Monday, January 5, 2009

the story of sabrina's. the creative writing box, the nighttime correspondence book and a guy in a battered yankees cap

it was a cardboard box -- an ordinary cardboard box -- that once had been a case of pastry icing packets or cannisters of non-dairy creamer. when i was introduced to it, it was so much more. at least to a 16-year old guy with a lifelong, almost nervous writing compulsion.

the Creative Writing Box at sabrina's cafe, in montgomery, ohio, held thoughts, dreams, poems, stories, songs, haiku, backhanded flirtations and, naturally enough for a caffeinated microcosm inhabited by tweeked young slackers, the occasional obscenity or slander. it sat waist high on the three-deep bookshelf when you walked in the front door, next to myriad pulp novels, an old checker set missing at least 23% of its signature pieces and life's little instruction book.

stapled to the CWB and scrawled in grease pencil:

"no rules, just write"

no period. no elaboration.

write we did. on whatever we could. the box was filled with college-ruled white, yellow legal, napkins, toilet paper (possibly unused) -- scraps of every sort.

the idea, i was told when my buddies, kraig and dan, first introduced me to it, was that anybody could write whatever they wanted, read other folks' work, comment on it, deconstruct it, praise it, or even deface it if such was the way the spirit moved. i was never much for defacement, but i confess to arrogant snarkiness and general dickery.

(yes, i do believe i might have coined a word there -- please advise if you know it to be in use anywheres. otherwise, copyright to me.)

now, a creative writing box (and i use the general term here) doesn't just catch on anywhere -- i can attest. i've tried to set up CWBs at three other coffeeshops over the last twelve years. only one seems to have taken any hold (at taza) -- and it's taken a year and a pretty popular open mic nite feeding it to grow a decent set of roots. so there was something special about sabrina's.

i don't know -- maybe it was the time: the '90s were a fertile time for optimism and coffee culture and a little bit of rebellion.

maybe it was place:

montgomery was and is a trendy little nest of blowhards and yuppies about fifteen miles northeast of cincinnati. sabrina's was smack in the middle of the somewhat (ok, not somewhat - very definitely) pretentious red-brick-and-gaslight district that made up the central block, on the corner of montgomery road (u.s. 22) and the small alley that seperated it from the ORIGINAL! montgomery inn (a cincy institution, albeit overblown and, in my opinion, overpriced).

there is a large, private hospital in montgomery; thus montgomery is a 'burg full of nouveaux riches doctors and the lawyers who chase them. it abuts indian hill -- one of the most affluent municipalities in the united states (dude, peter frampton lives there. yeah -- the talking guitar guy. peter fucking frampton.) it inexplicably celebrates bastille day every year.

and sabrina's did sit at the nexus of seven distinct, middle-to-upper class high school populations (meaning plenty of kids with time, pocket money, cars and an exaggerated sense of self-importance; ego is, believe it or not, a somewhat important component in the impetus to write. as said once in a movie about young writers, writers start writing solely to get laid. only later does it become beneficial to break that ego and reforge the pieces into something strong and beautiful).

or maybe it wasn't time or place, but manner: there may just have been a perfect storm of creativity. little richie and remy riches weren't holding the place together -- sabrina's attracted a nice, evenly-distributed social bell curve. montgomery had a slew restaurants, a cigar-and-coffee bar (more about the former "burning desires" some other time), and bars where twentyandthirtysomethings partied on friday and saturday nights and listened to cover band renditions of tommy tutone's greatest hit.

(i kid, i kid -- i'm a delayed child of the eighties and owe parts of my soul to "blue monday").

the sidewalks (still) feature faux-antique clock posts. the streets were (and are) clean and well-lit, befitting the clean, well-lighted places to which thirtysomethings flock.

one could walk down the street at 11:30 pm and smell sugar-sweet (gourmet! yeesh . . .) ribs barbecuing and earth-rich arturo fuente smoke (in the days before outdoor smoking fascism became law in buckeye land), watch people come and go, talking of the status quo, without giving a thought to one's personal (or financial) security.

