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The (cafe) flora and fauna

As part of NolaVie’s new Yeah you write! campaign, we are inviting readers to submit New Orleans-related content for a chance to have their work featured on our site. Whether it’s a personal essay about moving from New Orleans, a photo of French Quarter Fest, or a video of a second line, we want to know: what’s your New Orleans story?

Today’s featured submission, about an eccentric Bywater cafe and its patrons, is from Katherine Macfarlane, a professor at LSU Law Center in Baton Rouge. You can follow her on Twitter @theotherjanedoe

Cafe Flora

Cafe Flora

Around 8:30 a.m. one steamy summer morning, I pulled up to Café Flora, on the edge of the Marigny, and found a police car parked outside. Well, technically, it was across the street from Café Flora, closer to the entrance to Big Daddy’s, out of which people stumble as late as 9 a.m., forearms raised to block the sun from their squinting eyes, still clad in going-out skirts and boots. To be fair, Café Flora is also near the site of recent home burglaries, the kind that might require a follow-up, investigatory visit, since no perpetrator has been caught. But I assumed that whatever was going on was going on inside my favorite coffee shop, which made me catch my breath. Nonetheless, I went inside. This would merely become a typical morning at Café Flora, where I’ve taken up residence this summer to work, watch, and listen.

I feel at ease in New Orleans — in this part of town in particular. It took me a few weeks to find my perfect coffee shop, a place I could settle in to for the better half of the day. The Orange Couch was an early candidate, but it’s too pristine, reminiscent of a fancy hospital’s cafeteria. And no one talks there; they just stare at their laptop screens for hours. Satsuma is just too . . . Brooklyn, a borough I escaped about a year ago after getting sick of TOMS and having my feet run over by $1000 stroller wheels. At Satsuma, just like in Brooklyn, it takes longer to order food and drink than it does to consume the food and drink you order. And good luck finding somewhere to sit.

Not so at Café Flora. Full of misfit moxie and short on cash? Café Flora is the place for you. Here, the tattooed and the unemployed, the slightly unkempt and the recently arrived gather together to break bread. Take your slow-drip coffee cravings elsewhere.

I’ve witnessed a little bit of everything at Café Flora. Sometimes two men gather at a corner table and lean over scribble-filled pages of notebook paper to discuss what I hypothesize is numerology. I’ve heard the barrista offer legal advice about the precise plea to take following a felony arrest.

Once, a political strategist without an office (“That’s why our overheard is so low!”) counseled a guy in his 30s wearing a pastel polo shirt tucked into his belted khakis about how to break into Louisiana politics. The strategist advised him to let his policy goals “marinate,” to which he responded, “I’ve got a really special team here, looking to do something special.” He kept on repeating the word “coastal” and the phrase “THAT’S why I went to Georgetown!”

“So, I have this opportunity to go to Yale for a few years. Do you think that would help my chances?” the politico-in-training asked.

“Nah. No one cares about where you went to school,” the strategist said gently. At Café Flora, even the political operatives cannot lie.

The café is more formerly known as “Flora Gallery and Café.” The art, however, is not for sale. Rather, it’s part of the decor. The wall space that isn’t covered by actual exposed brick is covered in wall painted to look like brick. There are Mardi Gras masks hanging all around, just above eye level, though one of these, I realize, is also painted. There are two doors, one that swings back and forth whenever someone enters, creating a pleasant breeze, and another one that’s sturdy and wooden, propped open during business hours and covered in stray staples, tape, and advertisements for music or film or comedy shows both upcoming and long gone. Today I notice a flyer for a Hobby Lobby protest. That has already happened. WWOZ is always, always on the radio. There’s a shelf to the left of the entrance stacked with John Grisham novels, board games, and an empty fishbowl.

“Where ya’ll from?” my favorite barrista, Andrea, asks a young lost couple who have entered Café Flora, tiptoeing up to the counter Andrea is perched behind.

“New Jersey,” they offer.

“New Joisey!”  Andrea exclaims. “I’ve got people up there. New Joisey. What are y’all up to here?”

People seem compelled to share their life stories with Andrea. Maybe because she’s enthusiastic about the smallest details, the little thing you two might have in common, like friends in New Jersey. Andrea is also full of good advice. If you need to buy milk, she’ll give you a list of at least three places, and tell you how to get to each one. She also knows where to catch shows, buy furniture, and meet “good people.” She remembers if you’re fasting for Ramadan and offers words of encouragement. When she noticed that I wasn’t wearing my “big black glasses” I felt like I’d finally arrived.

“Ya’ll are going to like it! You’re gonna have a good time!” Andrea wraps up the conversation with the young kids on a positive note. She remains hopeful about everyone’s chances here in New Orleans.

As for Café Flora’s merchandise, she’s a realist.

“Here . . . well, we’ve got soy milk and almond milk and coconut milk and skim milk,” Andrea tells another would-be customer. “But the baked goods, they’re just baked goods.”

Café Flora skipped all of the fuss overtaking coffee shop culture across the nation.  The cookies taste like Tollhouse, retail for $1, and hit the spot. For lunch I like the creamy cauliflower soup, or maybe the lentil, accompanied by just the right amount of neatly sliced pita.

I don’t even drink coffee. Instead, I drink Café Flora’s iced tea. The first three times I ordered it, each barrista asked me, “Have you had it before? It’s different,” before letting me buy it. I suspect it’s actually just cranberry juice mixed with soda water, and not tea at all, but I like it all the same.

Iced that isn’t iced tea, art that doesn’t come off the walls, and advice about everything from crime to political strategy to a quart of milk. What more could you want from a coffee shop?

On the day the cop car was parked out front, Café Flora seemed a little off. Andrea wasn’t working. A cop was, in fact, inside the café, but he was sitting at a table fiddling with his phone, arresting no one and looking lost. The barrista offered him coffee, food, anything he’d like. When people walked past him they gave him a wide berth.

Someone had called the local police precinct to report a snake. Inside Café Flora’s kitchen.

I heard this after I’d set up shop, laptop open, papers strewn about my favorite table — the one next to the fish tank. I realized that most of the morning regulars were sitting outside today. Everyone was talking about the snake.

“It was a cobra.I won’t go near it,” said a bearded middle-aged man.

“The cook found it,” said someone else.

“Maybe the Audubon Zoo will take it,” the cop told Café Flora’s harried owner, who’d been waiting for someone to take care of the snake for hours.

“Hello? Oh, hello. You’re Trapper . . . Jon?  Trapper Jon, yeah?” A confused conversation followed in which the cop tried to figure out if Trapper Jon, a local snake catcher, was employed by the city of New Orleans. He was not.

“I mean, you can come, but I wouldn’t recommend it,” said the cop. “We can’t cover you for anything that happens.”

After two cups of coffee, the cop left. Even though the snake remained, Café Flora’s clientele settled down. The cop’s close-cropped hair and neatly starched uniform did not fit in; Café Flora is for relaxing, not law and order.

“Is the bathroom safe?” I asked the woman working behind the counter after the cop left. “I mean, I know the snake’s in the kitchen . . .”

“Yeah, I think so. Yeah. Sure.”

Good enough.

I have no idea what happened to the snake. Maybe it’s taken up residence here, too. Everyone’s welcome at Café Flora. So long as you don’t carry handcuffs.


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