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THE NILE (in the footsteps of Charlie Chaplin)


The Nile_0004

“What is this place?” I enquired poking my head through the old screen door of a small shop on a side street in Niles, California early one morning. Though we had passed this shop numerous times, I had never given it much thought. My first thought was that it might have been a bar, or even a head shop! Either way I thought I had better check it out before going in at 8:30 in the morning. An intriguing trim on top of the doorway showed a small painting of sign language, and no name otherwise. Wooden men’s neckties gaily painted hung down on either side of the doorway. No indication of what was going on inside.

“It’s a coffee shop” called out the bearded and smiling young fellow behind the bar, “come on in!” Having watched my trepidation in peering through his doorway he looked near to laughing at me, and was plainly telling me that they wouldn’t bite me! The shop was filled with an assortment of happy people who smiled and joined in the invitation, and the entire establishment was reminiscent of the coffee shops of Berkeley in the ’70’s, which happened to have been my favorite decade. What a startling difference from the local Starbuck’s or Peet’s coffee shops. “We’ll be back tomorrow!” I told him, running back across the street to tell Dr. Advice where we could go for coffee the next morning.

And this began not only our favorite apre-walk destination for the next ten years, but the forging of many treasured friendships.

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Charlie Chaplin came to Niles in 1914, and some of his finest films were made here in those early years. A film museum in town celebrates those exciting days when Bronco Billy and Charlie Chaplin ruled Niles. The early silent films draw many tourists and visitors to the little town along with the many antique shops along the Main Street. The railroad which runs alongside at the base of the rolling hills was transportation from San Francisco then as now. A small railroad runs between Niles and the tiny town of Sunol through the Niles Canyon. It was a ripe place for a Berkeley-style coffee shop when Dirk came to town. A Cal Berkeley graduate, he and Camille and their daughter Zoe, became well-loved householders. The California School for the Deaf and Blind had recently relocated from Berkeley to Fremont, which was a great school for Zoe, who is hearing impaired.

Just inside the front door, and covering an entire wall of the high-ceilinged 19th century building, is a brilliant painting with Egyptian ladies in their typical sideways pose. On an opposite wall, is another wall-sized painting of an Egyptian chariot race. These paintings, and everything else covering the mismatched walls and part of the ceiling, were painted by Camille, a talented artist. Her brush was an extension of her brain, and what appealed to her at any given moment, was translated into bright colors on the walls of this tiny place. The feeling imparted to the shop’s decor, and the happy sensory response of the customers, was altogether appealing.

Egyptian ladies

Egyptian

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The Nile_0002

The clientele of this remarkable place has always been comprised of local residents and business people. Artists, musicians, techies, writers, shop owners, philosophers, teachers and lowly people like Dr. Advice and I who were made to feel welcome.

A young songwriter with great wit, and who has a song in the Baseball Hall of Fame, sat now and then playing a game of dominoes in the morning. There were No Computers in sight as there are today in some of the other large coffee shops.

Ideas flew around the room like Harry Potter’s broomstick, and made for lively conversation. Everyone knew one another, and each morning was a house party atmosphere. Almost everyone knew how to make the coffee, which was all that was served, and even I took an occasional turn at the espresso machine.

There was no food served, but occasionally someone would bring a platter of cookies or pastry to share. One of the young women who was a baker, and who has since opened her own pie company, brought pastry, which was so good people looked forward to it. It was some of the best pastry I ever tasted.

A few people who were regulars, even had their names painted on the backs of their favorite chair, and lots of friendly rivalry took place if anyone should mistakenly sit in the “wrong” chair.

There were occasional evening parties, when the shop was closed to the public, with music, singing, and always great party atmosphere. Some of the memorable jollifications were a crab feed, a chocolate cake competition, A French-themed party, karaoke, and general merriment.

If I have given this atmosphere the sense of excitement and general friendship and caring, I have succeeded. During the downturn of the tech business, in which some people were employed, and then not, everyone lent a supportive shoulder to cry on. On the morning of 9-11 tears and a quietness settled on the group. Someone had brought a small TV, and we sat spell bound not believing our eyes. Not a lot of coffee was consumed that morning in the silence. It was as if we shared the profound grief our entire country was feeling.

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Our lovely Old English Sheepdog Panda, who sauntered along with us each morning with her slow observing pace, stopping to greet everyone whom her parents greeted, was known and loved by everyone. One morning I did not go on our walk and sometime after they left, I received a phone call from a boy asking if I had a big dog named Panda. Assuring him that I did, he told me he had found her walking alone on the trail while on his way to school.

Frantic, I asked if he knew where the Nile Coffee Shop was and if he could take her there and tell someone she was lost, I would be there as soon as I could. I had no idea if Dr. Advice had been abducted, fallen in the creek, or was otherwise in distress.

I ran into the coffee shop, and immediately 4-5 people jumped up and said they would help find her. Two were shop keepers, and I was so grateful to them for delaying their trip to open their own shop. As we got out to the street, there was Dr. Advice driving past unconcerned and with a large furry head sticking out the rear window, ears blowing, tongue out and a smile on her face

I should explain that my husband has who has “never met a stranger”, would talk to a tree if it would answer, and absolutely loves people and dogs. He had begun walking with a young woman friend and her Labs, and engrossed in the conversation, simply walked off the trail and into the park without sleepy old Panda. On his way home, he realized he was missing a passenger and went back to collect her from the boy who was bringing to the Nile.

