by Mark Hahn
The coffee shop, sometimes known as a diner, was once the first place a teen would go and feel they were becoming an adult. Coffee isn’t booze, but it’s still something — especially when mixed with sleep deprivation and other illicit substances. A traditional coffee shop is its own microcosm. Each has its own personality. It is somewhere to go.
The waxed terrazzo floors, vinyl booths and excessively stylized hanging lamps provided an artificial environment to escape to. You could sit with friends all night long drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. You could solve all the world’s problems while still flirting with the waitress. Going to a coffee shop was doing something.
Coffee shops used to be everywhere. They catered to every class of people. I always preferred the dives — finding the social bottom. At first, this was the redneck places on the east side of Detroit. They were filled with danger and excitement fueled by booze, drugs and intolerance.
When I needed to get away, there were coffee shops outside the city that I would drive to by myself. I got to know some of the waitresses. I’d show up on during off hours and they’d sit with me and we’d talk about life. It felt good to be with someone — a girl. It was nice.
My best friend Rick and I started hanging out at the hooker dives on Woodward Ave. There were drug dealers, pimps, whores and hustlers. The nastiness of the world buzzed around us.
We drove down the avenue once in my convertible Impala and picked up a hustler friend of ours. When we were almost at Ted’s, he started screaming out the window, “Miss thang!”
A tall black hustler was standing on the sidewalk, bending down to talk to a small white man in a big white Cadillac.
Billy said, “Drive around the block and pick her up if she doesn’t get that trick.”
It was the fabulous Miss Freda Payne.
“You have to meet her. She’s always broke, so we’ll have to buy her lunch, but it will be worth it.”
I whipped my big Chevy boat around the ghetto block and Billy called her to the car. She told us about the messed up high class trick she just lost.
Things are complicated when you’re a tranny whore — you never know who is putting on who or who wants to be put on in the first place.
We went and got the big booth in Ted’s on the Park. Ted’s had yellow vinyl booths and a brown linoleum counter. We counted out the change in our pockets to figure out what we could afford to get.
Freda chided Billy saying, “Please miss thing Billy! You invited me to lunch and you’re paying with change! If I had gotten that last trick, I’d be buying you all steak and eggs!”
Miss Freda never bought anything for anyone.
While we waited for our food, Freda talked about one street adventure after another. When she was talking, no one else got to say a word. You just looked and listened and wondered how Freda had ever become Freda — what kind of messed up past brought her to this? She had created this dense identity to shield herself from whoever she really was inside. She only let the world see her constructed alter ego — it was an all consuming tragedy.
One story included her being harassed by female hookers on a bus.
She was like, “those girls don’t have a thing on me!”
She put one hand behind her head, the other on her hip and shook her boobs while making a pouty Marilyn face. We all laughed and the waitress came by to take our order. She had seen it all before and wasn’t fazed by Miss Freda.
I was the only straight kid in the bunch. Freda turned toward me.
“My tits are just as good as any fish! You know how i make them? Birdseed! I sew birdseed into my bra. It’s my own invention! Every drag queen in town should be paying me to make their fake titties! Those whores!”
Freda pushed her birdseed boobs right into my face.
“Touch them! Tell me they don’t feel better than your girlfriend’s!”
I squeezed her boobs. They felt like bags of birdseed. She towered over me and almost dared me to say they didn’t feel real. I told her they felt good. She told me if I ever left my girlfriend to come find her. I drank another cup of coffee and laughed.
Most the people I knew from Detroit and this time are gone. They’re all dead. Woodward Ave looks like a ghost town. Abandoned buildings are falling into the street. Ghetto trees grow up through the roofs of many of the old houses. Neighborhoods are bulldozed into nothingness.
On a recent business trip to LA, I passed Pann’s coffee shop on La Cinenega Blvd. I was driving to LAX and had to return my rental car. I needed to gas it up. I stopped at a station around the corner from Pann’s. On a whim, I grabbed my camera and left the car in the gas station parking lot and walked toward the old restaurant.
I met two young hookers on the sidewalk. One worked to catch my eye. Her friend was made of stone. No matter how painful the encounter was, it felt rude to look away. These girls were flesh and blood people like everyone else — life was hurting them enough.
The stone girl wore very short cutoffs with a tiny halter top that barely covered her boobs. Her outgoing friend wore a thin tee shirt and pajama pants. I didn’t know if she wanted my attention so she could feel pretty, or sexy or just to know she existed in some way. They both knew I wasn’t a John.
I smiled and asked how it was going. The one’s face lit up and she smiled big when answering. She was in a bad place. I couldn’t tell if she was just junk sick or AIDS sick, but she didn’t look like she was going to make it much longer. We looked into each others eyes for a moment. Sometimes someone smiling at you can feel good, even when your whole world is going to shit.
It almost broke my heart. I had to remind myself that she was over 18 and making her own choices, as bad as they might be. I stopped and let the girls pass. After they were well down the street, I looked and could see the one’s naked butt jiggling in her pajama pants. I couldn’t help thinking about open car windows, bargaining and that last look she’d give her friend before she climbed in. Her stone friend probably never looked back. We all have our own strategy for survival.
When I lived in LA, I didn’t go to Pann’s much because Norms, Ships and the Penguin were all more convenient, but Pann’s was always a beacon because of the distinctive Googie Architecture. Pann’s is one of the best preserved examples of a Googie coffee shop. Most have been redecorated or torn down. Pann’s comes across as a mash-up of the Flintstones and the Jetsons.
After the girls were gone, I took a few photos of the outside of the restaurant. Memories drifted though my head — most were bittersweet at best. I lived in LA at a time in my life when everything seemed possible. With age and responsibilities, you find that opportunities slowly dry up. “Going back” can open up questions that are not easily answered.
I put my hand on the acrylic door handle to Pann’s. It felt warm and familiar. When I opened the door, the hostess asked if I wanted a seat. I held up my camera to her.
“Mind if I just take some quick photos?” I asked.
She smiled at me.
“No, it’s ok, everyone comes in to take photographs.”
It didn’t surprise me.
“It’s a really nice original coffee shop. There aren’t many like this left.”
We smiled at each other and I quickly snapped my photos.
Afterwards, I dropped the car off and caught a flight home.