A coffeehouse journal is something like Wim Wenders' 1988 movie Wings of Desire (three and a half stars, says Leonard Maltin) in which Eurotrash angels with fashionable haircuts and Gucci overcoats hang around Berlin statuary, eavesdropping, spying and mind reading. They're desperate, these angels, eager to feel vicariously the quickening of their hearts, the first flush of panic, that sinking feeling you and I get when we find ourselves in the Slough of Despond. They want to feel something, anything because, though they're immortal, they're also heartless, cold, immovable. They're natural-born stoics. One of the angels expresses the general angelic opinion when he says he is tired of hovering: "I want to feel a weight within me."
The angels envy us! And Wenders wants to know: Would you trade your up-and-down mortal life for an affect-free Prozac life that never ends? Hell, no, says Peter Falk, as an angel who trades everlasting life among the dull celestial host for a gig as American television star Peter Falk.
A coffeehouse journal is like that. Consider the Costa Mesa Gypsy Den's Year 2000 journal, a food- and drink-spattered diary of graffiti, doodling, art, despair, philosophy, pop psychology, Hallmark-card sentiments, poetry and love notes. Reading it, you learn what you might if you could download random e-mails, bug cell phones, or (provided you speak German) stalk Berlin, leaning over the shoulders of people who can't see you.
The journal wasn't supposed to be a journal. In early May, when the book was new, someone from the Gypsy Den wrote "Names & Addresses, Please" on the inside front cover and left it on a coffee table. Seven people wrote their names and addresses (including Eric Damboise of Old Town, Maine), before the eighth decided the address book ought to be a journal.
"Dear Die-ary," "Alejandro" writes in rococo swirls. "Hey, I'm bored," he begins, before telling us that he ditched school that morning, came to the Den, bought coffee and spilled it. And now we're bored, too—see how coffeehouse journals can bring us together?
But then Alejandro has a Wings of Desire moment. "You know, I feel really bad about the girl, the li'l tiny girl that got run-eded over by that train yesterday morning . . . a life taken away just like that as if she was nothing God loved," he writes.
The girl was probably Elizabeth Tepox, a 12-year-old Santa Ana kid who died May 24 when a 450-ton Metrolink train hit her while doing around 75 mph. According to Times reporters, about 200 people showed up at the accident scene, including the girl's father. He cried when he told the reporter his daughter "wanted a horse. She was saving the money we gave her to buy a horse."
What really bothers Alejandro is how much his life is like Elizabeth's. "I don't enjoy that feeling of being stepped on, being used, being nothing," he writes. "It's all over, just like the little girl."
What's all over? His life? His meditation on death and God? What does Alejandro understand about that fraction of a fraction of a second when you know you haven't made it across the train tracks? He doesn't say. He wraps up his entry with an apology if he has bored "Mrs. Gypsy Den"—as if she's a spirit, a muse, a lesser god.
Several entries treat the coffeehouse as if it really is governed by a Romany seer. They appeal to "the gypsy" in entries that begin like the Our Father. "Dear Gypsy," Veronica writes on May 26. "This is my first . . . time here. The first time that I seat [sic] down to enjoy it." But Veronica's companion "is not so lucky. He is in very much pain, so Gypsy, if you have any magic, I ask you to work on him tonight. I make this wish tonight for my dear friend to heal his heart and move on in life." The prose style suggests she's English-as-a-second-language, but her prayer—that the gypsy will help this guy "leave the past"—is strictly New Age American. She wishes the gypsy would let her friend see "the beautiful things in life that are right beside him," and you can't help wondering if one of those things is Veronica herself.
Most of the love letters are written directly to someone who's pretty clearly someplace else. "Tracy Anne" loves "Dave" "very much because you take care of me, you listen to me, because you're intelligent and loving because you love my Daughter I know the years are difficult but as long as we stand together I know we can work things out" and on and on, her handwriting sprawling larger across the page, no hesitating punctuation, just a breathless rush to the inevitable greeting-card conclusion: "I am looking forward to the rest of my life with you, love always."
In the margin, someone has written, "LOSER."
