The Four O'Clock Café

The Four O'Clock Café was only open at one time: 4 o'clock. Right on the dot of the hour, the blind flapped up, the clouded window slid aside yielding glimpses through a curtain of the dark, red-lit interior and two anonymous hands distributed coffee in tiny espresso cups to all those who stood in line. Word went around quickly that a new café had opened – at the summit – and it immediately became popular.

The fact that the “4 oh”, as it came to be called, had only a pair of beaten-up picnic tables to sit on was part of its charm. Operated out of a small trailer, it was like a kiosk that you might find – or hoped to find – at a rest stop on some old scenic coastal highway. Latecomers drove up in a rush, dimming their headlights and slowing down before turning off the road. Already the customers stood around the picnic tables, chatted with each other about where they were working, stretched, and looked about as if they were seeing the place for the first time.

Despite the darkness, there were three views: down, across and up. Looking down you saw the vast ocean of clouds that lapped up against the mountain. If it was clear you could discern the lights at Kona on the west side or Hilo on the eastern coast. Across, you saw the barren moonscape-summit of the volcano with its odd white observatory domes standing here and there, each of them open, collecting their distant light. At sunrise or sunset, looking past the summit and the domes, to the opposite horizon, you could see the shadow of the mountain on the sky, a triangular blue silhouette momentarily suspended. Up, if you weren't too tired to crane your neck, the night was peppered with stars. Often it was windy and you didn't bother with the view – you just huddled up against the trailer.

Because the “4 oh” was on top of Mauna Kea, on the big island of Hawaii, the site of the darkest, clearest skies on Earth, the customers were always the same – astronomers. They came from everywhere: Hawaii, the mainland, Canada, France, Britain, Japan, Mexico, Chile, Holland, Germany, Spain; grad students, postdocs, research associates, collaborators, full-fledged, tenured professors. They arrived jetlagged and unacclimatized for two or four night runs, some for a few weeks. Whoever they were and wherever they came from, at 4am they only wanted one thing: coffee.

A simple handwritten sign in the window, barely illuminated by the red light, advertised the offerings. She (the anonymous hands could only belong to a woman) served espresso for two bucks each and that was it. Friday nights she made chocolate chip cookies and sold them for a dollar. In one night she probably made forty or fifty dollars. Clustered in twos and threes, everyone agreed, when they got around to discussing it – after confirming whether the seeing was sub-arcsecond or not – that she couldn't have been doing it for the money. Naturally, you wondered who she was too. She served with such confidence and gusto that you thought no problem was beyond her, and despite the obscuring curtain and the anonymous hands, when you got up to the window you were tempted to confess to her your confusions about the mysteries of the universe as if she were a Delphic oracle. You imagined different scenarios: her matter-of-fact replies, as if these problems were mere distractions getting in the way of the real secrets, or her wise, Rilkean silence, reminding you to love the questions themselves. The consensus was that she was one of the cooks from the lodge down at 8000 feet and she came up to the summit either because she was an insomniac or simply out of the goodness of her heart. But no one ever saw the trailer down in the parking lot at breakfast. Next time, for the hell of it, you will try to make her laugh.

Under the blazing stars, in the wind, at 13,600 feet – the highest point in the Pacific, in the darkness, above the clouds, it is strange to have coffee – espresso – under such circumstances. But now, in the middle of the night, is when the lack of oxygen starts getting to you and the caffeine helps. You sip it slowly, wondering if this is the highest altitude café in the world. You imagine opening up a tiny tea hut at Everest Base Camp, halfway around the world, for sherpas and because-it's-there mountain climbers.

It's easy to imagine these things. A speck of dust lights up as a shooting star and streaks across the sky. You hear the hum of a dome swiveling around to a new position. You think of all the light raining down on the mountain and this tiny fraction that's scooped up by these dozen telescopes tonight. From star forming regions, pulsating stars, distant solar systems whirling into existence, remnants of exploded stars, and newborn galaxies at the edge of the observable universe. Snapshots of fireworks seen from afar. Though it's the wind, you imagine it's the starlight that's deafening.

Just as you think you should have another shot, you see the woman's hands put a tray out and the window clicks closed. One by one the empty cups collect on the tray and you watch everyone trickle back to their domes. On your way back in you take one last look up; two more hours till dawn.


words: Daniel Hudon, Boston (about)
photo: Steve Wing, Florida (sand shadow)

This piece originally appeared in the Journal of
the Core Curriculum, Boston University, Boston, MA.


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