End of an Era: the Cardinal Lounge

The funny thing was that she'd never heard of catnip! How outrageous!

This is in honor of the Cardinal Coffee Shop & Lounge in San Jose, a 24-hour diner decorated in red vinyl that has been serving coffee, pancakes, shakes and bloody marys for many years. I went for the first time on Valentine's Day 2009, when my (now) boyfriend insisted that this family-friendly diner, all lit up in neon, was the single best place to be. He pointed out the bullet hole in one of the taller windows, a blemish in the otherwise well-groomed parlor. We later returned with friends on my birthday, and one of them explained that the secret to his academic success was their all-night coffee service.

At the entrance to the restaurant are the statues of two black leopards, their paws meeting mid-air. It oozes of Reagan-era cheese in a way that makes the watercolors of waitresses look historic. I stopped before a big painting today, one of a smiling waitress with a platter on one hand, her nametag reading "Lucy."

"I wonder who that is," I said.

"Oh, it's nobody," a waitress laughed. "Although they say she looks like the owner."

This story takes a sad turn, however: the Cardinal Lounge is closing this month. Ryan and I were on the road when a friend back home gave him the news, and I'll never forget his reaction. We might have been watching a World Cup game, or perhaps planning our next destination, when out of nowhere he lowered the cell phone from his ear and said slowly, "They're closing the Cardinal Lounge."

A seminal moment, I'm sure. Allegedly the owners are hosting an auction next week. I won't be around but I half expect a crowd of twentysomething skateboarders to show up and bid on all those vinyl barstools or the cardinal mugs. I didn't grow up with this place, and thus don't have quite as visceral a reaction, but we all have places that represent as much of ourselves and our adolescence that I understand as well as any. You can't help feeling that once the place is gone, so then is a part of you.