Avoiding Ephemera

significance is in the eye of the beholder


The morning sun came out abruptly in the small California coast town. The city, like most cities in California, was undergoing aggressive growth and the ubiquitous sounds of earth movers and other large trucks were become the rule, rather than the exception. Each day, it seemed like another green patch of land was within some phase of a building project's grasp and slowly but surely the charm of the little coastal town was being overwhelmed with a combination of wealthy gentry with nothing but time on their hands and a desire to get away from their old life with no regard to what it did to the locals. Whatever their "old life" was defined by circumstance or self-assessed reflection, it must have been horrible as the folks continued to flow into a town completely unprepared to handle the flow.

The town used to lay out in an orderly grid with a minimal number of signs, traffic lights and parking lots. But within the last five years, every type of retailer had descended on the town with their storefronts. While the population quadrupled with snowbirds and bored pre-retirees determined to be in front of the next trend with the willingness to send housing prices into the ecumenical region. The streets, for many years, were simple, blissfully quaint and accommodating to both bicyclists and pedestrians, had now become terror zones thanks to the legions of cellphone-talking woman with newly short-hair and even shorter tempers maneuvering their huge vehicles from one useless stop to another. Large, gas guzzling urban assault transports circling the blocks seeking nationally known coffee shops and determination to find a convenient parking spot. If no spot became apparent, the women would be content to do another lap until one opened up or stop traffic as they sized up potential opportunities with one eye on a slowing pedestrian and the other eye seeking out reverse tail lights. These women were not poor drivers by any genetic quirk but their desire to triple task made the citizens cautious and curious at the same time.

A black Range Rover had been eying a potential slot right outside of her now-favorite coffee shop. It was technically was a local restaurant but when in the outback, one had to make do with the resources around one. She had expertly spotted a pedestrian slowly moving towards her own large gas guzzler. Instead of taking the risk of another lap; she slammed on her breaks and waited for the pedestrian to show her true colors while remaining  oblivious to any traffic which was backing up behind her. The driver was taking a risk; the pedestrian might not own the vehicle or was just planning a package drop-off but her instincts were right. The other short-haired woman finished her cell phone call, secured her packages in the back of her vehicle and opened up her doors. The hunter was now almost ready to become the hunted. The driver had to briefly terminate her phone call and did with the promise of calling her friend back as soon as possible. She had been waiting only five minutes for the spot to open and was only slightly disrupting, in her opinion, the traffic around her. Her similar actions over the last few years made her oblivious to other driver's stares and frustrated honks: she was ready to take over the spot. The leaving driver stepped up into her vehicle, carefully placed her coffee cup in one of the dozen cup holders, did a quick make-up check and dialed someone on her phone. After making connection, she turned on her signal indicator and left the space.

It was a great space: officially one and a half car lengths but the SUV of today is much longer and wider than a standard automobile so the new citizens of the city would just take up more spots. The black Range Rover slid next to the spaces and the driver expertly parallel parked. The little town never had parking meters so she felt that she was safe and secure with her location and it was now time to call her friend and grab a new coffee cup because the one she had been drinking had lost enough ambient heat to be declared "not hot enough" and lacking in the essential newness which makes a truly great cup of coffee.

The slowly growing frantic bustle was a new item for the town. It had always been somewhat progressive but the dramatic influx of these aggressive consumers had tipped the vibe slightly into the red zone within six months of California Monthly magazine's recent declaration of the city as "the best kept real estate secret of the year." Within a week of its publication, the town was overrun with large sport utility vehicles and high-end sports cars. Driven by amped-up women seeking tranquility in their current non-tranquil world: the new gentry began to invade real estate agencies as well as knocking on doors offering immediate cash payments for their homeowners to sell to them at the same rate. At first, this new group was easy to spot: fast-driving, wide-eyed and pushy but as the weeks continued, their presence was less and less noticeable as the town's pulse rate ascended to meet theirs. The magazine had stolen the idea from teen and fashion mags to declare "the ten best of..." lists and "things you need to know NOW..." lists. These headlines were recycled each month with the reading public none the wiser because they learned something the Tiger Beat editors had known since Bobby Sherman: add an exclamation point and the word "now" and the rags fly off the shelf. The names, locations and seasons change but the urge to be in the know, even for a thirty-day news cycle would carry the day.

Nate Bowden was sitting in the local cafe watching the new activity from the large window which overlooked the main intersection. For the first time in his memory, he saw pedestrians pay attention to the traffic flow because the drivers were acting completely different than their historical, polite behavior of allowing rights of way. The town had no stoplights, as there was no need from them, until recently. The city fathers had been discussing the need to place at least three lights on main street due to their legitimate concern of an eventual accident. The town had a full-time sheriff with a few volunteers thrown in for a miscellaneous festival to help with traffic but for the most part, the law enforcement presence was best described as subtle. As Nate watched, another large SUV import whizzed by, narrowly missing the two children who were walking hand in hand within their full rights across the street. The driver, another pointy-looking suburbanite, was on her cellphone headset with something else in her hand. The husband was in the passenger seat with his head down, reading or viewing something small. Together, the driving duo were locked into their own affairs with no regard to the people around them. That is when Nate decided it was time to act.