Sam and Panda2

Generation Two of the Nile Café after Dirk sold it, will be another post, after Han came with her delicious cooking and her delightful family. The fun times still persist, with the addition of new interesting people who have joined the group.

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19 comments on “THE NILE (in the footsteps of Charlie Chaplin)

  1. We have in Sydney one of those places. It is called ‘Bar Italia’. It is always a very busy place with a hotch- potch of different people queueing up for a fix of coffee. It has been going for decades and never a need for modernizing or ‘up-grading’. We sometimes drive over 2ookm to Sydeny and back and try and include a coffee at ‘Bar Italia”.
    This piece is such a joy to read and I can well imagine the bon homie and camaraderie of all the colourful characters.
    I like all the photos and especially of the walking man with the mauve wind-cheater and dog. Such a determined stride too.

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    • These happy places are not for everyone I’m sure.  But I’ll take these friendly neighborhood gathering spots any time over the chains.  The determined walker in the purple  jacket is my husband, Dr. Advice!   I’m happy you have a place like this too, even though you have to drive 200 miles to get  a cuppa!

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      • I thought he might be your husband. I was a bit coy about it in case he wasn’t. Here in Bowral we have nice places for coffee with many having outdoor areas which of course suits Milo. He general drags us to a coffee place which has blueberry muffins which he then unashamedly pilfers from us.
        However Bowral is not bohemian nor Berkeley of the 70s more of place of respect and with raking leaves past times. ( if you get my drift)

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      • I do understand Gerard!  It sounds like my own neighborhood!  Very nice, but not a whole lot going on.  Niles is a district in Fremont, which has  5 separate districts, much like New York City.  Each one is unique, but Niles is the most picturesque with history.  I hope Mile has had better luck with his hunting.

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  2. Kayti, you’ve captured those times so beautifully. Can’t wait to read more and see more of the old photos. How about some of your birthday party there and you and Michael singing?
    Joan

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    • You know, I don’t have any of those pictures left since my computer crashed awhile back.  Such a shame.  But I will probably post an album of sorts of all the early crowd on Facebook.  I took pictures of individuals which are fun to see again.

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  3. Love this story, Kayti, and the photos too. It sounds like a really great place. I like the path your hubby’s walking on, and the look of the trees.

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    • Do you remember the triptych I posted some time ago about the “road to nowhere”?  Seeing my husband walking along that trail every morning with or without Panda, triggered that painting .  The trail from where we always started, follows the creek about 13 1/2 miles and flows out into San Francisco Bay.  A nice “stretch of the legs”!

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  4. I want to go to that coffee shop! Sounds wonderful, a wonderful community, you are very lucky. Yet again lovely storytelling.

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  5. What a wonderful story. When I lived in Berkeley, I occasionally got down to Palo Alto, but most of my time out of the city was focused north and east, and I never did get to Fremont. Still, the coffee house culture of the time hardly varied from one area to the other. I was there in the 1970s, living on Hilgard just about a block west of Euclid, north of UCB and not so far from where Allen Ginsberg lived (on Milvia) in the mid ’50s.

    I made it to Caffee Mediterraneum and loved Freight and Salvage – they were still on San Pablo at the time. But my very favorite coffee house was on Euclid, just a block north of campus. It’s gone now, but there was one on Hearst near Euclid we’d go to if the other was full. Starbucks? Pfffffftttt… They don’t have a clue what makes a good coffee house. Clearly, the wonderful people at The Nile knew exactly what they were doing – right down to helping you get your doggie back!

    Oh, my gosh, was it a wonderful time. I went to the first Bread and Roses concert, and heard the Staples Singers in Oakland. Remember Tower of Power? Music, coffee and good books – Moe’s and Shakespeare & Co. I believe I’m going to make myself a latte, kick off my shoes and cue up a little Grateful Dead. I never made it to the Fillmore, but I can pretend!

    Wonderful, evocative post. There are a couple of stories from my Berkeley days that might be worth telling – I’m in the mood for it now that you’ve primed the pump!

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    • Through the years we have divided out time during football season between Cal and Stanford. We know just about where you lived!  This is so cool.  I agree, Starbuck’s is NOT a coffee house, and it doesn’t even smell like one.  We drop in about once a week though to watch the people hiding behind their computers.   There were a couple of jazz clubs in the early days which probably are not there anymore.  Never made it to the Fillmore, but it was pretty great in its day.   I hope you write some stories of your own about your Berkeley days.  They will be great reads.  Those days were my favorite.    

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  6. Hey, Kayti! Come on over and see us at the cafe. We talk about you all the time, Mrs. Lauderback! If you need a taxi, we’re ready!
    Ed still makes up answers to the crossword puzzles by deleting and adding squares. And, although she works day hours now, Julianne shows up now and then. Last time, she showed us some moves from the pole dancing class she is taking. Dave offered to be the pole, and a small group of non-locals slowly backed out the door they had come in. Not everyone is ready for the Nile, I guess…..
    Love you!
    Delores

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  7. You have captured the Niles ambiance, Kayti. I remember meeting you at DaNile and having a soulful cup of coffee. This post also made me miss Panda. You have been fortunate to share space with such amazing dogs.

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  8. Thank you for sharing this little biopic, a nice journey of the mind visit to a coffee break. Though I am a thousand miles away, it feels I could go there tomorrow.

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