Fourth Avenue find: A glimpse inside Cafe Passé
Studio art major Kayla Lewandowski and accounting major Jordan Solle drink coffee at Cafe Passe on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. Cafe Passe offers a perfect spot for studying with friends featuring both indoor and outdoor spaces.
Most Tucsonans spend summer days driving from one air-conditioned destination to another, reserving outdoor activities for a more temperate dawn and dusk. At midday, Cafe Passé’s bustling outdoor patio seems like an exception to this rule.
Cafe Passé has been a Fourth Avenue institution for the past decade, located next to Antigone Books and across the street from the Food Conspiracy Co-Op.
The cafe is simply cool — the words most often used to describe it are ‘European’ and ‘eclectic.’ Across from the bathroom, a framed article auf Deutsch asserted the cafe's previous owner, Sabine Blaese’s credibility — she is German, from the southeast state of Baden-Württemberg.
Yet, what makes the cafe exceptional is not its recycled sink filled with succulents or a menu featuring a variety of vegan options, nor even the whiskey found at the bar next door. Its rather the clientele, attracted to these details, that commune together and showcase the best — and weirdest — Tucson has to offer.
In order to get to the back patio, one first has to walk past the counter, where commuters and moms pick up the cold brew they spotted on Tucson Foodie, and a corridor of cool, sheltered seating. Here, one may pass by freelancers with laptops and empty plates, right next to thirty-somethings catching up over lattes.
A tin-roofed shed separates the customers who come for a standard “hip coffee shop” experience and those who come for something a bit more. Maybe it’s the ashtrays, the privacy afforded by a tall wooden fence or the courtyard’s gray sand that lingers longer on a customer than the caffeine; what attracts each attendant is as particular as the individual.
The patio’s shade comes from a few umbrellas along with some mesquite and palo verde trees. Black-clad baristas deliver sandwiches and drinks, both hot and cold. Some barista-turned-DJs choose to broadcast DIY music out of Philly during their shifts, while others offer hip selections from Tucson’s favorite decade — the 80s.
Rickety tables and a whitewashed wall give structure to the space, closed off by a row of planks that look like teeth. Bare light bulbs are strung between the shed and hooks on its opposite brick wall.
A family sits in the shed, pulling extra seats around a vinyl fold-out table with red western curlicue trim. The three oldest of the group are marked with cowboy hats. A bandanna hangs past one man’s shoulders, secured underneath his hat.
A younger mother has brown hair, with a minty green lock framing her face. Her body and voice are reedy. A toddler stretches his hands up to her kneecaps when he calls for her attention. The dad looks a bit older, with leathery skin and sunglasses.
The baby is sitting cross-eyed when the food arrives, and his mother talks about the Mayans. She says that the Mayans thought children with crossed eyes were special, stargazers. Unfocused eyes are better able to see patterns in the sky.
Agreeable murmurs and sounds of eating engulf her words and bring them into the canon of this place.
In the courtyard proper, retired men occupy a central table among hipster couples. A businessman makes calls from a picnic table in the patio’s shady corner.
Smoke clouds lit by the sun drift through the canvas of the patio’s umbrellas and the green branches of its palo verde tree. People heavily use the ashtrays despite temperatures pushing 100 degrees.
One smoker is a woman whose dreads are just starting to gray. She’s chit-chatting with another woman that has salt and pepper hair.
The woman with dreads is leaving Tucson in nine days, after a long stay. She just came off a stint in Ireland, where she toured as a guest speaker at massage therapist schools. She seems like the kind of person who can cut a home out of anywhere.
She speaks about her last unlikely home in Tucson, a house in an alley she shared with a crazy lady. She details stories of the roommate bringing home "johns" and making her feel unsafe with the subsequent erratic behavior.
The woman describes a close encounter that inspired her to make a podcast about human trafficking, which is doing well on iTunes. The two went on about their current projects at work.
As subjects for conversation dwindle, her friend thanks her for her time and mentions work left at home. A polite goodbye is exchanged with a rustle of ceramic.
The woman’s dress is flowy and pink, with stylized white hibiscuses and a skirt that trails behind her when she leaves.
As she walks out through the shed, the speakers project the hollow snap of an aux cord being removed. The barista clocks out for the day and passes on DJ duties to the next shift.
Correction: In the first publication, Sabine Blaese was mentioned as Cafe Passé's current owner. The Daily Wildcat has corrected that statement to reflect that Balese is the cafe's previous owner. Effective Sept. 1, 2016 Balese transitioned ownership of Cafe Passé to Jenny Rice, Ronnie and Christian Spece and Mike and Dana Corcoran.
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