Cafe D’s Final Message: Hipness Just May Be the Antidote to Whiteness

To correct this condition (as inferiors, as “niggers”) the black man could either work on the outer manifestations of discrimination – as did Martin Luther King – or change himself from within, through transformation. Malcolm took the latter course.

– Tamara Payne, intro to The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, by Les Payne

When I learned that you’re closed I didn’t really say what I feel like saying. What you’ve created in the world is a major inspiration and a testament to what’s possible to bring into the world if you can live into your vision and believe it. It’s made my life more open to creating something that gives me space to exist in my own mind.   

–      A young woman customer of (the late) Cafe Domenico in Utica NY

I expect I’ll be writing post-mortems for the Cafe that went to its final rest on March 30, 2024, for as long as I live!  There is so much to mine in those memories that I’m just now realizing.  It feels, in recollection,  not like nostalgia but celebration, like “do this in remembrance of me,” an experience of the sacred one should not allow to simply disappear from memory. 

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The call came from a woman  I see rarely now since her retirement, a well-known Utican who for years ran the multi-platformed “Utica Monday Nights” during the summer months.  Her name was practically synonymous with that venue,  a feat of arts production demanding extraordinary talent, daring and very hard work. Like us, Lynne had taken on her life’s masterpiece project not for money but for love.  She called to express her congratulations – not for the Cafe’s end, or on our “retirement,” but for the fact we’d done it.  She, a Lebanese-American who hung out as a teen-ager in Utica’s legendary jazz club, Birdland, in the 60’s,  and is an occasional practitioner of jazz vocalizing herself said to me, “You guys made Utica “hip.”    

The perfect encomium for our coffeeshop, “hipness” can only be applied authentically to a person or place by people who themselves have it.  Her words made me feel good, that is, seen.  And they made me think about what it means that our place was “hip.”

Recall: the word “hippie,” as in “Two Old Hippies Start a Coffeeshop”derives from “hip.” Therein lies the inherent dignity in a word used (by media) to derogate.  In their having raised “Peace and Love” to central place in consciousness, the original flower child hippies positioned themselves in counterculture, in the direction of hip.Decades later however, we see that genuine peace & love hipness remains the rare exception.  My guess is this is because hippie initiation, via LSD, lacked elders; the transformation was incomplete.  Though it connected the hippie to the cosmos, it excluded, even repudiated,  like a Peanuts cartoon, the reality of parents. 

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That our Cafe was hip, and not merely “left-leaning” did indeed make it stand out from the crowd in Utica!  Much of the hipness was Orin’s.  He’s the authentic “old hippie.”  He is third generation in an Italian-American family that had, in Sicilian style, maintained the anti-assimilationist attitude of its ruthless banana importer-founder.  As a teen-ager in 1967,  he hitch-hiked to NYC, hare krishna’d with Allen Ginsberg on the streets of the East Village, saw in-person every iconic band and musician performing in that music heyday, collected blues albums by black musicians no one in my youthful circles had ever heard of (with one exception) – and, of course, he dropped bountiful amounts of LSD.  As well, he dropped out of school at 17, fathered a child at 18, spent two years incarcerated in the NYS penal system, and had a background of childhood trauma that would have registered solidly on the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE)scale.  

Though we might think Orin’s experience was darker than some, compared to the normal for black or brown people in the U.S, or to the masses of people who’ve stood in the way of history’s “march” or of America’s manifest destiny, its darkness pales a little!  It can equally be said of his life that it was full of experiencesadventures, not all of them enviable, but colorful, and real.  Perhaps dark reality with its trauma-inducing potential is a defining feature of hipness?  And maybe dark reality is experience, such that “hipness” isn’t possible for lives lived in avoidance of risk? If this were so, may I suggest this: hipness derives from an encounter with powerlessness, the terror in knowing reality exceeds what is under my conscious control.  

