Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough


My coffeeshop has been going through a remodelling process over the past several months – a process we have occasionally had reason to suspect was orchestrated to make a lot of noise, so as to move us along, when we monopolise a table longer than our collective coffee rent justifies.

Aside from more structural changes, the remodel has also involved the addition of new furniture, including today’s novelty: a large “communal” table created out of a metal ladder, suspended between what look like those small metallic barriers occasionally used by street cafes to create a boundary around their outdoor tables. The rungs of the ladder are capped for the moment by ill-fitting metal plates salvaged from fire-escape-style staircases, but will eventually be covered by deliberately mismatched wooden planks. All pieces of the table – like the rest of the furniture and artwork in this place – have been created from materials salvaged and recycled from other places: the owner steadily collects, gathering materials into storage until he can visualise something that can be made from them. He also weaves people into his creations: the welding was done by a regular customer who happened to overhear the owner wonder who he should get to do that work. I’ve heard this kind of thing happen before here – been drawn into it myself, on occasion.

Because the owner deliberately mixes materials and styles, new creations tend to cause cascading transformations of the entire environment, as their idiosyncratic mix of stuff contrasts too starkly, or blends in too well, inspiring or irritating the owner to transform the space until things settle into a new dynamic tension. The interior of this space is thus in a constant state of transformation, occasionally interrupted by breathing periods of stasis.

The auditory environment is similarly bricoleured. There are times when I will swear the owner deliberately introduces profoundly irritating musical tracks just for the almost expressionist experience of relief it provides when the track has ended – it’s a thing of wonder and beauty, a genuinely novel way of experiencing a mundane and generally dull piece of music, when for the first time you hear it out of context, following something truly awful. Occasionally, I’ve been here when this kind of experiment doesn’t work as intended – when I’ve paused in my reading or writing in a kind of open admiration for how truly abysmal some cover or mix happens to be, only to have the music stop in mid-note and be exchanged for something else: at that point, I’ll know the owner agreed, and that the moment of transcendence I was waiting for – wondering to myself: what can possibly follow and complete this? – will never come.

This morning, though, it was the new table that was the centre of attention. I loved it on sight. I said as much to a member of the waitstaff, who at first smiled indulgently, and then realised I might be serious. They couldn’t contain their surprise: “You do?!” I think it’s wonderful, I repeated. They laughed nervously – I think they were convinced I was teasing them. You don’t agree? I wanted to know. More nervous laughter as they scuttled back to the kitchen.

The staff, apparently, are divided on the issue. The budding opera singer looked at the table with frank admiration. The owner gazes on it with no small mixture of externalised exhibitionism. The most senior staff member doesn’t see the table, only the owner’s tactile enjoyment of it, and that is enough.

Customers are divided as well. Everyone who ducks in for a coffee, even if they don’t normally investigate those nether realms of the establishment where the table resides, must come have a look. Again nervous laughs. Some customers clearly don’t believe this table will stay – it can’t be serious, this table. I mean, just look at it. A few offer suggestions for turning it into a more conventional eating surface: “Why don’t you just, I don’t know, cover it with a big plank of wood?” – “Oh I’ll cover it with several planks,” replies the owner, “but they have to be different colours, you see – they have to have different grains”. Some, too polite, reach for neutral words: “That’ll seat twelve people for sure”, one man offers. Others, more bluntly: “What happened to that medieval table thing you used to have here? I liked that.” The owner points to the fragments of what used to be one large tree-trunk table – now scattered against several pillars throughout the room, multiple tables now. He doesn’t explain that this multiplicity can also coalesce: if you hang around here long enough, you’ll occasionally see the fragments dragged back together into a plausible imitation of their former cohesive self.

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