The Desert Palace
On the streets of Koreatown, a woman was howling in Spanish for her missing dog, which had one ear yellow and one mauve: a locally famous dog, Casper recognised it from the billboard for the grooming shop next to the weed dispensary on Olympic-Vermont. Huge purple flowers drifted over the sidewalks. He continued walking towards the smoggy mountains until he reached the crossroads of Wilshire-Vermont. There was a man outside the coffee shop, outside Starbucks dressed in rags and bent over the Wall Street Journal crossword, who claimed he was the exiled King of Babylon.
As he entered Casper was already thinking about how to say hello and goodbye to the barista, what to order and how to pronounce his own name clearly. This was really his only point of social interaction with the world.
‘Tall, hot, coffee, room for cream, please,’ he said.
In the far corner of the room somebody was moaning outside the closed toilet door, pounding on it, as was usually the case; on the other side of the door somebody was taking heroin in a leisurely fashion and around 10 minutes later would wander out under the blue sky with its warming aromas of flattened quesadillas cooking in a van and jasmine in bloom. Casper looked around the crossroads and he felt less alone.
Hours later as he also wandered out into the light, nauseous from complimentary refills, he found he had a heightened awareness of the ecclesiastical architecture, the jagged stonework casting shadows off the church and along the boulevard. It was one of those isolated spires of Los Angeles that made nonsense of its environment: a Latin-Gothic tower rising above the half-naked skateboarders and Korean wellness businesses like a morally ambiguous character’s lair in a superhero movie.
‘Believe in Jesus Christ, go to heaven!’ boomed a tape recording through speakers fastened to a little man standing at the crossroads, dressed in a sandwich board of many languages, performing a role somewhere in-between prophet, street furniture, dictionary and ventriloquist. ‘Believe in Jesus Christ, go to heaven!’ A jeep stopped beside him, tinted windows rolled all the way up, and two wealthy-looking Korean girls swung their bare legs out of its right-hand-side doors and pulled on their facemasks in unison, along with matching expressions of disgust, before running up the stairs into the apartment building above the Starbucks.
Casper spent the morning in the coffee shop hoping that somebody would talk to him but nobody did. He was lonely but had no one to tell about his loneliness, except for some people he didn’t particularly like, but (and this was a common source of despair in modern megalopolises) he couldn’t tell them in case they tried to become his close friends. His life, he thought (Casper had been watching documentaries about the ocean while falling asleep) was like that of a Sargasso frogfish waiting disguised as seaweed for many weeks, longing for a fish to swim into its mouth. I have been waiting, he thought to himself, draining myself of my colour and blending into my surroundings.
That morning a voice had spoken to him, a kind voice had said, ‘imagine a faint ray of light shining in the middle of your stomach,’ and for 20 long confusing seconds continued to order Casper around until he realised he had forgotten to mute the mindfulness app on his phone.
Today a disconcerting man in a black hoodie was marching along the counter at Starbucks, and tucked under his arm was a book titled Spiritual Emergency. Sometimes a person just had to spell things out. He was possessed of the kind of restless intensity that you might expect in a space churning out industrial amounts of coffee around the clock but which you rarely witnessed, so soft and comforting were the surroundings.
Casper was served by a young barista with a disfigured face, who looked sort of villainous as though he might live in the Latin-Gothic tower rising out of the church, the church with an ever-dwindling congregation, and who told him to have a nice day with an unusual degree of warmth and sincerity.
On his way home he accepted many leaflets at the crossroads, wishing to please the old women handing out Christian literature there.
He was served again by the man with the disfigured face. He ordered a tall caramel macchiato and a cookie – a warmed-up chocolate-chip cookie – because it was Tuesday, and he liked how the chocolate melting inside the dough made the heart of the cookie appear grey, how it was slightly transparent like a recently hatched songbird, how he could swirl the contents around in his mouth and feel things changing from cookie to coffee, coffee to cookie, these melting, slippery registers of sugar and salt dissolving into his sad throat. In this late-capitalist period devoted mostly to the fulfilling of desires, it was important to contemplate and understand what exactly one’s desires were. Casper was usually concentrating on or chasing after little pleasures, throughout the day and the night: hot showers, after-jogging coffees, sugars, hand-jobs, yoga-rolls, bubble baths, charcoal waters.
