Coffee, Anyone?

Accord­ing to reports by a mem­ber of the epi­ta­sis-list, the Xan­do cof­fee bar has closed.

Now most of us here on the West Coast prob­a­bly think that the prob­lems of two lit­tle coffedrinkers in this crazy world don’t amount to a hill of beans, but…

Well, It’s a spe­cial place. I’ll explain:

On the cor­ner of Elm and Park Streets in New Haven, Con­necti­cut there is a large brick build­ing which was at one time a fire­house. After the city no longer used it for fire­fight­ers and trucks, the build­ing was sold and turned into a restau­rant called FitzWilly’s. I may be skip­ping aeons of his­to­ry, but this is all I know.

My fam­i­ly used to go to FitzWilly’s on spe­cial occa­sions for din­ner. It was a nice place. Lots of brick and brass, and so many huge plants it was like a brick jun­gle. The upstairs sec­tion was open and invit­ing, and the space was — quite lit­er­al­ly — grand. It was not a cheap restau­rant, but it was­n’t pro­hib­i­tive either. I went there for my first take-the-girl-to-din­ner date, so it could­n’t have been that expensive.

Any­way, one of the things I’m remem­ber­ing right now about FitzWilly’s was that my step­fa­ther knew some­one there. I don’t recall who. It could have been a wait­ress or a chef, or it could have been the own­er. I did­n’t pay much atten­tion. In those days, I tried not to pay any atten­tion to Walt’s friends or Walt him­self for that mat­ter. But the more I think about it, the more I’m remem­ber­ing that every­where we went, Walt knew peo­ple. Walt had friends from many walks of life. I remem­ber hav­ing din­ner with Walt’s doc­tor, and cof­fee with a police detec­tive who would drop by from time to time. Walt intro­duced me to Ken Lassen, who runs Louis’ Lunch, the orig­i­nal ham­burg­er joint (his­to­ri­ans can argue about this one). I’m just now com­ing to under­stand how rich my expe­ri­ence with a spe­cial place like New Haven is.

I don’t mean to speak about Walt as though he or his friends were dead, but he and my moth­er moved away from New Haven at about the time I start­ed col­lege. I know he’s kept some of his con­nec­tions, but I have lit­tle con­nec­tion to any of his con­nec­tions any­more, so to speak.

I find it a lit­tle sad to remem­ber, too, that I made some brief but impor­tant con­nec­tions in that town. When my domes­tic tran­quil­i­ty was inter­rupt­ed by a neigh­bor who thought domes­tic vio­lence was bet­ter for the neigh­bor­hood, I got to talk­ing to the Police offi­cer who came to inves­ti­gate. Turned out he is a bicy­cling enthu­si­ast, as I am. Then I start­ed see­ing him on the beat, and occas­sion­al­ly we’d run into each oth­er at the chi­nese take-out place and he’d ask me about my bike. The pro­pri­eters of that take-out place knew me well, as they’d seen me peri­od­i­cal­ly since the days when I’d skip school with my girl­friend and get some fried rice and rent a movie.

Beyond my own nos­tal­gia, though, there’s some­thing about New Haven that I can put my fin­ger on. New Haven is not a place for chains and malls. Sure, there are strip malls around the city, and no short­age of Wal­greens, but the pre­em­i­nent music shop is Cut­ler’s. Coconuts and Straw­ber­ries have tried to com­pete to no avail. Star­buck­’s cow­ers at the thought of enter­ing a mar­ket already sat­u­rat­ed with excel­lent coffee.

I won’t try to hold up New Haven as a place of peace and bal­ance; it has more than it’s share of prob­lems. But as much as I’ve always com­plained about how hor­rid the New Haven Mall is, I can look and smile and hon­est­ly say that I’m glad to have grown up in a place with so much to offer with­out being forced to rely on huge cor­po­rate chains. I grew up in a place where the mall was the suck­i­est place to go shopping.

Domi­nos Piz­za strug­gles in New Haven; Piz­za Hut does­n’t even try. Barnes & Noble only recent­ly found its way into New Haven, and that was by enter­ing into a con­tract with the Yale Co-op to run the Co-op book­store — under Yale’s name, not Barnes & Nobles’.

For­give me for adding digres­sions on my digres­sions. FitzWilly’s closed some­time in the late eight­ies or the ear­ly nineties, and this beau­ti­ful brick build­ing stood most­ly dor­mant for a num­ber of years. Some­one tried to open a dance club there, and that did­n’t last. But then, in 1995, Xan­do moved in to the building.

I liked Xan­do. It was one of the few places that drinkers and non-drinkers could ful­ly share. Eas­i­ly the largest coffeshop I’ve ever been in, it took the entire build­ing that had housed FitzWilly’s and the fire sta­tion before it. Upstairs there were crazy couch­es around small tables, and always there was some kind of jazz float­ing through. Dur­ing the sum­mer, the win­dows fold­ed out over the side­walk, and some­one out­side could lean on the same bar on which the cof­fee drinkers on the inside rest­ed their elbows. The cof­fee was good, and I hear the beer was too.

It was in Xan­do that I first thought of aban­don­ing my office for a cell-phone and a lap­top com­put­er. Per­haps I should have thought more seri­ous­ly about it.

Accord­ing to unsub­stan­ti­at­ed rumor, Xan­do has closed. Appa­rant­ly the Barnes & Noble cafe, clev­er­ly dis­guised as the Yale Co-op cafe, took away too much of its busi­ness. These things hap­pen. We all won­dered how a cof­feeshop could afford the lease on a build­ing like that.

It means that once again, that build­ing will be vacant and that cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca has scored one more tri­umph over the Amer­i­can dream, or my dream for Amer­i­ca any­way. What makes this defeat par­tic­u­lar­ly bit­ter is that it hap­pened in New Haven, which, with all its faults, still has thriv­ing local busi­ness­es. One has to ask how soon before Star­bucks comes in. Already there are peo­ple in Amer­i­ca who will nev­er know what good cof­fee is, peo­ple who don’t know that the per­son behind the counter at the record shop should be an expert who can track down rare vinyl because they want to keep your busi­ness, not a kid out of high school hired at min­i­mum wage on the promise of an employ­ee dis­count for his Pearl Jam CD purchases.

We’ve lost some very spe­cial ground.

I was in Xan­do right before Thanks­giv­ing. I had cof­fee there with a friend and with my part­ner. We were vis­it­ing and we swept through town too quick­ly to see every­one we want­ed to see, and those we did con­nect with, only for too short a time. I’m glad that I got a chance to see Xan­do one last time, and I’m glad that she got to be there, too. I think she saw the years behind me when we vis­it­ed. I think I would­n’t have enjoyed it as much if I knew I had to tell it goodbye.

One Reply to “Coffee, Anyone?”

  1. FitzWilly’s

    FitzWilly’s was a great place to work also‑I bar­tend­ed there 4 – 5 years and made many friends I am still in touch with. The food was mediocre at best , but the drinks were strong and made with love. The music at this time in New Haven was great (pre-Toads video dance par­ties) The bar/restaurant peo­ple all knew each oth­er, and took great pains to wel­come each oth­er in their respec­tive estab­lish­ments. Sad­ly, the own­er of FitzWilly’s had finan­cial prob­lems, and lost all 4 of his restau­rants. How­ev­er he had his run, and it was a life­time com­pressed into 4 – 5 years. I haven’t been back to New haven in 20years , but I will always remem­ber it fond­ly-along with Rudy’s.

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