Existential terror,  well-known to our primordial ancestors, was once explained/contained in the myths that were basis for ritual and religion.  In secular liberal society, where terror and suffering are banned – but also routinely inflamed (nuclear terror, anyone?) – myth no longer can manage the terror.  If the terror is experienced too early, before the cognitive development that could help the person manage it, the consequences are devastating, as childhood trauma studies show.  To not be undone by trauma (i.e., stuck for a lifetime in victimization or revenge, addiction or other pathology) nor merely survive it, the means to transcending the terror must be found.  

Psychology at its best has found some ways to treat unverbalizable (childhood) trauma, in part simply by recognizing it is real.  And some psychology, taking its cues from myth and literature, knows trauma can be treated imaginatively, in the telling of stories or other forms of art,  which provide access to religious (archetypal) depths of meaning.  That is, the terrifying awareness that made religious imagination necessary for our ancestors has an antidote still accessible today – in the  activities of storytelling or other art-making that communicates, (but not in the dominant left-brain  language) and is therefore communal.  Thus, terror in the soul can be rendered non-life threatening, but only if there is connection, to other humans and to the body’s imagination (soul) where interdependence (peace & love!) is the given.

The problem then being, for those we would identify as hip, that the hip one (hipster?) has to transcend his/her catastrophe somehow, and be brought into a social order that has wisdom enough to include the reality he/she has experienced.  Lacking such a social order, as we do, it seems the attainment of hipness must be its own reward; contrary to the dominant caste system, itself an art form, a transformation of self, it makes an affirmation of human  mattering in the face of trauma’s threat of personal annihilation.  This affirmation, rarely found outside of music and art, as the Cafe experience attests, communicates. 

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For Orin and me the Cafe was our social order, its parameters different from and contrary to neoliberal reality.  It was equal parts hip and “Mom-and-Pop;” the latter functioning in part as guise for the Cafe’s revolutionary truth.  As Lynne suggested, the Cafe revealed a “funkier” reality to white Utica that Utica had no idea of, but wrapped inside the “pill” of reassuring familiality it could go down easily in this largely working class, church going, family-centered town.    

As a thoroughly white protestant middle class woman (WASP), though liberal-identified, and though I’d pushed the boundaries of good girl behavior on many occasions during the late 60’s and 70’s,  in youth I was too conflicted for hipness, nor was I comfortable with funk.  I was clueless, that is, until tragedy struck!   The surprise uncovered during years of intensive psychotherapy was the discovery that catastrophe had already happened back in a time blotted from conscious memory.  Mental breakdown allowed the catastrophe of my early pre-verbal childhood – which had left me without a voice of my own –  to be broken loose.  From then on, consciousness included the dark realms excluded from normal, consensus reality.  Fairy tales inhabited by witches, evil sorcerers, ogres and dragons, once entrancing but make-believe, now spoke to me from what I knew was the full truth of the peril life is.  

Thus, despite myself, I became sort of hip.  Jazz improvisation, with its direct connection to the creative spirit,  became very naturally my music of choice. Never as good a listener or as knowledgeable a fan of the music and its practitioners as Orin, I embraced it for its creation of free space,  for its authorization of another reality, for its basis in experience. Furthermore,  I embraced my identity as a writer.  I believed in art-making as essential uselessness.  I wore cool hats.   

I believed in dream as reality.   

The Cafe could not have existed had there not been the combination of Orin’s hipness (and his practical know-how) and my “shamanic” connection by means of my writing with the reality that authorizes dreams.  (Oh, and my teaching job at a local college – but that’s another story, not as interesting.)  That is, it could not have existed had we not both been experienced in “PTSD-inclusive” reality.  Re-experiencing trauma tells you firsthand, no middleman,  not just that something terrible happened to you that should not have happened.  But also, because this painful experience had been disregarded by those closest to me it told me my world condones, in its “normal” reality, denial of the knowledge of terrible things happening to innocent people.   

