semitic stereotypes.

While I was riveted at Sartre’s words at Cafe Flore this morning, within earshot a guy was raving on the phone about a man he hooked up with the night before at the gym. He certainly wasn’t shy about publicizing all the details of his number even though the audience didn’t ask for them. I ruefully reflect that these are the things about gay men–the uninhibited sex, the soliciting, the multiple partners–that I want to tone down. In this post on social covering, I discussed how toning down a disfavored identity (usually a minority one) and downplaying a stigma help one fit in the “mainstream” at the expense of the true self. So if I were to live to the full my condition as a gay man, does that mean I have to live with all the prejudices that go along with this identity in order to be authentic? To be complicit with anti-gay stereotypes is the last thing I want, but instead of going with the flow like cruising, clubbing, hooking up, dressing in leather, being in the scene, can’t I assert some individuality here? Why do we have to make sense of the world with labels and categories?

Fits of Disorientation


Being a frequent traveler to Asia spares me from jetlag. Even if I’m jetlagged, I can fight it by forcing myself to stay up during the day and sleep the normal hours. Drinking lots of water also helps. What I have to overcome after being away for so long is the fit of disorientation. Living is like learning a new language. I can usually go about the routines like I’m breathing. It takes practices, countless repetition, like learning the verb tenses and inflections in Japanese. But once there is a break from the routine, one becomes forgetful and clumsy.

A library book that I should have returned before the trip sat quietly on my desk. Why didn’t I notice it then? I clutched it under my shoulder and hurried to the library, hopefully beating that late-book notice.

This morning I had to return home twice to pick up stuffs that I have forgotten. The writing instruments were not transferred into the bag which I usually take to work. I had trouble locating the leather book weight, which was not at the usual spot. At Cafe Flore, I opened my change purse to nothing but Hong Kong coins. Stepping to the ATM nearby, after inserting the card into the machine, my mind blanked out as to what my pin was! Six weeks had gone by since I last took cash out. Should I worry about my memory loss? I console myself with the thought that this is a temporary post-travel trauma that will dissipate as time goes by, when I snap back into the routine.

It’s nice to be back, despite the fact that the weather is not what I most look forward to: rainy, cold, and bleak. It’s comforting to be united with the familiar faces at the cafe. The thought that I’m no longer a stranger, that my identity is ratified by social connections is very appealing. Deborah, Karin, and O all credited my qualms but assured that the forgetfulness will go away when I snap back into my routine. AJ beamed at my making an early appearance and listened to some of my interesting travel stories. He said the cafe didn’t look normal without my being there! The soy latte was just delicious after a lengthy deprivation.

Cantonese Learner

Widely spoken in southern part of China and is my native tongue, Cantonese might be one of the most difficult languages to learn owing to the fact that is is more of a spoken than a written language. This morning a macho-looking, brawny man sitting two tables from me at Cafe Flore has an English-Cantonese dictionary. Impressive. It turns out that he has been taking Cantonese course at City College and this is his second semester. His job in the garment business takes him to Hong Kong and Guangzhou twice a year so some proficiency in Cantonese will help. The beginning, three-hours-per-week Cantonese class focuses on conversation skills and phonetics. The trickiest part of the language and that which makes it difficult to master is the intonations. The southern dialect has seven tones, as compared to four for Mandarin. A slight mistake in tones will put you in big trouble as you call someone’s mother a horse!

Unbreak the Heart

It’s been almost a month since VP and I crossed path here at Cafe Flore. Has it really been 6 books and a vacation already since our orbits overlapped? The last beating-around-the-bush encounter seems like ages ago. At least the prospect of this morning’s conversation was subdued by our physical separation–we were four tables apart.

His insouciant sweetness toward me is no longer inviting. I rather find this sweetness bearing the potency of a poison, one that strips away your sense of danger and boosts your anticipation high. But memories of him seem like blurs and seams especially after Mexico. What used to feel like a baggage–all the giving, the pouring of the heart, the unrewarded waiting–is suddenly taken from me.

I decline his invitation to dinner tonight out of a sheer determination to not break the resolution to keep clear of him. That instinct, self-protective voice in my head coaxes me not to imperil my new-found peace by any action that will lead to sorrow. It’s the subconscious fear of disappointment.

I think I make the right decision.

Beating Around the Bush

flore1.jpgflore2.jpgflore3.jpgflore4.jpgFriday morning at Cafe Flore is usually a refuge. I usually take advantage of the hour-or-so specious calm before the tourists (summertime) come pouring in. It’s Tutti Fruiti Friday at the joint today as later on in the evening a live band will perform. I settled at the usual table in the corner for the maximum exposure to natural light, cracked open Orwell and took a few sips of the soy latte Be had made me. Four pages into Keep the Aspidistra Flying Mr. VP from this previous drama episode walked in and we had the whole place to ourselves. (Has it been been a month since our orbits last overlapped?) Looking apologetic and not failing to wear that VP smile, he volunteered information of his imminent business travel to Germany, which will tail off to a few days of leisure in Rome before heading back to SF. He asked me about my summer (Haven’t I told you many times that I had been teaching two courses on Russian literature?), which had concluded about a week ago and I’ll be off to some travel in Puerto Vallarta.

