Seated on the main street of Warren, Rhode Island, rightly named Main Street, is The Coffee Depot. It is the only cafe in this small town – unless you include the three Dunkin’ Donuts– and is run by my mother. The cafe is a small town gem; an espresso bar housed with a La Marzacco espresso machine with a wide array of artisanal breads, pastries, cakes, and cookies. It is spacious, painted warm shades of topaz and chocolate-brown, the floors are polished hardwood, the counters topped with copper, and the paneling and bookshelves are deep mahogany. The ceilings are high and the painted piping that protrudes seems to be there for aesthetic purposes rather than functionality. Paintings and photographs adorn the walls, an uncensored outlet for amateur artists that change monthly.
One month, an art student hastily hung all her charcoal nude self-portraits. One larger piece hung precariously over the most sought after leather chair in the room where one customer, John, sits for hours on end. His untamed curly black hair nestled against the full body portrait in such a way that the drawing was given an anatomically and alarming three-dimensional element that made me, and probably most customers, laugh and cringe simultaneously. The Coffee Depot has character and it always smells of coffee.
I live in Boston, Massachusetts but I am currently on spring break and decided to spend my free week within the walls of The Depot. I could lead you to believe that this choice was solely because of the charm of this cafe and this small town, but my financial situation is really the reason why I am not touring Thailand or burning on a beach in Bermuda. I would be lying, though, if I told you I was upset to find myself here.
Throughout high school, I worked at The Depot. I also worked here when I was taking a leave of absence from school, when I returned from an extended stay in Costa Rica, and when I was saving money to move to Boston. Both of my sisters have worked here. My dad comes in most mornings. My cousins, aunts, uncles, high school classmates, neighbors and friends all make The Depot part of their morning ritual or stop here for an afternoon pick-me-up. As I spend my days here this week, each day I bump into another friendly face. If not friendly, at least recognizable. Needless to say, The Depot is the place I most associate with home.
The Depot is a refreshing break from city life. Not much has changed here. A lot of the same barista’s that worked here when I left still work here. The playlist hasn’t strayed far from when I worked busy saturday mornings. The police reports in the Warren Times-Gazette stacked by the cash register are still a source of entertainment. This week: “Police received a call about a man in a Patriot’s T-shirt panhandling on Child Street. No word on whether he was collecting for Tom Brady’s new contract.” Also reported, loose cows and wild turkeys.
But coming home, coming back to The Coffee Depot, hasn’t always been a welcomed or even tolerable situation for me.
When I dropped out college after my freshman year, my job was waiting for me here. I wasn’t thankful, I was resentful. I dreaded having to explain my decision to move home. I thought I was being judged harshly. I thought, having lived in the city for a year, that I was too good for this small town.
While I was away, my mother, my manager, had gotten into retail. Specifically consignment. Upon my return, The Depot was selling other people’s granola in kitschy packaging, blank greeting cards, peace sign ornaments, and bumper stickers that called for DIVERSITY. The display of motley knick-knacks added to the character of the place. But then there were the t-shirts. My mother loved the t-shirts. She told me we had been selling them for years – didn’t I remember? – but only upon my return did I seem to notice them, and despise them.
It was because of the t-shirts, I told myself, that I bought myself a one-way ticket to Costa Rica. They were unisex, available in medium, large, extra-large, and extra-extra-large. Cotton T-shirts that were only available in the dullest shades of the primary colors. And gray. The ill fitted type that you find at traveling carnivals and lobster shacks. Printed across the chest was the half-truth about Warren, Rhode Island: 02885. The Smallest Town in The Smallest County in The Smallest State.
I made a great cup of a coffee; milk steamed to the perfect temperature skillfully poured atop espresso with thick caramel colored crema resulting in a latte with a symmetrical Rosetta or a happy heart. I called myself a barista and complimented my own latte art skills (“you know we can go to national competitions for this?” But I never did).
But, I was a terrible salesman. Customers, often born and bred in Warren, would pick up the 02885 t-shirts and say, “Huh? Is this true?” As I tried to ignore the onset of my hangover (my persistent hangover at that time in my life), I would clarify. “The statement is true as a whole, but Warren is not the smallest town in the United States, and it is not even the smallest town in Rhode Island, and Bristol County is not even the smallest county in The United States but it is the smallest county in Rhode Island and within that county Warren is the smallest town and so yes, it’s true that Warren – zip code 02885 – is the smallest town, in the smallest county in the smallest state.”
