Thursday, October 06, 2005

My Summer Vacation in Wisconsin, or, Crossing a Great Divide in my Mind

Sometimes a great divide can be something to be cherished, even if it's only in your head...

I came to Washington Island expecting an extension of the hustle and bustle⎯the highly concentrated chic and kitsch⎯that has infected the Door County Peninsula. But when I stepped off the ferry, I stepped into an endangered species in American tourist country: a genuine small town, where folks enjoy slow living and long coffee breaks.

Those coffee breaks happen at the Red Cup Coffee House, a genuine coffee house if I ever saw one. The building looks like an old-fashioned general store; a cheery hand-carved, hand-painted wooden sign beckons visitors. There’s a front porch for sipping lattes and watching small-town comings and goings. Inside, there’s a reading room with a cast-iron wood-burning stove in the corner.

To my jaded metropolitan eye, it looked more like a Hollywood set than an actual coffee shop. I recently moved from urban south Minneapolis to suburban south Maplewood, where we don’t have local coffee shops. I now have to drive across highway 494 to even-more-suburban Woodbury for the privilege of drinking Caribou or Starbucks coffee. If I’m lucky, I might a score a spot on the couch next to a faux fireplace (real fire might be too dangerous and warm, I reckon).

The baristas are mostly cheery at Starbucks and Caribou, though. Here at Red Cup, I happily find the owner to be a very non-scripted grump. When I ask him what time the shop opens, he replies, “7 a.m. I get here at 6 a.m., but don't you show up that early. I need some time to myself."

Over the course of my week on Washington Island, there are more grumpy encounters at the Red Cup. One time, the owner snapped at his teen-aged barista taking orders at the counter when she had trouble relaying the words "vanilla latte decaf." Later, he snapped at a couple of kids playing with the handles on an antique wooden dresser that serves as a cream and sugar station. "Your kids break that, you bought it, buddy," he informed the dad. "And I bet you can't afford it."

Back at the cottage, my wife and I had a grand time speculating about how the owner of such an idyllic coffee shop in a slow-paced town could be so tormented and grumpy.

On the drive back to the ferry to head home, I stop by Red Cup one last time. Sipping my coffee on the porch, the grumpy owner appears by my side and asks if I’d like a refill. When I say sure, he hustles off and returns promptly with a full cup. Then he remarks about what a beautiful day it is.

Maybe he’s in a better mood because it’s Sunday and there’s an exodus of tourists from the island. Or maybe he’s not so grumpy after all. Maybe my wife and I wrongly extrapolated from a few isolated events.

In a way, Red Cup was a set after all⎯a stage for the theater of the vacationing mind. If only there were such stories to be dreamed up after visiting the Starbucks in Woodbury.


Anonymous David said...

Naw, that is just Mike, he's a pussy cat. Well, that is if you don't take him to seriously, but that was the end of the summer season, so maybe???

I miss that place, I spent nearly 6 years up there, loved the place and the coffee shop is what it apears to be and more, a great place to hang out tell tales, and drink a pretty darn good cup of coffee.

6:15 PM  

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