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  • Nathan Van Kampen

JFRC Student Literary Piece Depicts Perfect Coffee Shop Ambience

Nathan Van Kampen shares a short narrative piece he wrote reflecting the atmosphere of a moment in a Grand Rapids, MI coffee shop. This piece is based on the Fulton street coffee joint Bitter End as Van Kampen and a friend make a quick appearance before continuing on to Chicago.

When describing what motivated him to create this piece, Van Kampen said "The atmosphere was so unique that I knew immediately I had to write about it. On the train I set to work capturing what I had seen, combining it with a vague outline I had written in the margins of a notebook."

This narrative piece digs at a deeper meaning of struggles in injustice for younger generations, "The detachment that is inherent to the setting in this piece tied in neatly with the idea of passive engagement with a corrupt and broken world. I have tried to examine possible responses of our generation to this relationship in this piece."


Sunlight streamed softly through the grimy windows of the little coffee house on Fulton Street. These golden rays struggled through the swirling clouds of dust to alight upon the piles of papers in front of me. The miles of print on the table could hardly be considered interesting reading, but within them was someone’s salvation. Depositions, police reports, hospital records- I had it all, and I read every word. I drank it all in so intently that it had usurped the role of my now long cold coffee which left brown rings on the sheets. The mug reflected the early afternoon light directly into my eyes: it was reminding me of its existence. People do that, too. Those on the edge of obscurity, staring deeply into the depths of Tartarus, will lash out just to prove that they exist. To prove they are- despite all depravity and torture- still alive. I am, in a small way, the channel for that outburst. Or at least I try to be.

I made a note in the margin of my notebook linking poverty to Tartarus, figuring it could be my Hail Mary if the jury was not swayed by the actual evidence of the case. I leaned back in the old leather chair and breathed deeply. The pungent aroma of fresh coffee filled my lungs. Somewhere in the kitchen an old radio tapped out a bluesy tune. Mourning trumpets droned and plodded along. Time seemed to slow to their pace.

In the coffee house on Fulton Street, time had little importance. Year after year, the space was unchanged. Day to day, the drinks were repeated and no longer enjoyed. Hour to hour, we, the people seeking caffeine, kept ourselves in our seats. It was a haven for us all. A shelter from the tedium and a respite from the constant socialization. Not much talking occurred in the coffee house on Fulton Street.

“Excuse me, Counselor.” At first, I assumed such a statement was part of the sorrowful verses echoing from the elderly radio. It was not. Before me was a young woman. She was tall and professionally dressed. Her neatly ordered, ocher-colored hair was backlit by the waning sunlight. The golden light mixed with the darker tones like the autumnal sun striking the soil of reaped cornfields, somehow reminding me of nature’s renewal and it

s decay simultaneously. The coffee house on Fulton Street had gained a more angelic presence than ever before. This heavenly impression quickly faded, for she regarded me coolly. Her eyes, rounded and verdant, bore into me beneath half-closed lids. Her gaze was constant and penetrating- nothing escaped her a stony glare. Her face was equally hardened, the mouth drawn thinly into an arrow-straight line. A sharp jaw symmetrically terminated into a tough chin. I knew this was a professional visit, and it was unlikely to be a pleasant one.

“Yes?” I regarded the newcomer warily.

“Claire Montagne of the Grand Rapids Free Press. I have some questions about a case of yours.” She extended her hand. I shook it.

“Please, sit,” I said, shuffling papers out of the way. “I don’t want to be rude, but didn’t the Free Press go out of business? Papers aren’t exactly in fashion.”

“Is that a serious question? Why would I introduce myself as a reporter for a dead paper?” I laughed.

“A fair point. I apologize for that stupidity, but you should know I don’t comment on most cases.”

“Why not?” I paused and considered for a moment if a response would count as a comment.

“Any press is bad press for the people I work with.”

“Even when they’ve done nothing wrong?”

“Especially then.” Her brow furrowed at that, a common response to my work. My law school classmates often reacted the same way. They could not understand that my aspirations were for justice rather than comfort. I continued:

“‘Wrong’ is a more relative concept than we would like it to be. For some folks, existence is ‘wrong’- or at least that’s what they’ve come to believe. They’re punished by our institutions for being ‘wrong.’ But they aren’t wrong or bad or criminal, really. They are different, scared, broken. But they’re not wrong, and most folks aren’t ready to accept that. A law is a law. It’s a liminal space somewhere between God’s justice and ours; so it must be revered. It doesn’t matter what is fair or true or even real. Only what is right and what is wrong.”