It didn’t matter that I was a terrible salesman, because everyone bought the t-shirts anyway. Maybe they had only heard the last part of my sales pitch, or maybe they just needed a new t-shirt, or maybe they saw another Warrenite donning the shirt and thought, “This is great, I need to get one too!”
What I believed to be true, though, was that the people of Warren wanted to believe that this town deserved an accolade or an acknowledgement of some kind, of any kind, and these t-shirts kind of gave our little town that. Only I didn’t believe this town was worth it.
So I escaped to Costa Rica. I left to volunteer, to see the world, to forget about dropping out of school. Most importantly, I left to put a great distance between myself and Warren, Rhode Island. However, It didn’t take long to realize that my unhappiness was more than just a hostility towards my hometown. Changing my location, even if it was a paradise, wasn’t going to make me happy.
Not that my time was a solely unhappy experience. One memorable weekend while in Manuel Antonio, a fellow volunteer, my closest friend in Costa Rica, Rachel and I both lost our glasses. Rachel lost hers to the Pacific Ocean waves and I lost mine to theft. Unable to see, we decided against visiting Manuel Antonio’s world famous rain forest and spent the day on the beach. We walked down the beach until we got to an enormous boulder obstructing the shoreline. It was taller than I would have been while standing on Rachel’s shoulders. It was wide too. If I were a child I would have pretended I was Simba and climbed it regally as if it were Pride Rock. There was a tiny stream that was flowing from the ocean to somewhere beyond my limited vision that wound around the rock. Rachel and I sat in the stream, allowing our butts to acts as dams. But the water was so powerful that it just careened over our bellies and found it’s way back to wherever it was going.
We laughed about losing our glasses the night before. We talked about the six weeks we’d spent in Costa Rica thus far. We talked about our homes. Texas for her. Rhode Island for me. I told her that the reasons I gave everyone for going on this trip were bullshit. I didn’t really care about learning Spanish, I had studied French in high school, I showed her the French tattoo on my foot to prove it Tout est bien… But I couldn’t afford an indefinite stay in Paris. I didn’t particularly love the beach. I liked the water, I liked sailing, but I hated sand in my bikini bottom and my Irish skin burnt quickly and I pressed my finger against my chest, and my arm, and my belly to prove that yes, I was already quite sunburnt. Looking back I realize I was never actually seeking adventure; Zip-lining, clubbing, and white water rafting didn’t particularly interest me. It was these one-on-one moments that meant more to me. So why did I need to be in Costa Rica to make conversation?
When Rachel left, towards the end of my time in Costa Rica, I searched for cafes that reminded me of The Coffee Depot with little success. I don’t think I recognized my behavior as homesickness, but my dad, in long-distance phone calls, and my mother, on the other end of lengthy emails, noticed my unhappiness. After three months abroad, I booked my flight home. My dad picked me at Boston Logan Airport in the middle of the night a few days before Thanksgiving. He gave me a long hard hug, the kind that makes you concerned for your ribs, but I welcomed the familiarity of his embrace.
The next morning, I woke up, and went to The Coffee Depot. By the weekend, I was working there once again.
It’d be nice to say that my Costa Rican trip was a fully cathartic experience and that when I got home I had a new appreciation for everything. But this isn’t Eat, Pray, Love. I still was embarrassed to be back at home. I was still drinking too much. I still had no idea what the next step was. But I like to think that I was a little more thankful to have parents willing to take me in, to have a job waiting — a job where my co-workers were often my best friends.
Now, looking around The Coffee Depot, I notice the t-shirts are absent. But it is not their absence that allows me to feel comfortable here, in Warren, finally. A favorite quotation of mine says, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Over the last few years I think that I have begun to not only appreciate this idea, but to practice it. Why, I ask myself, did I ever think Warren was so undeserving of any recognition or accolades? My younger self would, if she could, respond with a list of egocentric complaints. But this time around, I am not going to let her weigh in.