For ten weeks last spring, I drove my daughter Madeline down to Elmer, New Jersey, for Saturday morning art classes. I was irritated that my day of rest had been hijacked. So while Madeline drew at Appel Farm, I cruised around “the Small Town with the Big Welcome” to find a warm place to wait, and maybe grade a few essays. After all, what else was there to do in Elmer? The cultural distance between Elmer and my home in Mullica Hill seemed more like a three-day road trip than a bullet shot, twenty minutes south. Surrounded by defrosting soy and spinach fields, Elmer, at first, reminded me of a hamlet in Iowa that was forty funerals away from a ghost town.
In the middle of town, a derelict grain elevator rose defiantly in rusted sandstone. Nearby, a police car idled in a church lot with “no tolerance for speeders” signs posted along Main Street and Broadway. At noon the bank closed. Old homes maintained a dignified grace while awaiting repair. Signs at three closed car dealerships directed buyers to visit the showrooms in Vineland. Of course I’d already heard that St. Anne’s was vanishing into the larger parish in Mullica Hill. Even the small Elmer library was closed. Then I found an open coffee shop on Main Street, no bigger than a Victorian bedroom. As soon as I entered, a girl with wavy, shoulder-length brown hair said, “Good morning, honey,” her voice as warm as buttermilk. It was that ‘honey,’ I imagined, that made their coffee sweeter than Wawa’s.
Odd, though, that she called me honey since I was twice her age.
In front of the counter stood a stout, shaggy-haired middle-aged man, clothed in a heavy brown jacket, jeans, and steel-toed boots cracked with yesterday’s mud. He leaned over the counter, holding his cup of Green Mountain coffee, engaged in a lopsided flirtation.
On the left of the rusty-hinged door, in a set up resembling a pipe organ, twelve coffee blends in thin, black urns welcomed the weary. I pumped my own hazelnut-decaf, added a dash of flavored creamer, and muttered a brief hello. The picked-over bagels and blueberry muffins didn’t tantalize me. In beautiful script, a board in pastel chalks advertised a decadent drink menu, but I rarely drink my calories. I picked up a Coffee Club customer card, and was embarrassed when I didn’t have cash; they didn’t take credit or debit. Smiling, the girl told me not to worry and stamped my card. “You can pay when you come back,” she said, writing my name on a tablet. I didn’t know the honor system still worked in Jersey.
I sat at the lone wood table by the bay window, the window half-bathed in the early spring sun. A corner curio shelf displayed teapots for sale and Keurig single-serving coffees. On the wall, watercolor prints of Victorian houses hung in oak frames. I checked the time on a white enamel clock with pink roses; it was stuck at five after ten. Finding excuses not to grade essays from my high school English classes, I even checked out the local paper. But I couldn’t concentrate because, soon, the counter guy’s entire family descended – like those flocks of white birds I’d seen here in the half-frozen fields. His wife, who looked 20 years older than her husband, wore gray sweatpants. There were three daughters, the oldest probably a sophomore in high school, and a lanky, pre-teen son, who sat in the chair opposite me, silent, head down, bangs covering his eyes.
It took five minutes for everyone to order. The eldest grabbed a YooHoo. The middle girl ordered a Smoothie. The young girl asked for hot chocolate with whipped cream. But the boy just shrugged. “Why is your son so shy?” the counter girl asked.
“He thinks you’re so good-looking, he doesn’t know what to say,” the father said.
She chuckled, and I looked over my essays to register the poor kid’s reaction, but he just murmured, “I guess I’ll have a hot chocolate too.” I wanted to paraphrase Philip Larkin, that parents really ‘mess you up,’ but I was raised in the ‘mind your own business’ suburbs, so I just stuck to my business of grading student papers.
After ten minutes, the gang left, and led their mother up Main Street. The father followed a few minutes later. Why didn’t he come and go with his family? Did it have anything to do with the twenty-year old girl? Could it be he was just being neighborly? Even though the wife complained about money, the outing must have been a ritualized Saturday morning scene. The order was almost twenty dollars. A six pack of Swiss Miss brewed at home would have cost $1.49 from the local Super Value. But the outing wasn’t about hot chocolate.