The conversation flew a bit more smoothly as the vague sense of embarrassment (from his not keeping in touch maybe?) began to wear away. But we were just beating around the bush, both afraid of venturing into uncharted territory. I told him about going to visit my family in Asia and the side trip to the terrains of Malaysia overland. He reciprocated his pleasant memories in Bali and Phuket, on his own, and spoke in such tender innuendo that he would love go back there with a companion for both places are so romantic. I think he’s aware of my being weary of his frequent business travel, that we always miss each other and the timing is so off that the tender affinity we have built up for each other after a conversation like this one we have slowly loses the staying power–and we’re back to where we were.

I almost wished that he would ask me out, make a solid plan to meet–but I know we probably won’t even rub shoulders until after I return from Mexico and by then he’ll be off to the wind city to see his mother. Timing has never favored us. Although I’ve been upset with him, but I realize he’s genuine. Maybe this is the most we can make out of the crossroad. If that is not meant to be, an occasional running into each other is not a bad thing. At least I don’t have to get the expectation too high up.

False Impression

img_2749_1.jpg“Hi, my name is P–. I’ve always seen you ’round here. What are you reading?”

“Oh hi, nice to meet you. This is the reading for my class. Brothers Karamazov.”

“You’re student…What do you study?”

“I’m actually a graduate student of comparative literature…teaching a summer class on survey of Russian novels.”

“You must be a tougher teacher…making your students read this–,”

“Ha…hmmm…I’m a teacher with expectation…I believe that they can manage just fine especially after War and Peace …and since the course emphasizes on writing–reading is conducive to honing of writing skills.”

“Very interesting. Look I gotta run, just stop by to get my cup of joe. But I’d like to talk to you more, outside of Cafe Flore.”

“Okay, here’s my e-mail. Just drop me a note.”

“I’ve been wanting to talk to you but couldn’t think of an ice breaker. You seem like one of those intellectual but handsome type. You probably get lots of this…”


Friendship over Mug of Coffee

img_2749_1.jpgIt’s a weird hour to coincide with him at Cafe Flore: late afternoon, after work. Lunch crowd has long departed and the happy hour shirt-and-tie guys are yet to come in. Anyway, it’s a relaxing time.

“So will you be around for the weekend?” He smiled at me while snapping his keyboard of the laptop.

“Yeah, but I’ll probably won’t be here.”

“Usually it’s a madhouse on Friday and Saturday before Pride. It will be empty during the parade.” He turned around facing me.

“I know…people are already pouring into the area…you see all these new faces…I was here for a bit during the parade, waiting for my friends who were hanging out at the booths in Civic Center.”

“I’ve only been to Pride once…maybe twice, I’m not really into it although I’ve been here for 21 years. I don’t like crowd.” His eyebrows knitted handsomely.

“Same here. I get a bit claustrophobic in a crowded place. That’s why I don’t go to bars, I don’t really drink anyway.” I was beaming at the prospect of having something big in common.

“When I’m on working on this [his Ph. D dissertation], I like to get out of the city to go hiking.”

“What do you say if we go hiking or grab some dinner this weekend?” I summon my last bit of courage.

“Sure, give me call. Well, you’ll probably see me here tomorrow.”


Cafe Flore VII – Cellphone Etiquette

subway.jpg“She looked totally absurd…I mean, I don’t understand the gladiator stiletto or the menswear shirt…hahaha…. [a hand over the speaker] double-shot latte…”

2 long minutes later

“Three-fifty please.” O helplessly stared at this woman who had been blaring at her cellphone the entire time she was waiting in line. Now she frantically fumbled her purse for change to make the total. O lipped a sigh to me.

She came back to the counter, put the paper cup on the counter with a thump. O was somewhat taken aback as he was pour the shots into my soy latte.

“This is not what I ordered!” She snapped as if she was going to bite.

“Double latte right?” O summoned his beat cordiality.

“No I asked for a mocha.”

“That’s not what you asked for.” I chimed in, losing my patience.

“It’s none of your f—ing business.”

“You bet it’s my f—ing business. I heard you say double latte and these gentlemen here behind me could also vouch for that.”

Turning to O with an accusing tone, “You should make sure that was what I ordered…”

“Why should he? Are you so kidding me? Why didn’t you get off that damn phone and make sure what you’re gonna get before point finger at people.”

“I want my money back.”

I really think there is an urgent need to have some sort of a guideline for cellphone use in the public and teach people to abide by it. When you’re buying coffee, commuting, you should at least be aware of people in the surrounding.

I realize that many consider our most beloved technical convenience, our companion and connection to the world, one that helps make our lives so free to be, at the same time, the most annoying invention since the car alarm.

People seem to be so oblivious that they think the world as their personal phone booth. They talk, they yap, they blare, they yelp, they laugh and they roar, so loudly, to the point that people wonder what happens to civility. Cell phones are starting to become such a public nuisance that it’s hard to find a place to get away from them.

I think if you’re enveloped in a closed space, say, a restaurant, a bus, a train, an elevator–where people can’t escape, you should not be using the cell phone. In fact, Japan has taken the step to create phone-free coaches in their railway system.