Watching the Presidential Debate at Awaken Café 

When strangers choose to crowd together to experience an event of national import, beer helps.

Awaken Café's official capacity is 49 people, so maybe let's not tell the fire marshal about Monday, October 22. That's when the cafe's owners cleared the tables out, set up folding chairs, and let anyone who felt like coming by to watch the presidential debate. ("It's more fun to hear the reactions," mused owner/very nice guy Cortt Dunlap afterward, noting that attendance on all four debate nights had been good.) Suffice it to say that quite a few people felt like coming by, and also that it's a good thing all of them were good sports and none of them were arsonists.

Other aspects of Awaken's official capacity, per its website: that of "a green, award-winning espresso bar, tea house, boutique ice-creamery (coming this summer), beer & wine bar, performance & event space, and art gallery in the heart of the new downtown Oakland." The beers and coffee are local; the art on the walls appears, at least right now, to be bird-themed; the design is airy, earth-toned, and contemporary; the clientele and their sundry electronics are attractive and shiny. And the mission is, abstractly/ambitiously/stylishly downcapped-ly, to "bring people together. launch movements." These are things that could prompt an irrevocable slide toward cafe-cliché preciousness, but Awaken Café is saved by a certain heart-melting earnestness and a unique ability to truly back up all the "community" talk: After losing the lease on his cafe's first incarnation — a cozy, much-smaller place a few blocks away on 14th Street — Dunlap successfully solicited the community for donations that would go toward building a new space. And during the May Day general strike, Dunlap and his staff decided, after much agonizing, to stay open — partially as a show of small-business pride, partly as a means of providing snacks/much-needed booze/wi-fi to Occupiers and observers — and to donate the day's profits to local charities. This is a place that works hard to do things right. Also, any cafe that has the good sense to serve booze — ten wines, eleven beers, and one hard cider — is probably worth supporting.

Last Monday, no movements — metaphorical or, really, physical, given the crowd — appeared to be being launched, but the people had demonstrably been brought together: groaning, heckling, clapping, commenting; sitting cramped on couches and cross-legged on the floor and squeezed into corners of a too-crowded room; damp and sticky from the storm outside; choosing to be together when they could more comfortably be alone. A phalanx of laptop-users perched at the bar tapped away on Twitter, glancing up only occasionally. An older man took copious handwritten notes on a yellow legal pad with one hand and sipped a glass of red with the other. Couples discreetly held hands and strangers made eye contact in that knowing way you do when you're experiencing an event of national import surrounded by people you can safely assume are like-minded. Someone brought a baby but nobody seemed pissed about it. The bartenders stole sidelong glances between pulling beers and collecting glasses, and the groans/heckles/claps/commentary grew louder, and the beers were consumed with a celebratory rapidity. Dunlap flitted around, rescuing empty pitchers and fiddling with cords. At one point, someone near the back blurted out an unexpectedly loud "fuck this guy!" — like you would in your own home, or maybe just like you would when you're a couple glasses of wine in, smooshed up next to friends and strangers in a place that feels familiar, even if it isn't. Everyone laughed.

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