A potful of hot water gurgled down on us as we waited, caught in a giggling, shoving crowd, outside Washington’s Coffee ‘n Confusion Club, a beatnik haven marking its first Saturday night of business in the nation’s capital. An irate neighbor in an upstairs apartment had tossed out the hot but not boiling water. The sprinkles from above alighting on the sprinkle of beards in the crowd symbolized one of the oddest clashes in the history of this clash-ridden federal town. For several months now, the prudery of Washington has been at war with the rebellion of its youth.
The war started when a 24-year-old self-styled poet, William A. Walker, decided to open his club. Following the style of shops in San Francisco’s North Beach, it would sell coffee, pastries, biscuits, cream cheese, bagels and poetry. But Walker and his wife, Ruth, a 22-year-old graduate of Vassar, erred strategically in their first attempt by failing to consult officialdom before opening. Zoning laws promptly descended upon them, and police shut down the shop. In their second attempt, the Walkers, moving gingerly, followed every step of the law. They found an abandoned cellar restaurant at 945 K Street, Northwest, rented it, decorated it, and applied for a license. And then the smug traditions of Washington, sensing that the venture might succeed, began to stir and swat at this pesky, tiny threat of non-conformity.
Police officials of the second precinct announced that they would do everything within the law to prevent the coffee shop from opening. Residents of K Street rushed a petition to the offices of the Board of Licenses and Inspections, demanding that the Walkers be prevented from marring the neighborhood with beatniks. One neighbor, a fortune teller, made his disapproval clear by firing four pistol shots through the plate-glass window of the shop while Mrs. Walker was tidying the place. The board, after listening to arguments that the coffee shop might attract trouble, decided that the law could not prevent the Walkers from operating their Coffee ’n Confusion Club if they followed regulations. The second precinct police, however, promised to keep a constant watch on the activities of the establishment and at the slightest sign of trouble, to shut it down. Meanwhile, several complaints of disorderly behavior by patrons of the shop reached the board in the first weeks of activity, and the board is holding hearings to decide whether to revoke the license.
Washington’s antics at finding beatniks bubbling in its midst follow the pattern of its social history. A hundred years ago, Lord Lyons, the round-cheeked, slightly-bearded, youngish British ambassador, wrote home that Washington was “a terrible place for young men, nothing whatever in the shape of amusement for them. .. .” And to this day Washington after dark remains one of the quietest, dreariest and most lifeless capitals of the world.
There simply is no public place where youth may sit and mope into the morning hours, hoarsely settling the tense issues of the day. Bars are forbidden to serve drinks after 2 A.M. on weekdays and midnight on Saturdays. Even before curfew time, Washington’s bars lack the friendly, congenial spirit of bars in New York's Greenwich Village, New Orieans’ French Quarter or San Francisco’s North Beach. Sidewalk cafés also are forbidden. And so is the practice of drinking anything but beer while sitting on a bar stool; liquor must be ordered at a table. No one may stand with a drink of any kind in his hand. If you want to rush across a room filled with merriment to join some friends, you must first beg a waitress to carry your drink there.
The chief aim of these laws no doubt is to restrict the appeal of bars. But they have tended, in addition, to deaden all aspects of night life, for the appeal of coffee shops and all-night bakeries and sandwich counters is as last stops of a night on the town. With most people having their night on the town at home, these shops and bakeries and counters tend to shut well before midnight. This has suited most of the city just fine; Washington, a capital that mirrors much of the nation, would rather be like Middletown, Ohio, than Paris, France. But the situation has left a void for the city’s anxious, intellectual, cosmopolitan youth. It is this void that the Coffee ’n Confusion Shop is trying to fill.
My friends and I had just been chased from a rathskeller by the curfew on the night that we decided to visit the beatnik establishment, which remains open almost until sunrise. Not far from the downtown business district, it is in a once-fashionable residential area that has declined steadily in the last thirty years. The coffee shop fills the cellar of a three-story building. A real estate office is on the first floor, apartments above. A shaggy lawn separates the building far from the street, giving ample room for the 150 to 200 persons we found milling about and trying to get into the packed, noisy shop.
Although some sported beards and jeans, most had pipes and ivy slacks, and a few, like myself, blatantly showed up with ties. A huge bearded fellow, looking more like a butcher than a poet in his smeared apron, faced the crowd, stretched out his arms and shouted that no one else could fit inside. A light shining above the door made the pimples on his forehead blaze. He urged everyone to disperse and return in two hours. But the crowd only murmured, smiled and glared back. It took that potful of hot water, tossed by some unseen upstairs neighbor, to move the crowd back.
My group of four approached the bearded, pimpled giant and confided that we were two reporters and their young lady friends, all curious to see his coffee shop, perhaps for a story. Talk of the press impressed him, and he allowed us to slip in, at a cost of a dollar a head.
Walker, also thickly-bearded, was standing on a podium at the far end of the shop. “I told you not to let anyone else in,” he shouted. The giant, waving the money, replied, “But this is bread, man,” and Walker quieted. Seats were found for three of us, and I stood against the door, next to a college co-ed perched on the top rung of a painter’s ladder. Low-watted, unadorned bulbs hung from the ceiling, revealing a black-painted, small room with a décor of foreign newspapers pasted on some walls. About eighty customers stood or sat around clothless, coffee-mugged tables in the unfanned heat.
A poetry reading was on tap, but Walker, not receiving the absolute quiet he needed, waved his arms wildly, looking like a bearded eagle, and screamed,“Will you keep quiet man? Will you shut up?” But the jumbled patter of voices continued. “Will you shut the f--- up?” an exasperated Walker finally shrieked at his customers, “Do I have to shock you into silence?” His last plea had an effect and the room quieted enough for Walker and several colleagues to begin reading round after round of poetry.
With toms-toms beating behind them, the soft, intense voices of the young men fascinated their audience, who applauded lustily and chanted “Yeah, man” after each rendition. For the most part, the poems beat out a dreary, trite sameness, mainly because the authors took themselves too seriously. One ode to Modigliani, for example, praised the painter for bringing the musky odor of passion to his canvases. Walker liked to talk of “God in his pad” or people who’ve “been reaching for the moon too long, man,” as if the mere juxtaposition of jive talk and community values could fashion the power and brilliance of irreverence. But one poet, Dick Dabney, offered a wit and gaiety lacking in his dreary friends, and I couldn’t help smiling as he read his twinkling “Charlie Starkweather Blues.” Dabney, however, also reached a height of bad taste when, just a few weeks after the funeral, he talked of the “golden abdomen of John Foster Dulles” in a poem describing the images of Washington.
The heat, noise and poetry finally proved too much, and we escaped into the street. I had not seen anything to justify the police moving in and closing the place. Nor had I seen anything that might justify academicians of the twenty-first century uncovering and explicating any verses from the Washington beat school. The only thing I had seen was further proof that our nation’s capital can use more all-night spots where the city’s sensitive youth, like youth in all other great cities of the world, may wrestle with the bleary problems of the mind in the excitement of coffee and the dawn.
STANLEY MEISLER is a Washington newspaper man and occasional contributor to critical and political journals.