It was the morning that the Starbucks red cups had arrived in store, marking the changing of the seasons in a part of the world where the seasons never actually changed, and consequently most people followed the moon instead. Inside they were playing one of Casper’s favourite albums, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, and the air smelt of cinnamon. He ordered a tall gingerbread latte.
‘Anything else for you today Casper?’ asked the disfigured barista, who had somehow remembered his name. A disfigured barista had remembered his name. Over the coming two weeks they would build a rapport – although not too much of one, because that could become weird sometimes – so that Casper could order his favourite drink in a red cup without speaking a word.
Today he noticed a young lady that he had never seen before, sitting at the long worktable under a cloud of great sadness. She sat there watching everybody else and tearing at a croissant intently for hours and hours, and he thought she was mysterious, like the Starbucks mermaid.
On the six occasions that he attempted to catch her eye she looked away immediately, before he had raised his face even. He wanted so much to speak with her however he had read somewhere that to desire somebody, without their consent, was a form of psychic violence and wholly unacceptable, and in any case he was a coward.
In the morning there were four slim Korean guys in cardigans draped across the Wilshire-Vermont Starbucks milk station in a louche yet intimidating manner, like leopard seals on an ice floe.
Casper sat at the long worktable close to the entrance because this was where the miserable-appearing young woman had been sitting. Other people were sat around with their laptops: making do, or waiting around, whatever happened in cafes. Casper had nothing to do so busied himself reading all of the Yelp reviews of this Starbucks in reverse chronological order. The first one began, ‘Words can’t explain how much I hate this Starbucks...’
4 November (2nd visit)
He found himself wondering all the time what these strangers were doing on their computers. He had to know; he turned voyeur. Casper: bored, slothful with longing in Starbucks in Koreatown, wandering around with a coffee and sneaking glances at bright screens.
There was a boy singing love songs to somebody on Skype.
A college girl messaging a much older man. ‘Happy birthday!’ she was writing amongst strings of innocent-looking but loosely suggestive emoji. ‘You were never born and you’ll never die. Thank you sooo much for existing. I’m going to be with you in all of your coming lives! Meanwhile in this one, give me all your money.’
An old woman commenting on amateur music videos of the songs of her youth: ‘it is really beautiful and reminds me of playing in snow.’
A group of middle-aged men writing a crowd-funding application, working title ‘September 11th redux’, for $10,000,000, with the description: ‘we will fly a large, fully loaded aircraft into a World-Trade-Center-like structure. Goal is to re-enact 9/11…’ Actually, thought Casper as he wandered around the long table, that’s kind of a good idea. The coffee shop was like a workhouse where all the leaking interzones of the online world were refilled again and again with words, long past the dusk.
Today the miserable-appearing young woman came back to Starbucks and sat there watching everybody else. Sometimes she scribbled in a notebook with a sharpened pencil and sometimes she drew lines alongside, around or winding through passages on printouts of wikiHow articles, which were illustrated with drawings of figures holding up their hands, embracing or reaching out towards one another, but otherwise she just watched. Apart from Casper nobody watched back, because they were all lost in their own worlds, which continued on across centuries and light years.
After one or two hours of sitting opposite one another, she spoke.
‘Can you show me how to download a YouTube video onto my computer?’ she said. ‘I don’t have any internet at home.’
So he downloaded the video for her. It was a video about how to become a different person. It offered suggestions like, ‘…find someone who genuinely embodies the pure person you want to be. Maybe one person dresses like you want to and another person acts like you want to. You can use those pieces of each person as inspiration...’
Casper told her that this was one of nicest coffee shops in Koreatown.
‘I very much fucking doubt that,’ she said.
‘Ummm, so, why do you want to become a different person?’ he asked.
