Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born in Bogotá, Colombia. I lived in South Carolina for almost a decade. I earned a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of South Carolina (the original USC) before moving to Clinton, where I worked for a year. I currently live in Bogotá, but I intend to visit my friends in Columbia as soon as I am able. I still prefer not to travel North of Virginia, unless it is absolutely necessary.
Open All Night
…the flies walk up and down the windows and we drink our coffee and pretend not to look at each other. I wait with them. Charles Bukowski, “luck”
It was December of 2016. Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States (another political victory made possible by the archaic and obsolete system known as the electoral college). For me, it was the end of another sleepless night. I took a shower at four in the morning; I played the guitar for fifteen minutes before leaving my apartment. Somewhere, far away, a dog was barking. I looked upwards; sunrise was not coming, at least not for a while. It was winter, and thick gray clouds covered the sky. I yawned like an old animal, felt the leather gloves warming up the tips of my fingers, rubbed my hands against each other and put them inside my pockets. I started walking uphill, towards the neighborhood where all the coffee shops and restaurants are. The first amateur athletes of the day were out already, jogging; they wore tight sweaters and childish shorts. They don’t like me, I’m sure; I don’t think I like them either. We jut stand for different things, I guess.
The morning was cold and humid, I was not in a good mood. There were chunks of dirty snow melting on the pavement; I was wearing my grandpa’s old military boots, my thick gray hoodie and my black leather jacket. A very cold wind was blowing southwards; perhaps it was on its way to my hometown, in the Andes mountains. I closed my eyes for a second, I was exhausted, I shook my head once or twice and kept walking. Downtown, all the restaurants were closed. I really wanted to get myself a beer or a decent breakfast, I really had no preference.
Suddenly, I stumbled upon a little coffee shop with a green sign hanging on the door: OPEN ALL NIGHT. I checked the place out through the dusty window. It was old and dirty, and there was a tall man (also old and dirty) looking at me from the other side of the cold glass. I noticed that he had a plate in front of him, he was eating a fried egg, toast with jelly and three or four strips of greasy bacon. The man was wearing old military boots and a greenish jacket that, years ago, might have been brown. I remember that he had a long grey beard. I nodded and he smiled at me, his beard all covered in breadcrumbs.
I walked in. I ordered a regular breakfast: orange juice, coffee, bacon, and eggs. An old waitress brought me my coffee. On her face I saw the fakest smile I’ve ever seen; it divided her tired face in two asymmetrical parts. She was trying to be nice, though, and I tried to be nice too. She walked back to the kitchen and I unzipped my jacket, then I noticed that the hoodie I was wearing had a new ink stain. “Mierda,” I whispered. I rubbed my eyes and kept drinking my coffee. The coffee, by the way, was terrible, but the eggs and the bacon tasted like glory. Suddenly, a pale woman entered the place dragging a couple of enormous plastic bags behind her; she was wearing a grey beanie that covered most of her forehead. “Good morning,” she said. She said it loudly, so that we all could hear her. I smiled and nodded, quietly. The waitress looked at her with a subtle annoyance and a bit of distrust; she finally answered with a hypocritical “Hi there, sweetie… Coffee?” The old man kept looking at the pale lady, she was still standing by the door. Perhaps she noticed the man, but she didn’t want to make eye contact with him, and so she just looked somewhere else. She struggled to take her hands out of her thick fingerless gloves. She looked at the waitress in the eye, calmly. Then she finally answered: “Coffee sounds good.” The woman walked to a table and sat near a black man who was having breakfast while reading The State. The place became really quiet all of a sudden. The black man was sliding his hand slowly across his bald head, while he passed the pages calmly with his other hand. He was somehow chubby, and he had a thick mustache. He was wearing a skinny blue tie that broke his figure in two perfectly symmetrical halves. Sometimes, his tortoiseshell glasses would slide down his nose, and he would place them back on the right position with a swift movement of his left hand. I noticed that his fingernails were awful short (like my grandpa’s). I looked at my own hands and noticed that I needed to clip my nails. It took me a few minutes to notice that everyone seemed to be trying really hard not to look at each other. The old man cleared his throat, which was well hidden somewhere under that fluffy beard of his, and the lady with the beanie lifted her head and looked straight at him (his wet blue eyes gave him the surreal aura of a wise wizard). I think he was struggling to say something. I’m sure he was going to say something; but he just smiled and looked out the window, and we all kept drinking our cheap coffee and eating our greasy bacon under the quiet morning light. I could not hear the birds singing any more.
