“You two do a lot of things with no income stream, don’t you?”
– Cafe Domenico customer, coffeeshop owner
“[The Cafe] is revolutionary, sort of.”
– Customer and artist
This week our small Utica Cafe has good cause for (pandemically-muted, mindfully tempered) rejoicing. The “Be A Good Neighbor” award, involving a substantial cash amount, is the project of a local grassroots organization called Handshake City. The awards are meant to provide a “breathing space” for small businesses distressed by the pandemic. We and our coffeeshop are its first recipients. This award comes after eighteen years of failing to ever once having been voted “best coffee” in our category in the local newspaper’s annual “Best of the Best” contest, in which the winners are decided by “popular vote” (and, no doubt, some energetic getting-out of votes).
When we met the two young people behind the “Good Neighbor” project, we found it to be anchored not in some community relations department in America’s corporate marketplace, (though it seeks funding in the usual way from corporate entities), but in a committed idealistic couple who are not being paid for their trouble. In the micro-world of idealistic enterprise (or what Orin calls community entrepreneurship), I thus conclude, “it takes one to know one.” This magic of feeling seen by our quixotic fellows has lifted the long-endured burden of being unseen in our own land; this painful invisibility due not to losing the Best of the Best contest (I smile), but to something more difficult to put the finger on. At this point, I’m ready to risk the oversimplification and just say it: The invisibility that has haunted Orin and me for 18 1/2 years, that, magnified under the pandemic conditions had become near-unbearable, is essentially due to our not serving the profit motive as Highest Good.
This simple fact, rendering us invisible in liberal reality, has “freed” us (a funny word when used in relation to running a business!) to run a business our way, as an expression of the world we desire, centered in community and “the commons.” Due to having pretty much failed at achieving a middle class standard of living, at the time we started, we weren’t on third base! Ineligible for a government loan due to Orin’s felony record, maxxing out credit cards and asking for help from friends, lacking any safety-net whatsoever, failure at our venture was ruled out – but so, given our idealism, was success in ordinary terms.
When one’s impelling motivation is not cash, but a dream, and when, equally, one elects, eyes open, to function in the for-profit dog-eat-dog “marketplace” one is placed, apparently, in the tiniest of minorities. For we hardy few, the mystery of our motivation seems to excite no curiosity whatsoever. I’ve never read a study on the phenomenon, so can only speak from “what it feels like.” Because it is so very rare for us to be seen by others, it crossed my mind during our interview with Justin and Katie, that perhaps they were Christians! This may seem a strange connection to make but I mean, of course, not “Christian” in the fundamentalist or “prosperity gospel” sense, nor the do-good charitable sense (nothing wrong with the that of course!), but in the best chasing-out-the-moneychangers revolutionary sense needed for putting human good over profits.
Our invisibility is because it’s so taken-for-granted in bourgeois, liberal reality that “you want the same things I want.” Also taken for granted is that idealism can exist in a corporatized context without the idealist being revolutionary and therefore, other. Within the banalizing corporate context, “idealism” is as interesting – and revolutionary – as planning the gender reveal party. In contrast, taking up an idealistic project for an independent business, based purely upon a dream that makes sense only to a few scattered comrades – pits one directly against not the rightwingers and Trump loonies, but against unseeing, unacknowledged neoliberal exclusivity.
Liberalism “sells out” by accepting the false unity shaped by the One Corporate Capitalist reality, which is no unity at all. Union must be tested; it is made from contention ( short of war) between strongly felt ideas and irresolvable differences among presumed equals’ it can be only in a context wherein participating members mutually assent to obedience to the highest good which is the good for all. (i.e., what “One Nation Under God” supposedly meant, but does not!) Authentic union does not sacrifice relatedness for personal betterment, or for “the flag” or the good of the economy; it depends upon valuing reconciliation over being right, upon growing roots-in-place over franchising. Unity is a process aimed not at producing a winner but a winning relatedness, a good for all. Liberals came together recently in order to oust Trump, but having abandoned service to a “higher good,” in fact they are not a unity. Instead, they stifle dissent by declining genuine idealism (rooted in interdependence and the common good), their unity based instead in voluntary suppression of individual otherness (and concentrated focus on minority othernesses).
I cannot speak knowledgeably about politics. Instead, over and over, I attempt to delineate life “on the ground” in liberal reality that cannot tolerate differences while at the same time talking about nothing else. In that reality, the having of individual uniqueness and character – that which makes a person interesting, not merely “good” – makes one somehow subversive, and at the same time invisible! Thus, it’s possible a person living in-place where “nothing happens” except the rounds of birth-to-death life contained within human promises and mutual commitments ends up having potential to make her/himself interesting, that is, to have a story that dissents from the neoliberal narrative – while the person whose life is subsumed in that neoliberal narrative has little such chance.
Some of our family and friends, after the January 6 riot at the Capitol, asked us if we did not feel extra vulnerable with the Cafe’s potential to be a symbol of “Socialism” or whatever it is that so riles the MAGA-era white working class. Did we not fear becoming a target of hate? This was an odd supposition for us to take in, not because we can’t imagine it, nor because such has never happened to us (it has, once or twice) but because we are so not that, not the liberal elite power structure that has scrambled so to be “progressive,” eagerly serving technology, eliminating jobs, continuing to bomb brown people and tolerate systemic racism, scorning tradition, devaluing family; in short making the crooked path straight, smoothing the way for corporatization of everything. We are so, you might say, old-fashioned, family-centered, stodgily local, and even downtrodden ourselves – no one who saw our house on Grant St. could put us in the same hate category of poshness and privilege as Nancy Pelosi or Hillary Clinton – and so angry at the same power structures, that we can’t feel a danger from that direction (which is not to say there might not be one!)