‘Because I feel very unhappy. And because everything is constructed. If you’re still here tomorrow, I could show you exactly how this Starbucks is constructed,’ she said. ‘Thank you for downloading my video.’
‘On this row of stools, to the side of the bar,’ said Lotte, which was her name, ‘you can see behind-the-scenes and watch the baristas at work, making espresso coffee, cold-brew coffee, brewed coffee, coffee syrup, drip coffee – they have at least five or more different ways of making coffee all happening side by side, harmoniously.
‘They offer a selection of rare coffees from around the world (which nobody ever buys) from places like Rwanda, Colombia, Antigua, Sumatra, East Timor, from these magical-sounding and dangerous places around the world, and this suggests a possibility of escape, adventure. Look around you. Look at that large photograph of red coffee beans on a tree and another of piles of coffee beans in varying stages of preparation. Both photographs are illuminated with soft spotlights. So is everything, even the pastries and candy inside the glowing display case – sometimes when you arrive just before closing, you can see this case completely emptied and swung open from above like a spaceship – and those sweet things are themselves deconstructed versions of drinks and other sweet things around them: a coffee cake, a frappuccino-motif iced sugar cookie, a duffin (which is a donut and a muffin), a cookie straw to enjoy your coffee through, a caramel waffle-cone frappuccino, a cake-pop – another strange idea with every new moon. Everything here is constructed, and deconstructed, and constructed again endlessly, until the end of time. Look at the blackboards behind the bar’ – Casper looked at the blackboards. They also had spotlights on them.
‘On that blackboard is a hand-annotated cross section of a new drink, an iced coconut milk mocha frappuccino (which sounds pretty good) complete with different sizes and corresponding calorie counts. All of this quantified, scientific description,’ she said, ‘as though they’re anxious to prove to us that the drink actually exists? I have to go to a workshop tonight, now.’
‘I can tell you more about this tomorrow, if I’m not boring you. Stop me if I’m boring you.’
‘Look,’ said Lotte, raising her eyes towards the ceiling, ‘there are over a hundred lights in this shop. Some branches have over a thousand. Softened spotlights and dimmed, diffuse overhead circles, all of which together make up a golden caramel glow. Listen: these songs are from decades ago and they play quietly, muffled and thick with lower frequencies as though they were coming from a long, long distance away.’
‘It’s about how this place makes you feel. When it’s magic hour outside, from around seven thirty until eight o’clock as the amber sunset collapses in through the windows, everything becomes a dream glowing green and gold – like that painting, The Tempest – with so much light and somehow still dark, the Starbucks empire is maintained at a darkness slightly more than that of the outside world, dark like coffee. This table is made of dark coffee-coloured wood. Those tiles behind the bar are the same shade of dark green as… so here we are, in the deconstructed coffee-flavoured world. The mise en abyme. Coffee inside of coffee inside of coffee.’
‘Oh,’ said Casper.
‘Has it ever occurred to you,’ she said in a tone that suggested it should have done, ‘that whoever is designing these interiors might be absolutely insane? What they are proposing, I think, is that consciousness is an object, a rippling form of wave after wave, and that emotions are like shots of bitter coffee, and pours of syrup, and spoonfuls of milky foam. It’s about how this place makes you feel,’ she said, again. ‘That is what they’re making here.’
She allowed him to walk her to the subway that evening. Towards a flashing orange open palm beckoning them across Wilshire. Under two sparrows twisting and bouncing through the air together, like tennis balls through the weed smoke. Around a one-legged man sat outside the subway, smiling with his eyes closed and leg crossed in the shape of a pretzel.
As Casper made his way back over the crossroads a preacher shouted into his face, ‘Oh I got that beautiful husband, that beautiful wife! Let me tell you – those things are going to go!’
In the morning they watched a middle-aged woman who couldn’t stop shaking having her breakfast on one of the wrought-iron tables outside the Starbucks – or was it the objects themselves that were shaking? She was struggling to hold onto her sweet iced tea and croissantwich, struggling to raise one or the other up to her mouth. The container of sweet iced tea shook itself free and disgorged itself over her.