Nate walked over to the Mayor's office to see if she was in. Betty Noonan was the mayor for the last five years and to all accounts, did a nice job with her limited resources and even more limited duties. She wasn't in, as the door was locked and being a one-person mayor's office, it was safe to assume she was not in. Nate taped a note to the door and requested the mayor give him a call or visit him when convenient.

Later than evening, as Nate sat down for supper, the phone rang. It was Betty.

"Nate? This is Betty. What can I do for you?"

"I have an idea, Betty."

"About what?"

"About all this new, crazy blood in town. I have been watching rich folks barely missing our children in crosswalks, huge vehicles parked anywhere they wish and people knocking on my door almost demanding I sell my house to them."

"What is your idea?"

"I want to open the world's most expensive coffee shop in the old R&S building. It is vacant and since the city owns the paper on it, I want to start it up for nothing and drive out these crazies."

"It will have to be pretty expensive coffee."

"It will be and also, you will need to make sure no new retailers come in during this time. I want them to either drink the diner's coffee, bring their own cups or drink mine."

"Well, I haven't heard any other ideas."

"I will give all the profits, and there will be profits, to the city."

"Sure, I can make that happen. The Starbucks folks have made some calls but I have no problem with losing their applications for at least six months."

Nate was semi-retired and wasn't in need of a lot of money. He had invested well and have no real overhead so this hobby was a nice diversion to his day. He was a lifelong resident of the city and felt violated with this aggressive attack instigated by people who had decided they had grown bored with laying waste in their own towns and began to look for a new place to take over. This whole thing would eventually pass, as things do, but he didn't have the energy for a five year arc of high demand, low supply, increased confusion, ongoing anguish and eventual restoration.

The next morning, Nate stopped off at the mayor's office and picked up the keys to the R&S building that made up the southwestern quadrant of the main street intersection. It had several large windows facing the streets and Nate figured it was about three months away of being discovered by someone to rezone into high-ceiling lofts for the rich. The brick facade was subtle and had a tendency to blend in to the background; easily ignored by the fast driving early advance teams but would stick out like a sore thumb to some yuppie with a series seven.

On the way home, Nate dropped in on his friend and old boss who owned the diner. He walked up onto the porch and knocked on the screen door. The door wasn't locked nor was in flush in the door jam, so the knock was a combination of rattle of a loose door punctuated with a few legitimate raps on weathered wood. There was no response so Nate shouted a hello and waited for a response. He heard it coming from around back so he went back down the steps and wandered around back and found his old boss sitting in a old lawn chair, just finishing a beer. Next to him was a cooler and once he saw it was Nate, he smiled and pulled out two fresh longnecks.

"Hey, Nate. How is everything? How is life treating you?"

Not too bad, Gary. Except I am getting tired of all this traffic, the cellphones and the chaos."

"I understand. My business is off twenty percent due to the new folks. No one wants to come in and fight the hassles. And when then I have to spend all day negotiating with these people who are looking for special deals, special side substitutions, dietary restrictions and a constant dialogue of what is wrong with my food."

"Ouch."

"No kidding. So, what can I do you for?"

"I will be opening the world's most expensive coffee shop at the R&S Building. I will be selling your coffee at ten dollars a cup."

"Really, ten dollars a cup?"

"Maybe fifteen."

"Yes, really."

"We are going to take their money and come up with some great ideas to get them out of our town."

"Want another beer?"

"Sure...sounds like another good idea."

The next morning, Nate showed up at the building to place the banner "The World's Most Exclusive Coffee Opening Soon." He made sure the sign was big enough for the fast-driving vehicles to see as they glanced around momentarily between cell phone calls. The next stop was the diner: he wanted to contract with the owner to purchase coffee directly from him. The R&S Building and the diner shared an alley; one could easily walk between them without being seen and the access would allow Nate to not have to buy any equipment.

Nate walked into the diner and formally waved the owner over to the end stool. "I have a business proposition for you," said Nate. "I hope you will be able to help me."

"I think I heard this before."

"I have filled in the blanks. We will fill the building with funky old furniture, mismatched china cups, no retail sales, cash only, no branding, no paper cups that can be taken out, no nothing. We will have an urn or two of your coffee in the back of the diner that will be used for all customers. We might make one decaf, one a bit stronger than another and sell them for fifteen dollars a cup. I am undecided about refills, I am leaning towards allowing one or two and I will pay you for each cup, in cash, at the end of the day. We will bank the cash and use it for our war chest."

"You are completely and totally nuts."

"You flatter me but that is not the time for praise."

Gary smiled and waved his hands inward, asking for more. "You'll need a team including the paper, the police and a few friends to keep the plan on track."

"I agree. Please pass the news to our friends, I have a coffee shop to run."

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