I can testify: Discovering this truth personally is not the same as knowing about the Holocaust.  Not just like knowing western civilization is a hard place for immigrants, black and indigenous people, etc.  PTSD-inclusive reality amounts to the disclosure that the universe cares no more for me than for the lowliest loser, the bottom-rung caste member. In the face of cosmic indifference, something kicks in in awareness: the human-made world must have a means to uphold all the relationships that sustain life; it must have love.  Once one has experienced  the pain of moral relativity personally the world that denies suffering is unacceptable the only response that can be made to it and retain one’s moral core is to make/build the “not that.” 

The Cafe was our not that.   Given its location, the Cafe’s funky hipness could not solely be a protest against white bread whiteness, but must communicate with a population most of whom had not gone to San Francisco and stuck flowers in their hair.  Most were locals who’d stayed local, took local jobs, raised families, retained the conservative attitudes of their parents – many Catholic, not necessarily Republican. They keep Utica conservative, influencing liberals, too, toward centrism, or what I call “lesser evilism.” My creative work sustained belief; it  provided the unseen backdrop for the Cafe’s  inclusiveness.  Art transcends caste.   

Thus, we were a “Mom and Pop” (and daughter!) business that granted all its customers permission for hipness, the right to be dreamers they perhaps had not earned “the hard way,” but they still could if they chose.   Religions take great pains to cultivate parents who will put their own interests aside on behalf of the children.  This practice works less well when parents’ understanding does not come from “PTSD-awareness,” thus will not go deep enough to see that self-interest (one’s bliss) is not supposed to be sacrificed in the name of the social good.  A “good”cannot be good that depends upon defensively keeping the truth of trauma a secret, and demands unthinking obedience to white-washed “sanitized” reality.

That archetypal power sends out a very different vibe when it works consciously not to enforce  unacceptable reality, but to be not that, to be knowing encouragers of the adventure.  Robert Browning’s The Pied Piper of Hamlin, a dark tale if there ever was one, can be interpreted as a tale about the power of art to evoke vision in the young.  Our “mom and pop” Cafe authorized the artist, the bliss-follower in young people, and in anyone who had not yet resigned themselves to never following the “great notion” (that is, the redemptive “great notion!”) There’s danger in following dreams,  the danger of experience – but must we not now take into account the greater cost in defending the normal,with its refusal of dark knowledge, its fear to trust in the truth of interdependence that transcends caste?

Watching the movie The English Teacher(2013) on DVD last week I was reminded of the archetypal parental function.  The teacher, at a suburban Pennsylvania high school, played by Julianne Moore, conceives of her role as being her students’ guide to literature’s holy-of-holies.  School-marmishly, she has everything but experience.  In other words, and this is conveyed none too subtly, she is the quintessential square!  One of her former students, now a graduate of NYU’s playwriting program returns to his home town, disillusioned, having given up believing in his work as a playwright. She reads his play,  finds it to be brilliant and convinces the drama teacher to take it on; together they proceed to stage the play at the high school. The movie is the story of her gaining the experience she must have –  her trauma! – in order to be legitimately on the side of art, an artist herself.  I did not find online any reviewers who share my opinion, but I thought it showed brilliantly – with some great touches of humor –  her myth-like journey through genuine suffering. 

That the location of the movie was hometown America, identifiable to all of us, the hometowns the best, brightest (and whitest) are supposed to leave in order to chase the brass ring of success, made it resonate for me.  In these very troubled times the distress call to every soul from mother earth opens us to a different heroism. The new heroism, the quest for sustainability, unravels the centuries of imperialism, colonialism and settlerism that got us here.  It takes on the mythic journey in staying, in growing roots, in the  deepening-of-life-where-I-am and where my relatedness extends both “horizontally” among all brothers and sisters, and vertically, back into the ancestral past and forward into the grandchildren’s future.  The Cafe’s message was this:  consider that leaving one’s own potential for heroic (transformational) attainment untried may be leaving whiteness (not love!) supreme.

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: kodomenico@verizon.net.