There was something terribly depressing about that place. That silence, those dirty and sticky tables, that lazy sun that was partially hidden behind a thick crust of gray clouds. The silent sunlight gently glimmered on the cold window, while its subtle heat slowly melted the dirty chunks of snow outside. I finished eating my breakfast and I reached for my notebook. I began to read a few poems that I had written a couple of weeks ago. A lonely fly was flying around the place. She would fly for a while and then land on top of the plastic mustard bottle. Sometimes she would fly from there to the ketchup bottle and from there to one of the lady’s plastic bags, which were resting on the floor like two dead animals. Suddenly, I noticed that the yellow color of the mustard bottle was much more intense than the dull light that emanated from the sun. The color was so bright and intense that I was afraid it would give me a headache; it was like a loud and vibrant sound, like the kind of thing that finds a way into your brain and hurts your eyes, filling them with hot blood or liquid light.
I was tying my shoelaces and trying to decide whether I wanted to order a second cup of coffee. The idea was not very appealing, though: the coffee was pretty bad, and the people there looked like hurt souls; they all shared a strange aura of sadness and failure, in their eyes, I could see a glimpse of the loneliness and frustration that inhabited their tired hearts. There was not one inch of hope in that whole damn place. “Well,” I thought, “perhaps hope is the first thing we have to let go of if we want to be happy.” And yet, no one in the coffee shop looked particularly happy. I had definitively never encountered a similar group of people before. I gestured for a minute or so and finally got the waitress’s attention. When I was going to ask for the check my stupid tongue decided to work on its own and I ended up ordering another cup of coffee. How could my own voice betray me in such a crucial moment? How was that even possible? I had the feeling that there was something necessary, perhaps unavoidable, about the whole business. I was almost scared. I felt the weight of destiny resting on my shoulders.
I drank that second cup of coffee as fast as I could, I paid for my food and left a decent tip on the table (maybe I just thought that the old and tired waitress deserved it after smiling so hard for such a long period of time). I covered my head with my sweater’s hood and zipped my jacket up. The zipper went all the way up and I could almost feel it closing around my neck. “I’m never coming back here,” I thought while I wandered the streets erratically with no particular place to go. Then, I just had to smile, as I acknowledged what I already knew from the very beginning: “Who am I kidding? I’ll end up having breakfast there every day.”
A young man was jogging towards me, he was wearing a green shiny sweater, black shorts, and one of those infamous MAGA hats. He looked at me. There was anger and distrust in his eyes. Somehow, he seemed to be telling me: “You are not one of us, you are a loser, you are garbage, go away.” Well, why should I? I clenched my teeth and mumbled, “Idiota.” I kept walking and, all of a sudden, all the streetlights turned off automatically; they all went out at the exact same time. It was an impressive sight.
The streets were almost deserted, the wind was blowing hard. I said to myself that the bacon was not that bad anyway, and that, in a strange way, I was one of them already. We had been betrayed by the system, by our own neighbors. Or maybe we had lost our way. Or, perhaps, the whole world was going insane, and we were just collateral damage. From that moment on, I decided that every minute I spent there, having breakfast or lunch or dinner, there would be one less empty chair in the damn place. Perhaps, I had found some sort of strange community, a fellowship of perfect strangers. This idea was a happy one, and it made me smile. I could feel the snow slowly melting on the sidewalk; I kept walking, I was taking my time, I had all the time in the world. I was going nowhere, like most people are, but at least I knew it. It was a beautiful morning, and I was in a very good mood.