David Hume had just arrived at LAX when he received news that his wife had been taken to the Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver. He immediately cancelled his meetings and booked a flight back to Vancouver. He was somewhere over Oregon when she passed away.
The doctors said it was a brain aneurysm, “there was nothing you could have done”. That didn’t ease the guilt of not being with her in her final moments.
Struggling with his loss, his business of advising clients on social trends closed.
After a year of ‘bouncing around’ his five bedroom North Vancouver house, he sold it for what he said was a “staggering amount of money” and bought a two bedroom apartment on Beach Street overlooking English Bay.
Converting his second bedroom into an office he started an online newsletter on social trends. He quickly learned three things - he had no idea how to run a website; he had lost touch with social trends; and he needed to be around people.
The first problem was easy to solve. There are any number of companies in Vancouver that will design and maintain a website. He found a two person company that didn’t mind working with an eccentric running a business newsletter.
The other two problems were a bit harder to solve.
David had found his name sake had helped guide his career. From his degrees in Economics and a minor in Philosophy, to his choice of a career in writing on social trends, he could see parallels in THE David Hume.
Like any student of philosophy, when presented with a problem, he went for a walk.
The solution presented itself at 1026 Robson Street. Two rundown empty storefronts, sitting side-by-side. Both for lease by the same company. Individually they were too small to be viable businesses. But together, close to libraries, art galleries, the Law Courts and the start of Robson Street’s shopping district, David could see a boutique coffee shop.
‘I can write my newsletter from there, so the coffee shop just has to break even.’
The Economics major in him shuddered. With no business plan and no idea on running a coffee shop, this was not a business - it was a hobby. A rather expensive hobby, but one David could afford.
After confirming that the two businesses could be joined together, David signed a two year lease on both buildings. Starting renovations immediately, on March 24th, 2017 “The Philosopher's Café” opened for business.
On one side were the usual coffee shop accoutrements, a few small tables and a serving area. An arch opened to the other side of the business which contained two couches and four large overstuffed chairs. Bookcases lined the end wall, full of the books we all say we should read some day but never do. The two side walls contain works from local artists in various media. A large window gave a view of the hustle and bustle on Robson Street.
In a corner, by the bookcases there was a single desk. David’s desk, a large oak five drawer desk and oak bankers chairs. Both would have been at home in a 1950’s executive’s office.
For the first year business started slow. The café was open Tuesday to Saturday, 8:00am to 5:30pm. A routine quickly developed.
David would arrive at 6:30am opening the store and making sure everything was turned on. He would check the stock market and do a little work on his newsletter. Around 7:30 Janice, the store manager, would arrive, fresh baked goods arrived about the same time.
Janice would have a coffee with David and put out the fresh baking. David put out the small tables and chairs for the sidewalk patio. They opened for business at 8:00am. (If things got busy David would help by taking the orders, he was hopeless on the machines.) Sylvia and Karen, the two baristas, arrived at 9:30am. After closing, David would do the cleanup, bring in the tables and chairs, and take the leftover baked goods to one of the local shelters.
After six months business was good enough to hire a second person, Robert, for the early shift, giving Janice more time to manage the business. It also freed David, to do more work on his newsletter and to start taking a morning walk. Something he hadn’t done on a regular basis since his university days.
For the first time since his wife had died David was at peace.
It was a rare bright clear late November morning. The merchants on Robson Street had finished marking down the prices on the vastly overpriced goods for the start of ‘Holiday Season Sales’. (The reason David never went to any of these Christmas Sales Events - he knew the real prices.)
Returning from his morning walk David could see a man sitting on the sidewalk in front of his café. As he got closer he could see a stocky, elderly man, clean shaven and balding. He was sitting on a small floor mat; a crown cap and cardboard sign were on the sidewalk in front of him.
David was ambivalent towards street people loitering in front of the café. As long as they didn’t interfere with his customers he didn’t bother them. Most left after a day or two. Sometimes one of the neighbouring businesses would complain and the police would move them along.
As David got close enough to read the sign, instead of the usual plea for help there was a large question mark.
‘Well that is different’
“Hello”, taking a Loonie (nickname for a Canadian dollar) from his pocket, putting it in the cap, “What is your name?”
David smiled. For an instant he was back in university in one of those never ending Socratic discussions.
‘Delusional - but he seems harmless’
“My name is David Hume and I own The Philosopher’s Café.” Without waiting for a response. “Can I get you a drink?”
A quick smile passed across Socrates’ face.
‘He got the connection - most people don’t’
The response caught David off guard.