The girl shook her head, wiped the counter, and told me, “It’s nice to have quiet.” I nodded and smiled, even though I didn’t agree. I enjoyed the dialogue.
Soon, an older woman entered. She was a head taller than the counter with talcum white hair covered with a yellow floral scarf. “Busy today, Jesse?”
“Earlier it was very busy,” Jesse replied.
“Nice day, innit?” she observed, unraveling her scarf. “Before you know it, the crocus will be out.”
Then the mayor entered through the creaky door. It was still five minutes after ten o’clock. He was tall and stocky and full of warmth. The door slammed behind him.
“How have you been?” the mayor asked the lady.
“A little under the weather… Jo’s got sick for a couple of days…” She looked under the counter and complained rhetorically, “No poppy seed bagels left?”
The mayor volunteered as a Scout leader, I overheard. There were 2,000 packages of food donations coming in at the Presbyterian Church. Just then, a fire truck wailed down Main Street. They all went outside to chart the route of the truck. In this town, every fire was personal.
Once back inside, the scarf lady approached me, holding her cup with both hands for warmth. On my right was a half-completed community puzzle on a rickety, green folding table – a picture of Frank Lloyd Wright’s pencils. I know that because the box was upside down. The lady glanced at me, half-grinned, and said, picking up a loose piece, “Oh, this one looks hard.” She examined the puzzle the way I had been examining the pieces of Elmer.
The price of my coffee was rent for the sunny table by my window to listen to small town America – to enjoy the gossip, banter, chitchat. During that Saturday, I heard an elderly man with a green hat confab as he collected unused copies of the Elmer Times; I heard the milk delivery guy, the reverend of the First Presbyterian Church, Peggy the School Teacher, the guy who sold farm equipment, and the advancing of armies of the aged with news of grandchildren, snow, medical conditions, future vacations; I heard the auto salvage guys in blue overalls gibe while leaving their huge flatbed running outside. As I was about to leave, Jesse asked me: “So what brings you to Elmer?”
“My daughter Madeline takes art lessons at Appel Farm,” I told her. “So I take an hour for myself and do some writing. But mostly I grade essays.”
Like any writer, I wanted her to ask me about my writing, but she didn’t and said simply that was great. “Nothing to write about down here,” she added. When she found out I was an English teacher, she said that was her worst subject.
Over ten Saturday mornings, I compiled fragments of Jesse’s story: she liked hunting for used car parts in junkyards with her mechanic boyfriend. Lately she was looking for a muffler for an old Mustang. She was in her first year at community college, but she wanted to transfer to Rowan for education. She also worked as a waitress in Vineland at Lone Star. Her red prom dress cost hundreds of dollars… the exact figure I recall stunned me. While on her cell phone, I overheard her tell her friend: “There ain’t nothing to do down here. I can’t wait to get the hell out of Elmer! No one who’s anyone stays around here.”
I wanted to tell her, “You can’t vanish, too. Don’t you know what you mean to these people?”
Leaving the café to pick up Madeline at Appel Farm, minding the speed traps, I realized I was looking forward to next Saturday morning. I’m naturally shy, but when I have a stage, I’m full of thud and thunder, and perhaps this café, over time, could have been another platform. And it would be sad to witness another venue vanish for those who wish not to be impersonalized in the void of the suburbs. If Elmer keeps losing three percent of its population, over time, it will vanish. With my ego, maybe I’d be happier in Elmer where everyone knew me. In Mullica Hill, I’m not sure my neighbors know my name. I’m just as much to blame. I’ve lived with wide borders and invisible fences, and without Jesse the Counter Girl. Perhaps I’m not civilized after all.
So many of us have lost the art of the chat. In my part of Jersey, coffee addicts whiz in and out of convenience stores, checking the time on Blackberries. We even scan our own groceries. But it wouldn’t be morning in Elmer without coffee and neighborly parlance with the charming, country counter girl. It wouldn’t be morning in America either.