The Express Lounge Café
Rain, wind, and wet masked faces mill around the corner of Mehringdamm and Bergmann Strasse. Leaves on the ground are already causing heels to slip. People take shorter steps in autumn, I’ve noticed that.
When you look along Mehringdamm, a part of the long road that cuts through Berlin, you’ll see that it caters to every need. There’s a bank on the corner which has been there for so many years it’s become a landmark that you don’t see anymore. Farther along the road you can see a Turkish street vendor selling Doner Kebabs with a choice of garlic sauce, curry sauce or shrimp sauce. It’s a good deal for good food. If you ask him for a special sauce he always seems to have it on hand, as if he knew that you were coming.
As you walk you’ll pass an E-Cigarette shop selling all types of “vape” devices for an apparently non-addictive replacement for smoking tobacco. They do great business, and there have already been a few millionaires made with this comparatively new product.
You keep walking, then pass a Lebanese restaurant, then a coffee shop with seats lined up outside. A type of window frame shop two doors along that has prints of paintings in the window. Those places are depressing. I don’t know why, they just are — maybe it’s the lighting that makes the prints look old and dark.
A new barber shop opened a few months ago. Twirly-whirly red and white candy cones in the window — just like in the old days — and leather barber chairs, with a strap hanging from the counter to sharpen the blades. All the bells and whistles a good barber shop must have.
Then there’s the Express Lounge Café. It’s right in among all the other shops and lock-ups. An inviting place, even in the autumn. Maybe it’s the broad and deep hanging awning that protects people from the rain that makes it attractive.
You can sit outside any time of the year and not get wet. Autumn is a windy season. Uncomfortable for most people. But to get out and breathe fresh air, hear the sound of grit roll against the rubber soles of your shoes, and to see other people’s faces, is a basic need. If you don’t have breakfast, you notice it after a while, if you don’t hear people’s voices and feel the wind of the street, you become stale inside.
Masks leave it all up to the eyes to do the talking when passing. “After you”, “Good morning!”, “Thank you!”, you never know if the voice was too muffled when you were trying to be polite. Hand gestures can easily be misinterpreted, so you don’t see strangers in the street waving their hands at each other.
Café Express Lounge is a meaningless name. Traders started to add the words years ago, “express”, “fast”, “double this and that”, they thought it would attract customers who were in a hurry. They were right. Everybody is in a hurry. Time for coffee and a cake, though.
Each day, at around 5 PM, an old man in a long coat passes the café. He has a tough time walking these days. He’s a tall man, wears a dark blue cap with a peak, and uses a thin stick to steady himself. When he leans into it, you’d think the stick should bend and bow under the pressure, but it never does. Each step is heavy and shaky.
People pass him, dodge him, cyclists ride at him, then they brake and carefully navigate past his frail figure. I imagine when he was fit and young, strong and fast, and he could double almost all of this and that, any time he wanted.
He has a smile for anyone who has the time to look at him and nod good evening. But the pain in his face, the grimace of a long life, causes people to look away and get on with their hurry-up-day. He has a friendly smile worth noting.
The café has exactly ten tables. All of them the same size, with the same amount of wooden chairs surrounding each one. The chairs have seen better days, but are solid and comfortable. The café next door has cheap plastic chairs, on the other side is a small restaurant with fake weave plastic chairs that dig into the spine and make you want to stand up every five minutes.
Café Express Lounge got it right, they stuck to the type of chair that any carpenter would be proud to build. Wooden slats and solid flat backs to rest your muscles.
People come and sit in these chairs for hours. Eat cake and drink coffee, while others drink beer and chat to friends. There are always people passing along the street. Some of them stop and stare at the tables, the doorway, they crane their necks to get a look into the café interior, then sit and wait for service, or just shuffle away. Service is quick. The waiters slip between tables like nimble ballet dancers dressed in white. Always wearing a mask, and carrying a silver tray with one hand. They avoid touching the customers in any way. A waiter can spin gently, then twist her body like an alley cat to ask a question of the customer behind, then go back inside with a head full of new orders to fulfil. Sleek service.
Customers sit content. They can watch the street, the old and the young, the cyclists who whizz by at high speed, the scooters that slalom, a person running for some unknown reason, watch the rain bucket down, or listen to the wind in the trees that line the streets, and stay dry.
There’s a concrete wall that encircles a grassy patch in front of the café. Within it there are bushes, and two trees that have been growing there for decades, so they are already big and broad. They need to be trimmed down to avoid the branches from growing too long and hanging into the three lane road.
Walk past the trees after 5 PM, and you hear birds singing. Sparrows gathered in the branches, chirping and greeting each other. If you look among the branches they seem to be chatting, edging up close to one bird, then twisting around to chirp at the small grey bird behind them. Sparrows are hardy animals and sociable with their own type. They just need to keep their eyes open for birds of prey — which do live within the city.
It’s not all calmness around the Café Express Lounge. Youth will bawl out loud, complaining of boredom, the evening closing in and people change from work-a-day rush to hitting-the-town mood.
I walk past the Café Express Lounge each day around 5 PM, the evening bird song, the shuffle of the old man’s shoes remind me of where I am. Darkness falls and the faces on the café terrace glow in the smartphone’s light.