‘Not one of the usual street people.’
Correcting his English. “May I get you a drink?”
“A hot chocolate please.”
David went inside, returning five minutes later with a mug of hot chocolate, passing it to Socrates. Socrates took a coin from his cap and tried to give it to David.
“No - no charge”
“I insist. I may accept donations of coin, but a merchant must be paid for his services.”
David took the coin and returned it to the cap. Socrates seemed pleased with the solution.
“Please bring the mug inside when you are finished.”
David watched Socrates from time to time during the day. Placing a donation into his cap was seen as an invitation to open a conversation. Socrates tailored his question to his target - from “What did you buy today?” for the women with the large shopping bag to “Do you think the Canucks will ever get in the playoffs?” for the young man wearing a hockey sweater. Eventually the questions would degenerate to a series of why’s and the person would shuffle off.
David smiled, ‘No wonder the Athenians killed him’
The next morning was just as bright as the previous. And, like before, by the time David had returned from his walk Socrates had taken position on the sidewalk. David waved to him as he went into the café, prepared a hot chocolate, and brought it out.
“I don’t believe I ordered that.”
David sighed. He was always telling his staff ‘Make sure to ask what they want!’
“My apologies . . . May I get you a drink”
“A coffee, two cream, two sugar please”
Muttering “Of course he wouldn’t take the hot chocolate.” David went back inside to get the coffee.
“Janice, would you take this into the reading room and see if anyone wants a free hot chocolate.”
David took the coffee out to Socrates, they do the same dance with the payment and David returned inside.
“Janice, I’ll be at my desk. Can you keep an eye on the old coot?”
Smiling, she nods. ‘Not too many people get to David - I think I like this guy’
David was going over a series of database printouts he needed to analyse for his newsletter.
Janice interrupted him - “David - I think you better go outside. VPD (Vancouver Police Department) are out there talking to Socrates.”
By the time David got outside the conversion had degenerated into a series of “Why”s and “Because I told you to.”s
“Hi Frank. This isn’t your usual beat.” It was part of his beat, but he usually stayed closer to the Law Courts. He would drop in for coffee every now and then making friends with all the merchants in the area.
“Hi David. Yeh - sorry to be bothering you - we got a complaint from one of your neighbours.”
David didn’t have to ask which one. On one side, Helen ran a store selling specialty paper and art supplies. She would have approached him before calling the police. On the other side was a chain store that sold faux antiques at outrageous prices to people with more money than sense. They had never stopped complaining since one of his sidewalk tables had accidentally been pushed in front of their store.
“Seems like he talked someone into returning a rather large purchase.”
“This is not your problem. I can take care of myself!” Socrates interrupted.
“Sorry Socrates, but I can’t have the VPD telling my customers they have to leave now can I?”
“Customer?” Frank was puzzled. David pointed down to the almost empty coffee cup.
David continued. “There is nothing in the ‘Small sidewalk patio permit’ that says the customers have to sit at the tables.” Glancing at the two small tables he provided.
“So you will vouch for him then?”
“Hell no! . . . I hardly know the man. What I will tell you is that the shopper who returned his purchase probably had ‘buyer’s remorse’ as soon as he left the store.”
Socrates was enjoying the conversation immensely.
Frank knew of the high pressure sales people employed by the store. He nodded his head - “OK David - he’s a customer.”
By the beginning of December Vancouver’s weather had turned to winter normal, cold and damp. Socrates had abandoned his post in front of the café. David closed the store from December 24rd to January 2nd, giving his staff a paid vacation. (Janice said they couldn’t afford the paid vacation, David said to pay it anyway.)
It was late in January when Socrates returned to sit in front of the café.
It was one of those strange Vancouver days. It had started out with clear skies and bright sunshine. By the afternoon snow had started falling. Vancouver doesn’t do snow very well. Anyone who could was heading home early. David was closing the café early.
Socrates was getting ready to leave when David came out.
“If you don’t mind waiting inside until I finish closing, I can give you a ride home.”
‘It will be a long walk home in all this snow’ - “Yes, I would appreciate a ride.”
David was packing up the baked goods. He would drop them off at a shelter later.
“Help yourself - I can’t sell them.”
Socrates picked up a muffin “For my afternoon tea.”
