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Published:December 17th, 2006 03:48 EST
Welcome to the Rain Dog Cafe

Welcome to the Rain Dog Cafe


There`s a little coffee shop right off of Michigan Ave., next to an auditorium and across the street from Buckingham Fountain. The café offers a customer more than a shot of espresso in almost any manner a person may prefer, but also an escape from everyday life. Dimly lit, there are either live jazz musicians or music coming through the stereo, presenting a welcoming atmosphere to anyone. Books are lined up on assorted shelves of theater, poetry, and music. All the photos above the bookcase are of people of color, grinning and holding some instrument " jazz musicians, they must be. The wooden chairs here are sturdy enough to hold up any questions one may need answered. The coffee here sits, comforting, in your hands, asking to be sipped. The city of Chicago has been left outside; welcome to the Rain Dog Café. Everyone in here has a question, and by coming here, they try to answer it. It is something about the coffee shop that provokes those of us vexed with some taxation to come, sit, and find the answer. The woman by the bookcase asks herself if she should venture to read the philosophy book in her hand. Two laptops contently hum while their owners sit in their glow with similar perplexed expressions. A woman crouches almost inappropriately at a glass case filled with sweets and bites her lip, fingering her wallet. A lone, middle-aged man sits next to an unopened briefcase while watching people sift by outside. Everyone is lost in something, and we all sip our coffee. We have come here for solace, peace of mind, perhaps unknowingly seeking a pause button in our lives.

As people mill between her, a solo woman sits at a table, the centerpiece of the windows. Soon, she is the only one for two rows of tables, comfortably solitaire with a book and some coffee. She carelessly lets her hair droop over her face as she tucks her chin into her chest and reads. When something intrigues her, she raises her eyebrows; other times, she purses her lips thoughtfully. The sound of a heavy instrument placed on the wood flooring cracks like a whip in the café and startles the attention of other loungers. The lone reader, however, seems to have taken no notice; she only seems to settle further back into her chair and into her book. One leg is propped up casually on a chair. She sips her coffee.

A man and woman tumble in together, and they settle between the reading woman and me. It feels as if I am part of a game of human Tic-Tac-Toe. The man at first wants nothing from the café. But, he wonders aloud, maybe just a black? Finally, he settles for the large café mocha, and sits back as he lets his compatriot get their drinks. As she returns, it is evident from his nervous napkin tapping that he is under some professional scrutiny, perhaps an interview of sorts. At first it seems they are the only ones talking. However, faintly but distinctly, I can hear a little woman with a cane beside me starting to sing. Quietly out of pitch and out of her range, she sings to herself the words of the song playing. Melodically she repeats the line you`ll never walk alone, " until the song dies out, and she returns to sipping her coffee.

One can see through the windows a traditional diner across the way, filled with people gaily talking and laughing in quaint black and white stripped booths. From the unruffled atmosphere of the café, one can watch the hustle and bustle of the waiters, detached from the clang and clatter of their dishes and the loud jabbering of their customers. The windows act as more than pieces of transparency, but also as the screen to a movie. The sounds of the street are so muffled that the scene could be that of an old silent film. At night, small ornaments of lights reflect onto the glass panes, giving the bare branches of a tree the impression of a strung and decorated Christmas tree. Staring out into the brightly dancing lights of the streets, it feels like the opening of a cozy Christmas movie. As if afraid it would lose its brilliance, I can never take my eyes off this picture as I snuggle deeper into my hot cup of coffee.

From the vantage point of the café, we watch outsiders as if caught in a still spot in the center of a crowd. Reality, a seemingly distant memory for the time being, mills around us, and the passing pedestrians are only reminders of what waits for us. People, all with some purpose, some place to go and perhaps with someone waiting for them, never stop coming and going. As we sit calmly captured in the eye of storm, we find ourselves wondering where we must fit in. The question begs itself, and we all sip our coffee.

Of course, there is the rare few who cannot seem to catch the stillness as we have. Restlessly, they run in and out as soon as they get their coffee. The people of the café try to catch these passer-by-ers with their watchful gaze, imploring them to come, sit. Perhaps, however, these people have not yet found a way to break apart from the whirlwinds. There`s a woman standing at the counter, beautiful, whose hair in the lighting glistens like fresh snow. Shocking the shop out of our thoughtful stupors, she hastily throws a glance over the café and leaves us as soon as possible. As if a visual representation of the outside world, her beauty reminds us of who we are, who we are not, and who we try to be. Out of place, like a rare flower in the woods, she represents an idea of beauty that is almost forgotten here. The uncluttered happiness one derives from contently sitting in a café with but a cup of coffee to accompany needs no such thing as beauty. Beauty is materialistic, a cause for self-pity and envy, and such emotions have been pressed away with the coffee grounds. Despite the minor disturbance of the beautiful woman, we merely sip our coffee.

If one sits in one of the middle tables, placing them self just so the streets of Chicago are behind them, it is possible to forget everything that is outside waiting. While the world is working as steadfast and reliant as a carefully wound clock, one can sit just outside the concept of time for a bit. Like a coat that`s been checked at the door, we have all hung our lives up upon entering. We may sit and ponder some greater meaning, or studiously review our work, or talk to our dates about how we hardly see our families anymore. We could do this just about anywhere, but here, it feels different. We are no longer buried by the things that have plagued us, but rather allow ourselves to get lost in the aroma of our coffee, the soft music, and rich tones of the wood. What has plagued us outside melts away with the cold.

When it is finally time to make the transition from the cozy café to the sidewalk, the gassy sounds of a stopping bus and clicking of heels surround a person like a sortie. Having stepped out from the safe cocoon of the Rain Dog Café, my feet liven at the pace of the crowds as I work to catch up. Bombarded by the intoxicating go-go-go attitude of the city, I am already starting to leave behind my peaceful thoughts. The coffee sloshes around inside of me, and begins to give way to the cold, and I shiver, and pull myself into the folds of my clothes. As if the avenue`s liveliness were a reminder, my mind rapidly turns to thoughts of business and duty. I have stepped back into reality. For only a moment I was caught, hanging just on the outskirts of my everyday life. But it was in that brief moment that the coffee mug was a little warmer, its contents a little more ambrosial, and I felt just a little more real. It was a moment in which I allowed myself to sip, not drink, my coffee.

As if the Windy City has turned our dispositions into icy cold troubles, we seek the café`s warmth in order to melt them away. We know that the shop will soon close, or our lives will call, and we must eventually accept the chill that eagerly bites one`s face in greeting at the first step out the door. We have all entered the café knowing that this is all some strange, wonderful sort of dreamy wakefulness, and reality is a consequence we must return to. However, for now, we all sit, watching the window, asking ourselves questions we may never figure out, and we all sip our coffee.