The garden is a block away from the café, a small oasis of green amidst the severe office buildings and cloudy gray-scale urban landscape that makes up downtown Jackson. It doesn’t draw attention to itself, and many pedestrians walk quickly by without even noticing it, busy with their phones or their thoughts or their plans to hurry on to something, somewhere, sometime.
A dozen rows of freshly-tilled dirt make beautiful scars in the earth, and wooden posts hold up some of the fledging plants struggling to put down roots. Other seeds are buried, invisible until water, sun and time bring them to the surface. A slightly crooked sign marks the garden ComeUnity Café’s property. In a few months’ time, the vegetables will be uprooted, piled together in a basket and carried to the restaurant where they will become the backbone of the soups and salads served daily. I follow the path they’ll take, down the ashy sidewalk, across the zebra stripes, through the cars crowding the café’s corner and finally into the restaurant itself.
Two women sit in the corner, chatting idly over their meals as they check their phones so often it’s like a nervous tic. Behind the counter the head chef stands pensively, his shaggy hair and striped toboggan cap disguising the maturity that enables him to successfully run the kitchen in Jackson’s first pay-as-you-can restaurant for two years now. He starts bringing out freshly baked rolls of bread so they can rise on the counter, and their nostalgically homey aroma wafts through the room as he gently scrapes flour off the tops like an artist perfecting paintings. A young girl with a bouncy ponytail sheepishly steals the centerpiece from my table to replace the flowers that are slightly wilted and promises to return it promptly.
Wooden tables with all but a hint of their roughness sanded out dot the generous floor of the café like islands, havens for conversations, lunch dates, business meals or simply half an hour out of the cold. ComeUnity Café draws such a cross section of Jackson that during any given hour the tables are often serving all of these purposes. Empty steel buckets sit in the corner of the room, waiting to be filled with a clatter of plates, bowls, forks and spoons that will be rushed to the back, washed swiftly and refilled with piping hot soups and thickly stacked sandwiches for the next customers. Rows of mason jars and mugs stand at the ready by pitchers of tea (sweet, of course) and steaming coffee.
The centerpiece is back, its vivid red flowers invoking nostalgia for a spring that’s still too far off to hope for. The phone rings and bouncy ponytail girl answers and begins quickly scribbling down a to-go order. More and more people begin to trickle in, and the restaurant slowly inflates with life. Next to me, two workmen tramp in, their steel toed boots making soft thuds on the wooden floor. Despite the decidedly hipster air of their chosen lunch establishment, they don’t look out of place here, because no one does. The café has a way of being what everyone from the workmen to the women still checking their phones to the college co-ed to the homeless guy needs.
As the crowd increases, so does the music of the restaurant. It’s the quiet hum of the AC unit and the spastically demanding shriek of the telephone blended with the loud sharp cling of the register in harmony with the rapid and repetitive thwack of a knife in the kitchen slicing vegetables and the shrill chink of the ice scoop all undergirded by the melody of conversation as vibrant and warm as the sweet onion tomato soup bubbling on the stove.
An older man comes in, his unkempt beard and tattered Tennessee hat a perfect match for his battered blue Nikes that have probably traversed Jackson ad nauseum. He triumphantly holds up a wash rag and spray bottle with a yellow gap-toothed grin, the streaks in the windows around the restaurant a testament to his hard work. A waiter smiles and greets him like an old friend, guiding him to a table and serving him a cozy cup of coffee.
Above, Jason Mraz’s “Lucky” drifts through the speakers but falls prey to an invisible back room deejay, fading softly away to the crooning strains of “Lean on Me,” accented by the husky howl of a kitchen worker as he sings along.
The more time I spend here, the more I realize this brick building is more than just a decent place to get a hot meal. It’s a garden, just like the humble patch of dirt a block over. Seeds of hope are planted in weary souls, in hopes that water, sun and time will bring them to the surface, blossoming beautifully like the bright red flowers on my table.
As the afternoon stretches on, the tide of the crowd reaches its peak and slowly recedes again, leaving the café calm, quiet and a little disheveled. Closing time is creeping up. Someone flips the wooden sign from “open” to “closed.” As I push open the door to leave, the wind chimes chatter delicately in the breeze, and as I pass the garden, I noticed a few rebellious leaves poking their green tips through the dirt despite the dreary winter.