Thursday, August 25, 2011

sounding notes in Philz

They're really just chords broken up with the sustain pedal pressed, nothing too complicated. But they ripple across the room like waves, enough to make at least a few of the screen-bound denizens look up, look around, first at the player, at each other (all too briefly) and then back at their screens. What is this, this...piano...doing, interrupting the flow of the cafe, where Arcade Fire has until now been laying down the sonic carpet for all the coffee drinkers here to write, read, watch, click and surf upon?

Good. The philzsters turn the radio up and the sounds run roughshod over each other, not just two different rhythms and tones, but two different places, two different callings upon the listener. This is not what we paid our $3 for, is it? Paid our dues up at the front and retreated to the back room here so that we could plug in, sip, and zoom in, pleasantly distracted from the need to remember that we also belong to other places? No doubt, the back room of Philz in Berkeley is the closest daily experience I know to the cyberspace of William Gibson's Neuromancer: plugged in, jacked up, tuned out.

What else is happening? The two girls next to me both have computer screens open, facing each other, coffee, water, notebooks, a napkin on the table. But both sit for the moment peering into smaller screens, cradling their phones with two hands, thumbs moving furiously as they text...text someone. First one sets her phone down, and then the other. A slight sigh from the girl on the other side as the one on this side scans Facebook. No judgment here--I'd probably be doing the same thing if I weren't writing this. But a text comes right back to the far phone, perched as they are, right next to the computer. She picks it up, scrolls, responds.

The next song on the playlist. The piano continues.

Then, laughter from the other side of the room. What, a few friends are talking at one of the tables over there? A woman rubs the back of a bald guy's head, looking amused. They keep talking. What are they talking about? Smiles amidst the arpeggiated chords, the clicking keys, the sound of a metal container being struck repeatedly from the coffee bar in front. The next in a slow stream of people heads to the bathroom. I stretch.

And then, just like that, the guy who had been playing the piano comes to a slow stop, turns slowly on the bench, and puts a book back into his bag. Stands up, looks around slightly, and makes his way across the room. Nobody says anything. I say nothing. I don't even look. What would Facebook girl think if I broke this silence that isn't, if I spoke across her table and said thank you to the guy?

He will never know. Not because he's all that far away now. But because I didn't, couldn't, can't look.