A couple weeks ago I was challenged to estimate my annual spend on coffee. It’s obscene. Triple digits. Easy. And when you’re a 33 year old student, that’s proportionally quite significant.
I find various ways to justify it. Mostly, I tell myself it’s OK because I use cafes as an office. I might be able to get a desk on campus, but honestly, why would I sit alone in a dark airless room when for the cost of coffee and a bit of food I can sit in a beautifully designed, well lit oasis. Also, waitstaff are better at hiding the anxiety and desperation that PhD students make a living out of laying bare to anyone who passes within a 5 metre radius.
About two years ago, my husband, 6 month old and I moved house. Still the same neck of the woods, but far enough away that we had to adopt a new café within put-the-baby-to-sleep-in-the-pram walking distance. It was El Joyero, then, but we watched Chrissie and Ollie, Joe, Rin, Jane and the rest of the team turn it into something beautiful. It became Lowlands a year or so ago.
Theirs was an awkward beauty. If you were a casual visitor, you might have mistaken introversion for standoffishness. God knows, there are sufficient places in Melbourne’s north where the staff look down their noses at those of us without tattoos, dark rimmed glasses and an intimate knowledge of Rwandan single origin. But with repeated custom we came to realise that the melancholic Lowlands was an act of courage; that hospitality shook its fist at introversion and dared it to put up a fight against building a little community. And serving really, really good coffee.
We didn’t know their names at first, but as our baby boy grew, we would cringe as he referred to the barista as ‘man’ or ‘that man’ and quickly came to learn the staff by name. We taught him that these people who made coffee for us were real people and they, in turn, welcomed him; accommodating the occasional temper tantrum, forgiving his slowness to learn the difference between an inside voice and an outside voice, delighting when he would point at them excitedly informing them of their own names.
We haven’t really had to explain death to Benjamin yet*, but the prospect of explaining the imminent closure of Lowlands feels like having to explain a death. Here are people that he’s loved and who have loved him who won’t be part of his daily experience anymore. I know that it was their job to serve us. Lowlands was a business, not a person. And yet…
It is not strange for people in other parts of the world to be friends in spite of – or even because of – a relationship in which they exchange money for goods and services. But it is in Australia. Check out my friend John’s PhD on tipping if you want some evidence. And as we talk to the staff at Lowlands about the fact they have to close because of the rising cost of rent, I don’t really know how to reach out across the barrier of exchange to provide comfort or love, or to give any other kind of gift than cash.
Yesterday, I spoke to Chrissie for the first time since the sign announcing their closure had been placed in the window.
She couldn’t take my money. The tears took over and she abandoned the cash register to Jane. We are not friends that she and I could cry together. I regret that there was no comfort I could offer. That all I had was my custom. That when this little oasis disappears as though it were a mirage we will no longer share the snippets of life and mothering that accompanied those other more economic exchanges.
I have loved Lowlands for much more than the coffee, or the food, or the hipster decorating – for more even than the functions it served as office, counsellors’ rooms, or performance entertainment for a small child. I have loved Lowlands because I always knew Chrissie had those tears within her.
*The exception being an ill-advised home screening of The Lion King. All I could remember were singing animals. Do not, I repeat, do not trust your own childhood memory; we all sat on the couch weeping as Ben held out his hands to the TV pleading “Daddy lion come back…!!”