‘Sometimes I think joy and sadness are so entwined with one another, that they’re essentially the same feeling,’ said Casper: ‘something like a pleasure in and longing for the world.’
‘That’s, like, sort of true,’ said Lotte shaking her head, ‘but also suggests that you’ve never actually experienced any real sadness in your life.’
They were sat outside. She seemed unusually sad today. He offered to buy her something sweet or a croissantwich because of the sadness but she told him she didn’t want anything. So he bought himself a tall caramel macchiato and chocolate-chip cookie, warmed-up, and Lotte ate most of it, which annoyed him.
Sparrows gathered in little conspiratorial groups under the tables, pecking at the cookie crumbs in circles, as though they were planning something.
Today there was a flock of birds sat on the many-tiered wires in the hot air, spelling out letters. Lotte wanted to show Casper something she had written the evening previous at a workshop at a temple in the Palisades. It was 14 words long:
‘Now I am turning into a mountain. Happy as a mountain. Dancing around and…’
‘Lotte this is terrible,’ he said. ‘What is this even supposed to be?’
An awkward silence descended from the heavens. Through the window they watched the old man in rags, who claimed he was a Babylonian king, falling asleep and waking up and falling asleep and waking up outside Starbucks as ‘Silent Night’ played softly inside the store.
‘I said I was sorry.’
‘But it’s okay… it’s fine… it’s okay, because there are so many more opportunities out there, so many anxious moments, around 23,767 more Starbucks, just think how many lights that is, how they would join together like galaxies, like a supermassive planetarium reaching around every city.’
Above them the lights were wobbling around on the periphery of Casper’s vision. The ceiling would vibrate, shimmer.
‘And the atoms, the atoms in our bodies,’ she said, ‘they have been everything in the universe (the moon, a thousand suns, these cookies, a horse’s tongue) and we are always changing. We are made of stardust. In the beginning the two of us might have been the same comet; falling together through the black sky,’ and she walked out through the swinging doors and poured what remained of her Peppermint Mocha into the cracked dirt beneath the palms, a blessing for the dead.
After this, Casper would often awake in the middle of the night, in those few hours when Starbucks wasn’t open: where could he go now, at this hour, he thought, what could he do? Over sleepless time an idea rose slowly in his mind concerning how in the late-19th century the Sultan Abdul Hamid II wished to impress Kaiser William II in Berlin, so he sent him the Desert Palace of Mshatta. He wondered in those moments whether, as she no longer visited the Wilshire-Vermont Starbucks, he could somehow find out her address and send her the entire Wilshire-Vermont Starbucks as an apology and a Christmas present. But this seemed unlikely for a variety of reasons, not least the fact that everybody that worked there had forgotten Casper’s name and his face, overnight, as though he had vanished with her.
In the long morning line an old, homeless-looking man tapped him on the shoulder and asked him if he liked pancakes.
‘No,’ said Casper, completely dishonestly, wary of where this conversation might be going.
‘Oh,’ said the old man. ‘Only I was just walking past IHOP and a woman there approached me and offered to buy me some pancakes, she bought me two stacks of hot pancakes with whipped butter and two jugs of maple syrup and, oh, it was just so delicious, it was so delicious, it made me so very happy. I’m sorry I didn’t mean to bother you – ’
‘Uh. No, no, it’s okay.’
‘I’m sorry, but I just wanted to tell somebody how happy I feel,’ he was smiling. ‘Because I didn’t have anyone to tell how delicious it was. I didn’t mean to bother you.’
‘No, really, it’s okay, really I like pancakes…’
Casper considered buying this man a coffee, in much the same way that Sultan Abdul Hamid II had considered giving Kaiser William II the Desert Palace of Mshatta, that one stranger had considered buying another two stacks of pancakes from the International House of Pancakes, only he hesitated and the moment slowly passed. But he bought himself a coffee and it warmed him inside, and he listened to the Christmas songs and checked his phone and looked out the tall windows and dreamt of metropolitan life.
Photograph by Stoednter / Harvard College Library