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All-night Coffee

At the area’s all-night coffeehouses, you find students, teachers, card-players, philosophers, insomniacs and the hung-over … and it’s first names only.

By Rachel Hawes
Photography by Jeff Hage/Green Frog Photo

2:07 a.m.
The Bitter End
It’s a dark and stormy night at The Bitter End. The cold bites and the warm glow of a yellow sign beckons through the wooden door — like the blinking traffic light outside. The hypnotizing smell of coffee beans greets the nostrils. The anxious barista looks shy as he prepares a French Kiss — white Ghirardelli chocolate and French vanilla latte, not the Parisian affection. Mmm … that first sip slides easily down the throat. Muted colors coat the homey West Fulton shop, and paintings drape the walls. The hour is late, yet innocuous table lights reveal a dozen quiet customers, some busy at their laptops, others deep in chat.

2:14 a.m.
Three college-age friends whisper together. Nick, the most talkative and only male of the group, compares his workplace to this local hangout. “Non-franchise coffeehouses have more of a comfortable atmosphere — they have personality and look so distinct,” says Nick, who is a tutor at GRCC and (gasp) employee of the mega-chain Starbucks.

2:23 a.m.
The rhythmic traffic light illuminates the concentrated look on the face of Norverto, a diligent Hispanic student at GRCC. He stares intently at his laptop and types, then looks up briefly, so as not to be kept too long from his studies. “It’s open 24 hours. It’s so convenient,” he says. “I usually write papers. Plus, their coffee’s pretty good.”

2:38 a.m.
Next to the delectable showcase of muffins, bagels and pastries sit Kalena and Felix. Kalena is a Wyoming home-school teacher for The Grand Rapids Association for Christian Education and Excellence. Felix, whose fedora hat tilts mischievously over one eye, is a local lyricist and dance instructor. “I’m just grading papers,” says Kalena, as if middle-of-the-night grading is not unusual. Felix bobs his head to the beat pounding through his headphones. Kalena points to him bashfully and says, “We just met.”

2:46 a.m.
Joe, a young Jehovah’s Witness and dancer, sits at a round table, papers strewn about, reading his Bible. He lives above The Bitter End. He’s a regular but admits, “I’m not a big coffee drinker. I come at night because I’m not tired enough to go to sleep.”


Above: Kalena and Felix

2:57 a.m.
Noshville Coffee Café
Still dark, still stormy and the cold still bites at Noshville Coffee Café, Bitter End’s sister shop, on 44th Street in Wyoming. A handful of college-age studiers sip their coffees while struggling to finish procrastinated papers. The busy-bee barista brushes her hair out of her face as she refills coffee pots and wipes up spills, trying to stay awake. A couple puts off their studying by browsing Facebook and flirting shamelessly — with their eyes, of course.

3:09 a.m.
Nancy, a mother of three and Noshville employee for eight years, seems the life of the party — or at least the one inside this coffeehouse. She sits at a table conversing and laughing with almost everyone in the café.

Occasionally, she brings her kids along. “My 16-year-old likes it. It’s an acceptable environment,” Nancy says. “She’s not out doing drugs.”

Nancy describes the different types of customers who come in: “There’s the shirt-and-tie crew, the card and Scrabble players, and the people-meeting-people group.”

3:13 a.m.
On the sidewalk outside Noshville, camaraderie emanates from a collection of regulars — ages 14 to 50 — that has been gathering here since May.

“We’re like a family — a big dysfunctional family,” says ringleader Joe, a 20-something who says he’s writing a book. “We got career men, college students, writers, artists, musicians and social workers who come here.

“There are also a fair share of people who should be in Pine Rest.”

Joe sums up what he believes the group is thinking: “This is a place to escape from the everyday troubles of life.” In response, he gets a few groans and “Oh, that’s such a stereotypical thing to say.”
Conversation bounces back and forth like the final points of a tense tennis match.

“We’re a microcosm society,” says one guy, smoking thoughtfully.

“We got atheists and Christians, and we even have some virgins — four or five maybe,” says Joe.
“I’m a virgin,” says a quiet young man who looks like he’s still in high school.

“Alright!” says Joe, high-fiving him.

3:18 a.m.
76 Coffeehouse
Across town at the indie and slightly shabby-looking 76 Coffeehouse on Wealthy Street in Eastown (which many still know as Morningstar), three women share a couch on an elevated platform. Jessica, a nurse, smiles and rolls her eyes at her more-than-tipsy friends.

“We’re kind of drunk right now,” says Kara, a tobacco store worker.

“I’m here after the bar,” says the third friend, also named Jessica. “It’s something you do to sober up — smoke a cigarette and drink some coffee.”


Above: Jessica, Kara and Jessica

3:27 a.m.
Down the steps and a few tables over, beneath the posters of an eclectic mix of bands, a couple of guys play Texas Hold ’Em. “I come here quite a bit,” says Mike, a college student, as he shuffles the cards and eyes his friend, a jittery-looking fellow who goes by “Mr. Coffee Shop Guy.”

3:36 a.m.
A billow of smoke encompasses two regulars, Bo and Kristen, as they sit and smile next to the café’s computer.

Kristen, clad in a camouflage jacket, taps her ashtray, slyly looks at her companion and says, “This is an island of misfit toys. We’re all outcasts.”

Bo agrees with a hearty laugh, leans back in his creaky chair and strokes his chin. “Everyone here,” he says, “is truly in search for something other in their lives.”

Diversity oozes from the pores of this safe-haven coffeehouse populated by every race, gender, age and socioeconomic strata — all those with a craving, whether it’s for coffee or something less material. Including those a few cents short:

“If you’re known around here, you could wash down the tables for a cup of coffee,” says Kristen. “When you’re a regular around here, it’s like a family and everyone has your back.”

Then she leans forward to reveal one of the family’s insider codes: “There are two Eastown rules — girls never walk to their car alone … and they never light their own cigarette.” GR

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