If you type the name of a city into a map app—just the name, no streets, no restaurants, no points of interest—usually, an icon will appear to represent the geographical center of that city. But that icon represents no actual city center. The true center of a city is selected by the individual. It may be the person’s home, or a spot dripping with nostalgia out on the edge of town, or—as in my case—a coffee shop.
Almost 20 years ago, I began writing in earnest. I was in law school, but I already felt that I needed a creative pursuit to take the edge off the case books and all-nighters. At that time, I lived in a house full of people, so I couldn’t find the kind of quiet necessary to enter the zone of creation.
My search for a suitable writing space didn’t go well at first. The libraries closed too early. Restaurants didn’t make sense: the thought of getting hollandaise sauce on my laptop made me anxious. And I never even considered writing at the law school itself. Writing a short story in the law stacks would have been like bringing a picnic basket—larded with soft cheese and champagne—to my dentist’s office.
One day, I stumbled into a coffee shop at the corner of Oak and Carrollton called Rue de la Course. People sat at study tables chatting or working. I wasn’t a coffee drinker, so the whole vibe was new to me. But over the following decade, I frequented many such local shops that all seemed to reflect some aspect of the city: Rue, in its very name, gave shine to our French-speaking traditions; Flora, located in a tumbledown house covered in foliage, felt like a return to paradise; and Mojo, Z’otz, Treme Coffee and Café Luna were jewels of their respective neighborhoods. Much later, newcomers like Rook or Baldwin and Co. would appear.
Yes, most American cities have plenty of homegrown coffee shops. New Orleans is not unique in this respect. But have you been to New Orleans? Visitors often say the city has a peculiar vibe. We don’t feel like other American cities. My favorite alternative descriptor of my hometown is “the Westernmost City of the Caribbean.” A popular saying, created by the artist phlegm in opposition to our gentrification, was, “Everything you love about New Orleans is because of Black people.” The city is still majority African diasporic, even after the natural and man-made tragedies of the past two decades. It makes sense, then, that New Orleans would have a diverse array of eating and drinking establishments, but especially coffee shops.
And this is where my iconoclastic nature comes into play. You would think that my favorite coffee shop might be one that is drenched in that New Orleans spirit. It might feature murals of brass bands or an enlarged photo of Mardi Gras Indians. I love all that iconography because I love the people who play those instruments and embody those roles. But my instinct is forever toward the unusual and unexpected. In a city where everything is one-of-a-kind, where does one find the unique? My stories and books owe a debt to all the coffee shops I’ve frequented. I still visit the ones that remain in business. But a decade ago, I fell in love with a newcomer called the Orange Couch. Sometimes, I drove over during my breaks from the law office, even if that meant I skipped my actual lunch and only had 30 minutes of quality writing time. On Saturdays, I arrived at the Couch before they opened at sunrise to secure one of the best seats: either the corner spot away from all the activity or the seat right next to the coffee service.
It took me a while to figure out what brought me back so often. How do we begin to explain attraction? We explain attraction by understanding our desire for light. We turn like flowerheads toward the sun. We can’t help it.
Most New Orleans shops of the time had that darkly, ramshackle aesthetic, which was fine. But this one looked more like an art gallery, with its completely white interior and wide-plate glass windows. It was the light, the sunlight, the reflected light that washed through the space. This captured my imagination. It made me think of a childhood spent with friends at the playground and big, friendly sunfl owers. Those giant windows were particularly felicitous on those Saturday mornings, when I had the whole day ahead of me. Because the windows face east and south, on bright days, light would fill the space from sun-up to well past noon. The sunlight bounced off the walls and counters. Washed over the tables and paintings. Brought out that orange in the couch at the center of the room.
I’m a New Orleans homer. Unlike most people, I didn’t move away for college or I didn’t find a good job elsewhere. Yet, since the pandemic started, I’ve lived beyond the borders of my city. And I’ve spent a lot of time over the past two years in Mississippi and Central Louisiana. But whenever I return to New Orleans, I think about all the things I call home.
