Old radio station in Palo Alto

Hans Visits the Soda Fountain

The light seems. It reflects to the eyes of Hans Hans from Peninsula Creamery Fountain’s window-glass across Hamilton and Emerson traffic. Feet sweating, clothes smelling sweet, forehead wet, Hans squints at sliding images of sun-glint chrome and polished baked paints, car windows with vanishing pieces of street and sky. Sleek cars’ brakes squeak; they rest at red lights, idle. Their drivers’ eyes are veiled behind light shields, tinted windshields, in their automatics, but Hans breathes breezes, feels rayon pants, cotton shirt, leather shoes. Light reflects concrete, wood, steel, and glass. Makes Hans see.

On the glass door of the Fountain: No Shirt, Shoes, Service. Syllepsis, reflects Hans, pushing open the door, wearing his shirt and shoes. He scans the place for a seat, and reads: No Booth Service, Order at the Counter Please. An ugly sign. Behind the counter are three pretty girls. One with thin brown hair, tied back, blue eyes, apron on, smiles for a customer, avuncular, his back to Hans, in a row of backs, facing the girls, self-assured and innocent, to please the faces of the men. What goes on behind those eyes?

“A cup of coffee?” She moves habitually to the coffee machine, possibly without thinking of coffee or coffee machine. On shelves below the mirrors behind the counter are little cereal boxes, glasses, cups, and saucers. She lays the coffee in a cup, cup in saucer, on the counter. “Do I pay there, at the register?” Hans asks, forthrightly unavuncular. “Yes; forty cents.” Her manner marks time; she makes her face to avoid reply, a screen. Hans measures milk from a creamer, to overfill his cup, and shuffles to the end of the counter.

“Hello.” Another young girl, smiling, and all the rest. “Forty cents?” Hans, fumbling with his wallet, coffee sloshing into the saucer, says, “Here’s a dollar.” The money exchanges with noises: ching tinck of the register, clink slingth of the coin in the drawer. Hans takes his change in hand with thanks, lingk grink, balances his coffee and wallet and backpack to a booth by the window, looks at, is looked at by, a man with his hamburger eaten, and sits to face the counter but looks out the window. His legs and back relax, to set things in order: replace his wallet, sip the slosh from the saucer, warm and bitter, position his coffee cup, adjust his pack on the vinyl seat, take out a book, and place it beside his cup.

To see, from the inside, the street, and on the glass, his face, reflected, inside, reflective, all this in Hans’s eyes, ears, my face, he thinks, it seems. The red vinyl upholstered seats, linoleum floors, formica tables feel; metal-lined counter with red vinyl stools, sets of stainless steel service napkin holder straw holder, sugar salt and pepper cellars, ashtrays see. Symptoms of its “institutional” value are visible, Hans thinks, as its heritage from prior years: designed, inefficiently, not for comfort but for cleanliness, in the fashion of those times, not for the eye, but for economy, or, instead, not “designed,” but made to do, through the years, using available and recommended materials, by a now-absent owner and hired help, accepted and passed on, creating an evolution of effects: veneer paneling, over tile, over what?

One refill. Read. Refill. And now what time is it? Hans considers the illusion that our lives are ordered by this device, wrist manacled by it. A matter of determining. One should hope so. Or simply leave, and leave hoping for the helpless. Hans picks up his pack, returns his book, stands, slings it over his shoulder, looks left behind at objects left behind, lost time, found time, an indeterminate.

Through the double doors, Hans is blinded by the light of the street, something definite: a thoroughfare in a town including sidewalks. Hans fumbles for a moment of shade. Free will and forced will. Free within limits. This evening will free those Eves to leave their caffeine Eden. And I, as if their God, desire them but realize, as an old man, that most of what they are is beyond my grasp. They belong elsewhere this evening. Home and play, friends and own. Love and desire; fear and impatience. Or to face her parents with a lie? If only I could explain. Never enough time, we say, but what do we mean? As if there could be more than 24 hours in a day, and calling it 28 would make no difference. Freedom within limits. Liberty, not freedom. A bum on the street is free but not to do what he wants. To do without. A sign on a pawnshop: Priceless Kittens; that is, free.

Across the street again, Hans looks at the window, and in the window, back again. Man made it a window, he thinks. Yet it reflects. Like the brain. I think I think, he thinks, with a human’s brain, but the thought? Is that what I think? The inefficiency of the glass causes it to reflect; the dark interior is a screen. The conditions which make the thought reflect conditions. Inside man is a screen, to reflect: Is the brain man-made? Is man? Man-made, maid-made, chance-made or God-made? Made to reflect conditions. To make it with a waitress. Possibilities, potential, unguessed, unused. If real life’s thoughts were as interesting as literature. The mirage of thinking. Light seems to make it so. Seems to make light of it. Seams of light, of the eye, I, my pants, seem blue, panting, seem tired, need ironing, iron in the blood. In the ice-age, unable to adapt, man invented fire. Needs oxygen. The inefficiency of the brain, the dark interior a screen. Only human, that is, made to err. Otherwise we would be transparent or opaque, unreflective. But Hans breathes breezes, squints at sliding images, on the glass, inside a screen, a soda fountain seems. Makes him see.