There was a silence between us. The radio rambled on and the ceiling fan twirled, but we were still and quiet. The now waning sunlight cast golden rays onto the side of Ms. Montagne’s face, painting small shadows beneath her brow, cheekbones, and nose.

“What do you believe? You said a lot about what the rest of us think. What about you? How do you think we should fix it?”

“What?” She laughed sharply at that.

“C’mon, counselor. What you said is all well and good, but what’s the solution? You’ve brilliantly defined the problem. I want to know how you think it should be dealt with.” She leaned forward on her elbows and furrowed her brow again.

“Well, I suppose there’s not a panacea. I don’t have a full solution. All I can do is my small bit of good for these people and hope they do the same. I don’t think I have the expertise for the kind of solutions you’re asking for.”

“I don’t buy that, and you don’t either.” Her tone was sharp, but not cruel. She was probing rather than assaulting.

“Perhaps that’s the flaw in my method- your cynicism won’t accept my solution.”

“But you admit that it's flawed?” She laughed again, less harshly this time. It was a natural and melodic sound, floating up to the ceiling with the tones of the trumpets.

“Very clever,” I said. “You only got me because I was caught off-guard. Not many people take an interest in my work. It’s more comfortable to pretend it doesn’t exist.” She leveled her stalwart gaze at me.

“Isn’t that the problem? Shouldn’t people be forced to see it? You may not have a solution, but I do: let me write about it.” I paused to consider. All the while her green eyes bore into me trying to predict my next move.

“You’re very clever. I said I didn’t usually comment and here I am- commenting a whole lot.”

“It’s my job to get the stubborn to talk.”

“Okay, go ahead, but leave me anonymous,” I resolved. “It’s going in a dead paper, anyway. What could go wrong?”

The two of us spent several hours in that coffee house on Fulton Street. I gave Montagne the full view of my work so that she could expose the nasty, infected underbelly of democracy. The sun glided down the western sky all too swiftly, leaving Grand Rapids in a chilly haze. The room did not change, only the lighting. There among the weary and worn seekers of caffeine, we plotted and schemed. We mourned the death of justice and cheered its resurrection. We decried the lives of the oppressors and wept for their ignorance. Our crusade had only just begun. With darkness stretching out across the quiet city, Montagne convinced me of the necessity of additional interviews, asking me to set up meetings with former clients. I agreed and accompanied her through the process, feeling obligated to midwife the piece.

Montagne was relentless in her pursuit of the truth. With intrepidity, she marched from slums to corner offices. Her intensity won her answers to the tough questions. All I had to do was watch. Labor leaders, criminals, executives- all were defeated by the strength of her verdant gaze. Her zeal for the truth was matched only by her pure stubbornness when confronted with resistance. Infallible and unflappable, Montagne pieced the truth together from disparate sections of anecdote. I never wanted it to end, but I knew it had to. The larger the story got, the harder it would be to expose the street-level wrong-doings. That was my contribution: I told Montagne to end it. We debated and haggled and argued until she finally relented- the first and only time. Claire knew her story needed a local, personal element to actually have an impact. Publishing was a tactical move more than anything. I suspected she intended to continue the pursuit anyway after she had the story run. Claire viewed publishing too soon as a surrender; therefore, this article would be part one of many, making it a strategic pause before a renewed assault.

A firestorm was sparked by her writing. Across the country, millions of the discontented seized upon her investigation as a representation of their confinement. Freedom denied to them was suddenly within reach after the exposure of their oppression. Of course, the wealthy and their apologists rose up in equal fury. Attacking the system was attacking them, after all. Discussions of wealth and ownership and labor and right and wrong dominated seemingly every part of life. When it reached a fever pitch, the middle-class could no longer ignore the uproar. Many passed the buck, calling for cooler heads. As if rationality is inverse to emotion. They blandly supported the status quo, preferring sameness to foreignness. Few of these well-to-do middle folks made a real choice either way. Most simply made no choice, contenting themselves with white picket fences and tee-ball games.

The small coffee house on Fulton Street remained as quiet and lazy as ever. It was my haven, though. I sat there in long afternoons pouring over paper, much the same as before the flash entrance of Claire Montagne into my life. Despite the lighting of the spotlight on injustice, despite the innocent blood shed on the streets, my work load never lessened. Small abuses of power continued, and that was what really mattered. Article or no article, public debate or public indifference, the system still beat down, berated, crippled the most vulnerable. I was too caught up in the headiness of the headlines to see the evidence before me. I hoped that one more case, one more article, one more vote might abruptly put me out of work. It never did.

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