Tiny Boxwoods

May 20, 2009


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A few of my favorite things, in order: milk, sugar, coffee. I’ve discovered a harmonious mixture of the three at what may be the most pleasant spot on earth–a sunlit, whitewashed cafe with nothing but a wood burning stove and an espresso machine to sustain its simple menu. As teaching winds down for the season, I’m at Tiny Boxwoods most mornings, sipping sweet froth from mugs the size of fish bowls until lunch rolls around and I feel obliged to relinquish my warm seat to some other visitor willing to pay $4 for a single cup of milky caffeine.

The cost is worth the ambiance, not to mention that the same pair of steady, familiar hands makes a “latteccino” exactly to my liking. I can’t bring myself to speak such a precious portmanteau, and fortunately, the kind barman knows what I want when I timidly ask him for, “The same thing I had yesterday.” After five minutes of frothing, my race against deflating foam begins. It is with slight reticence that I admit that my first cup is drained within a quarter of an hour.

To avoid drawing attention to my guzzling, I often take my empty mug outside and admire the neighboring nursery, Thompson and Hanson, which is as notable for its wares as for its wit. Today its roadside sign read “Stop in for some ZZTopsoil.” The floral quips change daily as does the display of plants for sale. After a stroll through the latest shipment, I’ll find myself back at Tiny’s marble bar, ordering another three shots of espresso, disguised by tufts of lactose and spoonfuls of raw sugar.

Sometimes, as I watch the crowd nibble pieces of toast between sips of weekday sangria, I wonder, “Am I really in Houston?” Google Maps tells me I’m just down the street from a sprawling shopping center and the mouth of a freeway, but the vulgarities of commuters and conspicuous consumption seem a million miles away from Tiny’s austere, early morning interior.

Here, I am insulated by a wall of stacked logs, made especially quaint by their functionality. Every hour or so an older gentleman, clad all in white, wheels a red Flyer wagon to the wall of wood, loads it with care, and drags it back to the fireplace as fuel for breakfast tacos and baked eggs. Extra security comes from the thick cover of climbing jasmine that grows over the stucco walls, muffling outside sounds as it blows the scent of nectar through Tiny’s open door.

The other worldliness of the space is heightened by a sense of timelessness: hours can pass in the time it takes me to finish a carafe of lemonade. This ambiguity is heightened by the enormous clock painted across the back wall, which languidly moves its heavy hands from number to number with no attempt at accuracy. It is one of the many reasons I go back: I’m glad to spend my savings on coffee, if it means I can witness time standing still.

The antiquated kitchen also abides, as though not just the hours have stopped, but the centuries, also. A few computers and a single register reveal our era, but otherwise the space is free of the modern din typical of today’s coffee shops and diners. The ‘baristas’ don’t sing off-key or greet customers as loudly as possible a la Starbucks, and there’s no fryer odor to muddle my senses and endow a crunchy biscotti with the smell of a french fry.

Also lacking are any behind-the-scenes-glimpses at a hectic line with sweaty, cursing chefs bent over flaming skillets or griddles. The only thing I see when the kitchen door swings open is a young woman at an uncluttered work station, scooping yogurt, granola and fresh fruit into over-sized, porcelain bowls. As far as I can tell, she’s always smiling. Probably her parents are Swedish, and she was born to churn yogurt and bake muesli in a brick oven after plucking wild berries from the backyard for garnish.

I slip into a pleasant trance as music lofts subtly, nearly inaudibly, from hidden speakers. Classic French accordion chords give way to a gentle coo from Frank Sinatra or Astrud Gilberto. After I’ve licked every sugary remnant of froth from the inside of my cup, I welcome a stream of images…breezy beaches where tanned men and women lounge on white cushions wearing pale blue linen pants and apricot scarves. I’m somewhere else, somewhere I’ve never been: possibly Aix en Provence, maybe Southampton, could be Rio.

Inevitably, dreadfully, plates begin to clang and cell phones to ring. At precisely 11:30 am, Tiny Boxwoods becomes the battleground of Houston’s self-appointed glitterati. Thick crowds of finely clad women flock to the cafe like regal cormorants, ready to spar over empty seats or the attention of Tiny’s beguiling head chef.

The ladies come in droves, in black, designer SUVs wearing enormous guilded watches and jumbo gold bags to match. They sit for a while, or stand and pout, twirling their table numbers and waiting for their blond doppelgangers or long-ago high school rivals to stop gossiping over half-finished chunks of chicken salad and to relinquish their seats in the scene.

I have, on two occasions, dressed myself up in my Sunday best and indulged in a weekday lunch at Tiny’s with a girlfriend or two. The food is worth waiting for, especially the bison burger and the buttery pull of Tiny’s chocolate chip cookies, although securing a table is an unappetizing pursuit.

One one of my visits, I got the hairy eyeball for a woman whose spot I ‘scooped’ while she was en route from the bar. I tried to ignore her whispers and searing sideways glances, but I was sure she was telling her lunch companions that I was a phony, pretending to be a woman of leisure, when really I was on an hour-long lunch break. I felt like Marge Simpson in a Chanel suit cut a dozen times.

So as the early morning fades, I slink to my station wagon, hoping nobody notices my rusty door handles and single headlight. It’s Tiny’s witching hour, when the calm of tasteful simplicity is broken by forces from the outside world: time… place… money. Costly as a daily latteccinos may be for my budget, my appetite is certainly not enough to keep the cafe flush with fresh flowers. I know I should be grateful for the women who come and eat a few bites of the food they order too much of, as it is their charity that sustains the place. Yet part of me leaves enviously, as I envision the lingerers drinking bottomless mimosas and white wine spritzers until it’s time to meet the school bus.

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