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  1. Life & Culture

Scenes from St. Petersburg coffee shops

Slices of life in pursuit of lattes.
A barista Ken doll, sporting a millennial man bun, greets coffee lovers at Banyan in St. Petersburg. He was a gift from the Clark family.
A barista Ken doll, sporting a millennial man bun, greets coffee lovers at Banyan in St. Petersburg. He was a gift from the Clark family. [ Courtesy of Roy Peter Clark ]
Published Jul. 13|Updated Jul. 13

A coffee shop is where you can find a community in action. At Uptown Eats, about 10 of us sit along the sidewalk of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N at black wrought-iron tables. We are strangers. One man is working studiously on his computer. At his elbow is a pile of papers, the makings of a manuscript, perhaps. He leaves his seat and heads inside, presumably to the restroom. It’s a cloudy morning, and the wind picks up and catches the edge of the manuscript, blowing dozens of sheets of paper onto the sidewalk and into the busy street. All the strangers jump to their feet, grabbing up the pages, even dashing over the curb before speeding vehicles can do their worst. We return the papers to the table and put a weight on them. The man emerges, sits back down, notices that his pages are no longer in their original order.

Black Crow

This location may be the hippest, hippiest cafe in town, adjacent to Tombolo Books. Folks can sit inside or at tables on the patio. I am standing near the bar, waiting for our iced lattes. A young woman stalks in and barks in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear: “I just got s--t on!” The servers look at her. She repeats the profanity, this time with both arms outstretched. “I just got s--t on!” It might be the kind of thing you say if somebody insulted you. But now, standing next to her, I figure it out. A spirited sparrow has bird-bombed the young lady. I grab the paper napkins and wipe her right arm. “Did it get me in the hair?” “No, you’re good,” I say. She looks disgusted. “You know, they say that’s good luck,” I say. “Yeah, so I’ve heard.”

Craft Kafe

It is the morning after the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the New York Rangers to qualify for their third consecutive Stanley Cup Final. The backbone of the team is a man named Andrei Vasilevskiy, often called the world’s greatest hockey goaltender. I am told by a server that we just missed “Vasy,” who is said to like his lattes. With a friend I begin this comic riff. Maybe Vasy comes to St. Pete for coffee rather than Tampa because we are named after the most famous city in his native Russia. (So happy we were named St. Petersburg before it became Leningrad or Stalingrad!) What if we challenged Vasy to a stunt for charity? We’d get a bunch of muffins and throw them at him and see how many he could catch, kick or knock aside. To test whether he was truly the greatest, we’d make him do it, as they say of great goalies, “standing on his head.”

Banyan

Banyan, attached to the Morean Arts Center on Central Avenue, has signs of the Clark family all over it. I donated an old typewriter to the decor. My daughter Lauren created book folding art, with the cafe logo across the front. They keep a tiny photo of Karen and me near the register. But the best artifact we donated is a doll representing Barbie’s boyfriend Ken. This Ken is no pretty boy from the 1950s. Part of the “You can be anything” collection, this doll is Barista Ken. He works at the coffee shop. He sports a stylish man bun that marks him as a member of the millennial generation. We decide Ken is too old-fashioned a name, so we rename him Blaze. The baristas hang him from surprising places around the cafe, always hard at work, always ready to greet a customer with his ready smile.

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This book art at Banyan was made by a Clark family member.
This book art at Banyan was made by a Clark family member. [ Courtesy of Roy Peter Clark ]

Uptown Eats

We sit at a table on the sidewalk, greeting an acquaintance we met — you guessed it — at another coffee shop. He sits with a young friend who turns out to be an artist, a painter. I am pleased when he says he really likes my baseball-style hat, a gray cap with the pelican badge of the city — in pink — across the front. I notice he is wearing a pink shirt and sporty pink socks, so I wonder if in his artist’s mind he is attracted to my hat as an accessory. Karen and I leave and run our errands. I tell her I want to return to the cafe. “If that guy is still there,” I said, “I’m going to give him my hat.” He was. And I did. When I ran into him at a book event a couple of weeks later, he greeted me with hug, wearing my former hat.

You never know who you'll run into outside at Uptown Eats in St. Petersburg.
You never know who you'll run into outside at Uptown Eats in St. Petersburg. [ Courtesy of Roy Peter Clark ]

Black Crow

They have a public piano right in the middle of the shop, and, on occasion, someone will sit down and play 12 bars of the “Heart and Soul” progression. I love a public piano, of course, but never sit at the keyboard without permission. It is Memorial Day. Only a handful of customers. I say to the server, “If you want, I can play something appropriate for the holiday.” I choose “America the Beautiful,” the soulful, bluesy version by Ray Charles, which I would select as our second national anthem. If I am feeling really bad about the country — as I do now and then — I listen to Ray. Back in the day, Ray would play with other Black artists at the Manhattan Casino, walking distance from here. The first song Ray ever recorded was called the “St. Pete Florida Blues.” As I play, I hear his voice: “America, America, God shed his grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood….” I give it a big finish, look up, see some smiles, and hear a smattering of applause.

Do you have a favorite scene from a favorite coffee shop?

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