I call home salty humidity. I call home Blackness. Funk is home. Blue notes are home. Late nights in friends’ kitchens is home. Gumbo, red beans, jambalaya, titled houses, broken pavement, Black-cents, even yat-cents. Home. Home. Home.
But home is also history.
We are majority Black. We are southern Black. Many of our ancestors came from Haiti, fought for their freedom in Haiti. Their ancestors came from West Africa. That rice dish you eat in New Orleans is still served in Lagos. That syncopated beat you hear the brass bands play is still played in Accra.
I must also acknowledge the history of native peoples, including the ones who called the city Bulbancha. But I also note that the city has had many other names.
The history of New Orleanians of African descent is more complex than has ever been portrayed in popular culture. Some of our ancestors were enslaved within the city limits. But in the 19th Century, many others, particularly the Creoles (those with French lineage predating the United States) were free and owned impressive homes and thriving businesses. They came in all shades of brown from very light to very dark. Many of them could read and write. Yes, even some of the enslaved people could read and write.
But it should come as no surprise that New Orleans became an inhospitable city for Blacks in the years leading up to the Civil War. Draconian laws were passed by the state legislature to, for example, ban enslaved people from being taught to read. It also became illegal to free an enslaved person through manumission.
Later, after the war ended, during the Reconstruction Era, Blacks served in government. We thrived. But Reconstruction was short-lived. The gains were erased, as was much of the literature of the history.
I’m saying all this to say that generations of Black New Orleanians had the talent to write and perspectives worth sharing. And, indeed, many of us have shared. Today, we owe so much to our literary ancestors and elders such as Alice Dunbar Nelson, Tom Dent, Kalamu Ya Salaam, Fatima Shaik, Mona Lisa Saloy, Jerry Ward Jr. and many others.
But if you asked most literary people from outside the city whom they would call a quintessentially New Orleans writer, they might say Tennessee Williams or perhaps William Faulkner. Neither of them are from the city and neither of them are Black.
Why are those writers the standard bearers? Well, there’s white supremacy, misogynoir and mass incarceration, to name a few obstacles. Plus, it’s difficult to write if you don’t have educational opportunities or if you live in a society that would prefer that you not write. Because what is writing if not freedom?
Virginia Woolf said that every writer needs a room of her own. Yes, she was talking in a different context, but her point applies to people like me in my city. We need places to enter the zone of creation.
I write, in part, because I cherish the feeling of freedom the activity offers. I love my city’s coffee shops because they offer a place and an occasion to exercise that feeling of freedom.
My city has many centers. But when it comes to writing, the shops are where I belong. If the shop has a bright couch, and a sweet cup of strong coffee, I’m that much the happier.
Normally, this is where I’d end an essay like this. You, the reader, could envision me sitting in my seat, smartly dressed in a cravat, by the coffee service for many decades to come. Perhaps for eternity. But I’m from New Orleans, a city that lives in most people’s hearts but may not live long in the world. I know that this life is finite, if nothing else.
Even in my happiest moments of sun-dappled writing, I’m aware that my hometown is at severe risk from the effects of the climate crisis. Sometimes, while pecking away at my keyboard, my mind wanders. The gold and yellow hues along the wall turn aquarial. The light shimmers and cools to aquamarine, turquoise, cerulean. I’m in the not-too-distant future, where my favorite writing spot is now under 10 feet of water.
50 percent of New Orleans is already below sea level. The ice at the ends of the earth is melting due to our love of cars, to-go cups and the blockchain. Early in the pandemic, I was trapped on the I-10 for the first time because a normal storm flooded the off ramp.
When I’m writing in New Orleans, I know that I’m writing near the end of time. We used to have Atlantis, Mu, Ys, and many other lands of the imagination that disappeared into the waters of time. This, more than anything, is why I cherish my writing spots so much. I may be of the last generation to make use of them.
Contemporary visitors can return to their homes on higher ground. But a local like myself may have to dream from beneath the seas.
Maurice Carlos Ruffin is the author of The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You, a New York Times Editor’s Choice that was also long-listed for the Story Prize, and We Cast a Shadow, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the PEN America Open Book Prize.