Popular culture has painted Socrates as a one dimensional character. That wasn’t true of the historical Socrates and certainly wasn’t true of this modern name sake. As they slowly made their way over the Burrard Street bridge, Socrates ventured his opinion on David’s hot chocolate, it was a bit too sweet. He favoured a small café in Malaga with one in Bruges coming in a close second. Parisienne hot chocolate was dismissed with a wave of the hand - “Too bitter”
By the time David dropped him off at his home, a studio apartment in a low rise building on West 1st Ave, he was quite charmed by this unusual man.
By the middle of March the weather was improving and Socrates was becoming more of a fixture in front of the café. If David was out on his morning walk, Janice would take care of his order. It was always hot chocolate - but she always asked.
As time went on David would often go outside to have coffee with Socrates. They would talk on subjects as far ranging as Leibniz's dictum that this was ‘the best of all possible worlds’ to whether Snoopy could be considered a philosopher.
By the beginning of May income from the café was finally covering the costs and David’s newsletter was becoming a success. David was enjoying his coffee and catching up on some reading when Janice approached, followed by Frank and Socrates.
‘This can’t be good’
Frank looked apologetic, handing David a piece of paper. David frowned as he scanned the paper, “There is nothing I can do, your neighbour went to city hall. The legal department says sitting there all day is loitering - even if he is a customer.”
“Shit!” Janice was startled, she had never heard David raise his voice before.
“I am not going to let those bastards push around my friend.” Turning to Socrates - “Would you sit in a chair?”
Socrates stood staring at David.
“Yes or No!” David barked.
David stormed out of the store, Socrates and Frank close behind.
The doors to the two buildings David was leasing had been setback from the sidewalk, each door opening onto a small ‘landing’. David grabbed a chair from one of the tables on his sidewalk patio and slammed it down in that space. Next he pulled the table over in front of the chair. Going inside he grabbed a “Reserved” sign. Coming back out, slammed it on the table.
Turning to Socrates “This is your table. You can sit here anytime you want for as long as you want. . . . ”
Then to Frank “This is MY property. He can sit here as long as he wants and there isn’t anything anyone can do about it. . . . Capish!”
David’s anger drained away as fast as it had risen.
“Sorry Frank. I don’t like bullies and my neighbour is just a bully in a suit.”
Frank was smiling. He had been cursed out by professionals, David’s little outburst wasn’t worth mentioning. “No problem. You both have a nice day. I won’t be bothering you any more.”
Socrates sat at the table for the rest of the day. He didn’t even put up his cardboard sign. When David came out to take in the tables and chairs for the night he said “May we talk?”
David finished getting in the rest of the tables and chairs. Socrates found a table inside.
“All I have is coffee.”
“Umm - two cream, two sugar”
David poured the coffees and sat down across from Socrates.
Socrates just stared down at his coffee. Something was bothering him. David ventured a guess at what - “Look, I am sorry I snapped at you earlier.”
Socrates shook his head and sighed.
“Do you know how long it has been since anyone said I was their friend?”
David didn’t know what to say, he just shook his head.
“No . . . no neither do I”
David just sat quietly. Socrates sat there staring at the coffee like he was weighting every word before he said it.
“I’m not delusional. I know who I am . . . at least now I do”
Once he started he couldn’t stop. He was going to fully open up to this man he barely knew - but had called him a friend.
“I worked in a university library back east. I was working in the stacks when I fell down and hit my head. The doctor did the usual check of the eye response - said I was OK and to go home.”
He took a sip of his coffee.
“But, I wasn’t OK and I never got home. For the next twenty three years I would wake up somewhere not knowing my name or how I got there. . . . I have been in and out of psych wards and jails all over the country. . . . I don’t know how I got into VGH (Vancouver General Hospital) but I will always be glad I did. . . . They did an MRI scan, found a small tumor. The doctors said it is probably what caused me to fall in the first place.”
Taking another sip of coffee.
“Once the tumor was removed I started to improve. I remembered my name, some of the big items like my wife and daughter.” He sobbed. “They had moved, I don’t know where to find them” Regaining his composure, “Then I started remembering some of the small things.”
David smiled “Like hot chocolate.”
“Yeh - like hot chocolate.”
“Why . . .”
Sensing what David was going to ask. “Why Socrates? . . . My therapist says it is a coping mechanism. . . . . I used to be outgoing. My wife and I travelled the world. . . . I could go up to complete strangers and start a conversion. Since they removed the tumor I am withdrawn - shy. I want to talk to people but I am afraid.”
“But Socrates can talk to strangers.”
He smiles - “Yes, Socrates isn’t afraid on anything”
David noticed he had mentioned his real name “Until you say otherwise, you will always be Socrates here. . . . I think you will be surprised how many friends you have here.”