Souvenirs and the Joy of Unlocked Doors

By David Kessler

As I look around my room I see not only objects, but also stories - where a thing came from, how I came to have it and why.  When I look at something that I don't know and wonder about it, part of what I wonder about are what "ghosts" it carries that are invisible to me.  How can they not have ghosts?  Would I hold onto a chunk of old clay tiling if I didn't see the winding journey up into the crawlspace of a dormitory to turn a crank and think about windlass chanteys?  That watch was my grandfather's; that stone came from the Bedouin boy in Jordan who didn't want anything in return; that hat got me a ride to work one day; that belt is from the Renaissance Faire; that's the bar where the staff didn't notice the bagpipe music; that glass jar was for the brain I searched for; that book came from the hostel owner in the Hebrides who likes Yiddish...  These ghosts may live in the mind, but the keys to finding them there are their physical places and objects.  Without these, I would only think of their people, sounds, and impressions, if reminded by something else.  I would need reminders of the reminders; Touchstones of an earlier mental filing system.  I wonder if that's why people visit graveyards.

This evening I got on my bicycle and rode into Harvard Sq.  It was a cool evening, the way they get around here at the end of summer, and I felt like spending the evening reading at the Café Algiers, over a pot of Arabic coffee, with a basket of pita and packets of honey on the side - my usual there.  I had a copy of Don Marquis' The Old Soak with me, and on the way over I bought the latest issue of Lone Wolf & Cub (the best comic I've ever read, and only one I read nowadays).  Each issue contains 4 or 5 stories, and after I finished reading them all I got up to use the bathroom.

As I opened the door I heard a sound inside, like wind knocking a sturdy window in its track.  That turned out to be pretty close to the truth.  There is another door in there that I've never paid any conscious attention to.  It's raised about a step off the ground, and is covered in the same even flow of layered graffiti as the walls around it; perfect camouflage, the way that Fozzie Bear's Studebaker was camouflaged to fit neatly into a multi-colored billboard, in Muppet Movie.  It struck me that the sound came from the door, and that this meant it was unlocked!  My next thought was to take care of my reasons for walking into the men's room in the first place, just in case there was adventure (oh yes, please) behind that door.

As I paused, I enjoyed the graffiti there, which I consider to be the best since Garen Daley lost the Somerville Theatre and the new managers repainted the men's room there.  Quotes from Ovid and Shakespeare; poetry in foreign languages (I assume it's poetry because some of it rhymes); rants about G-d, society, sex, and the back and forth commentary and foul put downs that successive users of the room have layered on.  All this mixed together with the usual "Fuck you all" statements that can be found anywhere.

Back at the graffiti covered door I was reminded of the time I found an open door near the top of the Boston Public Library.  Just like this door, that one was at the highest level of the building: off the alcove of a narrow gallery, above the old research library.  It was unlocked and ajar, and when I poked my head in I saw a metal, catwalk style staircase going up into a dirty, unlit, space that looked like it was the inside of a shallow dome.  At the time I was late for meeting someone and I have no memory of who that was, so I can't say now exactly how stupid my decision not to climb that staircase was.  I do know that I regret it greatly to this day and that I have never found that door ajar, or even unlocked, since.

I put my hand on the doorknob in front of me and slowly turned it.  I then slowly pulled the door open and saw a steep, wooden staircase going up.

Café Algiers is a wonderful place with a floor plan that I like to imagine reproduces what the more elegant coffeehouses in North Africa really look like.  A long time ago it was in the basement of its current building, where the bar Casablanca is now.  I don't recall it being nearly as gentrified as those current tenants have made it.  Of course my memories of it then are narrow and dimly lit, and are mostly confined to the exposed brick walls that were coated with some sort of shiny shellac sealant.  I always felt like I was inside the far hidden corners of some great, old building, because only a great, old building would have bricks that glistened that way in the low light.  I can remember tilting in my chair to let the uneven wall support my back, but I can't remember anything that I drank, read, said, or saw there.

Now Algiers is on the ground and second (top) floors of the building.  I always head up its stairs to the second level, past the maps of the Middle East that I wish I could buy from them, and into its high ceilinged second floor.  Alcoves at either end are of normal height, but above the railings around a circular gap in the floor, the ceiling of the central area rises steeply up in a sort of eight-sided cupola.  Someone is always smoking on this floor (usually cigarettes, although you can order a hookah filled with a small block of tobacco when you order your food and drink) but the air is always breathable because this space above your head collects the smoke in layers.  There's Arabic calligraphy on the walls, strong Turkish coffee on the menu (of course they call it Arabic coffee there), and if I ever plot a revolution I want to do it there.

I suppose it's been too long since I read the Narnia series, because I have often stared up at that ceiling and how it slopes in at different angles, but I never thought about the empty space that this must create between the inner and outer skins of the building. This was one of those spaces I was stepping into, through that door.  Up the eight, high steps to their small, irregularly shaped space being used for storage.  It was too finished to be an attic or a crawl space - everything was sheetrocked and sealed, if not finished - and was packed with large stainless steel kitchen pieces, trays, boards, cardboard boxes, and such.  There was a gray, metal door directly opposite the stairs I had climbed.  It was locked, and probably leads to the narrow elevator shaft that the cafe has for some reason (perhaps so the disabled can plot revolutions too).

I inspected the things around me, looking for a souvenir of my little ascent.  I found a box with several small cups, of the sort that was lined with coffee grounds back on my table, waiting beside my books and hat and beginning to wonder what was taking me so long.  I decided not to take one of these cups, despite how good a souvenir one would have made;  Something else would be useful simply as a souvenir, but a cup I would also want to use, and I only drink this sort of coffee when I'm out.

I like finding mementoes to bring home from my "urban spelunking" and while some things make good souvenirs (a shot glass from a men's club where I spoke, the xeroxed floor plan of a condemned castle), others don't.  Beyond the principle of not taking anything valuable or that would be missed, I choose purely at a gut level, which I suppose is appropriate since a proper memento works on me the same way.  I just wait for something to present itself, and then wait a moment to see if any voices in my head veto the idea.  The voices vetoed the coffee cup, just as they vetoed taking a Nova Scotian flag from a good bar, and a Fredonian flag from that town's courtroom some years earlier.

Among all the pale white, gray, silver, and beige of the room, I noticed a patch of bright color.  I took the bright yellow paper napkin that had caught my eye, looked around a last time, and descended.  Eight steps back down, the door had no hardware in it to keep it shut (I wonder how recently it was removed.  Is it possible that it's been that way all along and I just never noticed before?), so as I opened the door from the men's room to the rest of the café, I heard the same noise that had begun my small excursion.

Back at my table I looked at my upturned cup.  The grounds Turkish coffee leaves at the bottom of the cup after it's bulk is dumped into the saucer always has an interesting pattern.  I had turned my cup over before getting up and the trail of this now solidified sludge was thickest where the overturned rim and the saucer met.  Its cross-section showed a smooth and dense skin covering a grainy and porous filling that connected it to and spaced it from the cup.  I stared at it for a while, and then up at the ceiling, figuring out where I had been and how it fit into the smooth and finished architecture I could see from this side.  It was close to midnight, so I paid my bill and went back to my bicycle.  A good night to remember.

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