Over the years of our Cafe’s existence, we’ve felt more vulnerable to being a casualty of liberal cancel culture than redneck rage ( partly due to our having fewer of the customers likelier to choose the drive-thru at DD). The extreme liberal hypersensitivity about race and any appearance of “intolerance” has dogged us since our beginnings. Though located right on the edge of inner city, in beat-up Uptown Utica, with a completely diverse clientele, we have felt the power of that cancel voice at work. We felt it in the near-universal incomprehension of our original no wi-fi policy; in well-intentioned suggestions that we look for “a persons of color” to include in Cafe-related reading or discussion groups, in a teacup tempest over a souvenir coconut gorilla head hanging at the counter that a white customer, not a black, hinted might look racist; in the questioning of our use of non-locally roasted coffee. The threat we feel, real or not, is loss of business among the mainly liberal, middle class people we depend on for the Cafe’s (and the non-profit arts space next door) survival, people susceptible to insinuations of identity incorrectness, and soothed by the idea – (and not necessarily the reality – most live in all-white towns and neighborhoods ) – of “inclusiveness.”
That threat, however, is at least partly imaginary. Its not our cozy little hip shop available to anyone for the price of a cup of farmer-friendly, organic Mayorga coffee that will be canceled, but our difference, that is, the ways in which we fundamentally disagree with liberal consensus even as we are not secessionists from either the liberal world or from “the grid.” We are dissenting inclusionists, not cancelers. Speaking from our experience, the cancellation of individual difference is the most powerful weapon in the armory of liberal cancellation culture, so powerful that most individuals cancel their difference (i.e., their dissenting, fully personal soul’s voice) before it’s ever expressed.
In what does our dissension consist? Though the values of family and community, relationships and the common good are older than Jesus and far from exclusively Christian, they’re no longer authoritative for the liberal progressive world; outside of church, there’s practically no common language for them. Even with our children, now in their adult, “nest-maintaining” years, we share no vocabulary for affirming these values that go nearly uncorroborated in our world. For, in rigidly horizontal liberal reality that has only veto (cancel) power to fend off what it does not like, how are these eternal values to be brought into expression among us? Who, now, can provide the text we can hear as authoritative? Everyone at our family dinner table is overloaded with input and information from their screens, stressed and anxious, their chances of being capable of finding their own soul ground on which to stand uncertain at best. I’ve concluded it’s wisest to “hold the advice” and just to be present in their company as mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, putting a word in when occasion arises to speak for the soul-endorsed choices we’ve made, and to keep writing.
Art & Shamanic Dissent
It falls to the writer in me, that’s obedient to the reality the soul sees, with its inherent longing for a human-scaled world, to communicate what has become uncommunicable in everyday discourse. In turn, I look to writers and artists for the comradeship that comes from confession of their otherness serving as mouthpieces for their imaginative souls. The artists I think of as “poetic seers” (such as Blake, Coleridge, Thoreau, Emerson, Lawrence, or Miles Davis, Nina Simone) in the humanities and performing arts traditions aren’t “art professionals,” but shamans rooted in another dimension. (And for the record, the shamanism referred to isn’t limited to weird-eyed medicine men from Mongolia, nor to social media pseudo-religious “influencers,” but is a capacity in every human with a soul).
For these artist others, art is creative expression for the sake of imperiled humanity that must have its invisible, mystical, “spiritual” dimension, or perish. I trust their voices and will not join the deconstructionist “levelers” who wish to bring the foolish Romantics down to size so we can all feel better about going back to work in the “bullshit job” that can even include the academic “scholar-job” in colleges beholden to corporate ties. Maybe we’re not supposed to feel better about it! This faith, though it always is cast as such, is not “unworldly” opposite to the reality of making a living. It is deeply oppositional (revolutionary) against the totality that falsely tells us either we follow the way of desire and imagination or we pay our bills. The real opposition is not that: it is between the way of the soul’s yearning for its voice and the materialist American Dream.
That we feel a real threat from liberal cancel culture is because no one can see us who doesn’t understand the revolutionary nature of building a business-as-art; upon values other than profits. They cannot see us because they will not actively join the side of their own longing for a world that is a commons. Betrayal of the commons begins with betrayal of the soul.
My “shamanic” declaration is this: On the invisible end of its real existence, the Cafe functions archetypally, bringing the truth of the interdependent commons “down” (or rather, “up”) into Utica society. In its existence as a concrete Utica establishment, it is an unannounced “sanctuary,” an autonomous space mediating between heaven and earth that is, humbly, building the new world. Any small, locally-owned and run “Mom and Pop” business is in position to partake in the archetype, that is, to be art. However, most often they do not. When they fail – as they tend and are perhaps meant to do in neoliberal reality that favors big and corporate – they blame not Corporate Capitalism for the failure, but wrongly, an assortment of other targets sometimes including themselves. If business owners consciously served the larger unitive reality, the truth of interdependence, they could join us, walking the walk, comrades of the invisibles; restoring the commons by re-imagining a stay-in-place, non-franchising, communal way-of-life!
Oddly, if one holds to values outside the profit motive, one feels more brethren to the redneck conservatives (aside from their resorting to hate) than to clueless liberals. Like them, we hate the liberal totality for its failure to see us, which is to say it fails to see us ensouled and thus different, a cruelty rooted in the violence they enact first, each day, against their own souls. We remain recognizable only to the small minority of romantic idealists and a certain kind of revolutionary that holds to building the new world amidst the crumbling shell of the old, rather than destroying the old to replace it with the new.