it's the sort of town where you wouldn't lock their doors if you weren't concerned, at least just a little, that (poor) mrs. cromwell next door wouldn't sneak in the house at night and steal the williams-sonoma breadmaker you just had to show her earlier in the day.

but there was something special about sabrina's, holding the surrounding wonderbread environs ceteris paribus (dear me, i have become a class warrior in my old age . . . where's my red beret and bandolier?).

the clientele, you see, varied with time of day. in the morning, the professionals owned it. i know firsthand -- many mornings i skipped a class or two and unwound on the sly. come 2:30 in the afternoon, the high school kids rolled in, the baby boom of the Baby Boom, all angst-ridden, born and bred hopheads. first the private school kids (there are four very large catholic schools and two non-catholic private schools in the immediate neighborhood). then trickled in the public schoolers (i was always one of the first). and at night, until 1 am, the freaks. and i was one of, it not the, last remaining, as i had become good at morphing and camouflaging myself to suit the changing fauna.

the punchcards helped -- buy 10 espresso drinks, get the eleventh free (the fielding of such a loyalty program is still one of my criteria for evaluating the third-place worthiness of any given establishment). great for the cash-strapped student type.

and man, oh man, sabrina's featured the best tall mocha ever steamed and put to mug. the secret, i have since determined was heavy, baker's whipping cream in lieu of aerosolized nightmare-in-a-can.

and there were only two espresso drink sizes -- as it should be. no "tall, grande, venti" (christ, that's the same thing three times, ya dunsky!) just "short" and "tall." simple. direct. espresspartan.

friday nights. my favorite coffeehouse cover singer: terry diver. "horse with no name."

i even had a uniform and a moniker in those days -- i wore a battered yankees cap, white t-shirt and blue jeans under grey tweed blazer which had once served as part of my costume when i played the "stage manager" in our town. i had a folder full of bad stories, worse poems and a bunch of comments in the CWB. once, a girl wrote a comment about my costume: "ballsy boy, huh?"

indeed. brazen.

and then there was the night-time correspondence book. a little, stapled-together, rag-tag collection of paper that our buddy schmitty started for the staff and the regulars to write notes back and forth, opine and philosophize.

the CWB's regular writers:

the pan-and-broom man
john r. griffen (i knew this guy -- he was ballsy)
chris, the barista (he told me to read hemingway's "hills like white elephants" and helped me on my merry literary way)
dan (who has since written an award-winning one-man play)
meagn (yes, it's spelled right)

. . . and so forth.

sabrina's was bought out in 1997 by the furrier down the street. that's right -- of all the people to buy the place, it was a guy who sold dead animal carcass for hoity-toity women to wear. the rusty irony of it all.

as i recall, he gifted the place to his niece(?) and she turned it into the "european cafe." she tore down the community bulletin boards. she tossed the books and the Creative Writing Box. she painted over the restroom murals (yes, there were murals).

i managed to save parts of the CWB. i saved the night-time correspondence book. i bought the watercolor painting of the also-now-consigned-to-local-history blue bridge of branch hill. shoot, i even stole one of the bulletin boards and life's little instruction book.

i haven't set foot in the place since, save once, for lunch, in a fit of madness five years ago. a mistake to be sure -- not to slander the place, the food was all right -- but the magic was gone.

no more live music. no more writing. no more art. no more . . . it.


i sit now in taza, in corryville, where "the buzz" used to be -- another casualty of the local coffee scene. and taza is a good third place. the new CWB is half-full now. the next night-time correspondence book just launched and a couple of people are even writing in it.

but i'll always measure a mocha by sabrina's mocha. and few have measured up since.


  1. Great Post! I will have to check out Taza sometime soon. Maybe next weekend, when I'm up in Ohio for a while.

  2. Good points. I did, however, point out that it could be ANYTHING. We don't need to limit it to just the ones I pointed out, or that you pointed out also.

    FM Talk didn't do so well, though, you're right 100 percent about that.

  3. I can't really tell what 1160 is switching to right now. They are jumping from oldies, to infomercials, to church services, and back. I think it's going to be a Christian format in the end. After all, Christian Broadcasting System, LTD. owns the station, and looking at their portfolio of stations, none are secular radio. All have some sort of Christian format, whether it is talk or music.