Chicago Portrait no. 24: Royal Cafe

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The first meal that I ever bought in Chicago was a cappuccino and a croissant at Royal Coffee on Pratt and Sheridan. It’s a tiled, overwarm Ethiopian restaurant / coffee shop, sharing its building with some kind of nondescript home church that I’ve never seen open.

I sat on the patio in the bleary heat of August, with my mom, who had driven me to town along with my piles of clothes, a small Walmart desk, a Wii, an old laptop, an air mattress, and an antique exercise bike bought from the garage of a random woman in Lodi, Ohio. I still had my driver’s license back then, but I was thankful to have somebody to travel with, who could navigate the many interlocking highways and exits that threaded through the heart of the city. Though driving through that morass of lanes and cars gave my poor mom heart palpitations, she was willing to do it for me.

Two days prior, we’d set out for Chicago from Cleveland, and spent the night in a Day’s Inn off the Indiana Turnpike. I’d purposefully found us a room with a hot tub in it; when we arrived and saw the floor-to-ceiling mirror and the gaudy decorations near the massive tub that sat in the middle of the bedroom, we laughed and were mildly horrified but set the water running anyway. The next morning was a breakfast of free cereal and muffins. Then we made our trek into the city.

The landlady of my new building on Pratt was leathery and hoarse, with long stringy hair and a funny embroidered vest. She was reasonably kind but couldn’t screw her face into anything better than a grimace. I paid the first month’s rent, she forked over the keys, and I ran out to tell my mom to pull her car into the alley, where the freight elevator was.

We spent the day unpacking and then filled the warm refridgerator with milk and ice. I watched my mother wash dust from the few plastic cups I’d brought with me. We blew up the air mattress. I struggled with the fitted sheets, as I always do. I lack the finesse to put them on correctly. I always need help. As she came to join me and pull the corners on, I broke down crying.

It wasn’t until I was installed in that wide, white studio that I realized just how lonesome I was. There was no one in town that I knew, and nowhere to go, not until graduate school started at the end of the month. My visions of urban adventure deflated, and the fabric of them billowed out my brick-wall facing window, into the oil-stained alley below.

My mom did not know how to comfort me. That made me just feel worse, like I was beyond helping, or had made some catastrophic mistake.

In the morning, before she left, we went downstairs to Royal Coffee. I remember waking up next to her and feeling the lightness of companionship, followed quickly by the desperate, childlike dread of the newly abandoned. I had left and been left by boyfriends before, and the devastation then felt the exact same. I tried to hold it together and she struggled to cheer me up.

The owner of Royal Coffee is a bald Ethiopian man who’s a little hard of hearing and very generous. The cappuccinos came out too quickly, on square saucers with two tiny, sweet bready cookies apiece. I sipped and lingered over them, taking small chalky bites. My mom drank and the sun hit her. I didn’t want her to go. I was terrified of being alone, and certain that once she pulled away, I’d be waylaid by torrents of tears that wouldn’t stop.

“You can come here every morning for breakfast,” she said brightly, an idea that was also a suggestion for how to stay alive. On her phone, she discovered the cafe’s wi-fi. “You could bring your computer here and do schoolwork.”

I nodded and gave a pained, tight-lipped smile, and cringed away tears. Don’t leave me alone, Mom. I’m not ready. Don’t let me go.

We paid after the drinks were done. And then she found her car, carefully parallel parked on Pratt, near the beach. I could go to the beach, my mom observed. It was another well-intentioned time filler, but made me feel even more pathetic. I must have looked pitiful.

“I can Skype you tomorrow,” she told me as we crossed the street. “We can talk everyday. And you can get the Wii hooked up and play Animal Crossing with your sister.”

I nodded and swallowed tears and snot. Tried to suck it all up inside me. Wind from the lake blasted my hair into my mouth. We stood in front of her car and I tried not to shake with sadness. I watched her face, then the outline of her head, then the dark blue blur of her car as it went away. And then what? I don’t remember. Maybe I took a walk around the park. Probably I went inside and cried.

It’s been over six years, and much of the Roger’s Park real estate has changed. Many of the area restaurants have changed ownership or closed entirely; a liquor store with a cowboy-hat wearing cashier has transformed into a high-end eyeglass shop. New buildings and parking structures have been erected. My favorite diner, Standees, has been torn down and turned into a Thai lunch spot. I have moved several miles south, then north, then south again. I have been just as lonely, as frighteningly sad, as I was then, and then gotten better, and then taken a turn for the worse again.

Through it all, Royal Coffee has been steadfast. The coffee is still expertly made and distinctive, with tiny cookies accompanying each order. The decor is unchanging. The patio furniture is the same iron I cried in across from my mom a few yards away from my new apartment. I wish I had the stomach to patronize the place more often. The baked goods are hearty but not cloying; the Ethiopian food is a unique American fusion, served in lunch portions atop little tealight candles, unlike anything else I’ve ever seen at other places.

But I do not go there often. Even when I lived right above the restaurant, I went there only rarely. The memory is too painful. It makes me feel too much like the lost 21-year-old girl who brought me here.

Originally published at

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