Tracy Anne's letter and the anonymous response establish the two poles of journal discourse—of self-disclosure and shut the hell up. Most of these entries are odd like that, open letters of love or remorse with no obvious expectation of a response and certainly no expectation of the occasional, mean-spirited putdown they receive. (When "Auntie" writes "Darling Girl" that "God will give you all the desires of your heart," some wise guy with a pencil scratches a pentagram over her note and, in case we mistake his jackhammer-subtle meaning, includes three backward 6s and the postscript: "HE will give you what you want.")
So what's the point? What's the point of "Mommy" telling some otherwise-unidentified "Gabrielle" that "God has blessed you with so much talent—use it wisely"? Or "Neva" telling "Ryan," "You are so beautiful. Your spirit fills me with all that I have ever wanted. Your touch sends my consciousness sky-high"? As if Mommy and Neva and the others really expect Gabrielle and Ryan and the others to visit the Gypsy Den, order a mocha, pick up the journal, flip through pages of notes to other people, and settle on these shot-in-the-dark missives aimed at them. These are industrial-age castaways writing messages in bottles intended not for just any rescuer in any passing ship, but for one in a million. What are the odds?
The Gypsy Den journal includes some bad porn (a bathroom-stallish picture of a penis and a story about a married woman called Horny Lynda, whose deepest desire is for ruinous sex involving urine and fecal matter and many, many men) and an interesting, obscure note in Japanese punctuated by the single English word "menu." Another page is marked simply, "This page is too evil to write on." Not too evil, apparently: someone else, perhaps more religious, has written on it, "Evil demons, leave this page!" There are seemingly original epigrams ("If only I could follow myself like I follow you" and "Real life never looks as 3-D as IMAX makes it seem"), philosophy that sounds as if it might have been drummed out on an empty metal trash can ("Age comes to those who learn of youth through time and consequence") and rudimentary poetry, the linguistic equivalent of cave drawings (in one, the rhyme scheme goes grabbing/ stabbing, true/blue, fool/pool, fill/still, ordeal/steal, peace/piece, heart/start/ part and—yup—love/dove, heaven/ eleven, dust/rust, and ride/slide/ guide/glide/hide).
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There are even pickup letters, the best of which is ostensibly written by two women to "Alec," whom they have noted is "beautiful and paranoid." Because they "have received telepathic messages" from him, the women, Mary and Erin, "know about [Alec's] speed habit & crazy parents & a lack of a driver's license & weird love life (we sympathize) & your poetry." And, well, they have an answer: "We love you & want to have a threesome with you. Call us." Their phone number is right there in the journal, but I cannot call (the mere thought makes me feel like a sweaty guy with a hand-held mic and a trailing camera crew and hot lights) to learn the rest of the story: whether a threesome turned out to be the very thing Alec needed, a vaccination against the craziness he has already generated without the severe mercies of not one, but two willing women attracted to the low drama of a boy with two mad parents and no driver's license.
But you don't read the journal for that (or maybe you do, but probably still not for the cute drawing that recalls the deft touch of Hello Kitty by Sanrio and appears, humbly, at the bottom of a page). No, you read this for the odd revelation of human consanguinity, for those Wings of Desire moments that recall Freud's expression for psychotherapy: the talking cure.
These are people pitching pennies into a wishing well: the "Dutch-Indonesian Princess" who hates OC because "it really is a 'tragic kingdom'" but who reveals something of a tragic kingdom within: "I'm nearing 30, still single and no kids. What a surprise." It's reasonable to guess that D-I Princess almost welcomes every hurt that enters her life and wouldn't know what to make of beauty.
There's "Special Artist," who just came from her "really bad" audition for the Orange County High School of the Arts. "First of all, I had no idea what anyone was talking about," she writes, "like the teacher was just saying, yadda, yadda, yadda. . . . I am so scared, and I hope I make it. Wish me luck." She has drawn a childish flower and a doughy pair of hands as evidence of her talent, but you wish her luck anyhow. And you sympathize with "Ed," who spent his June Saturday teaching "SAT chemistry to some rich little girl who couldn't care less" and now, after all that, is at the Gypsy Den "attempting to learn statistical physics," but not really, of course, because he's writing in this community journal instead, as is "Crummy," who, in July, promises "to slow down, follow the path on which I'm led." On which we're all led, Crummy.