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Decoding the buzz around Mama Buzz

on June 28, 2009

The Morning Shift.

The flat, wide stretch of Telegraph Avenue that runs through the Koreatown-Northgate district is mostly empty when I arrive at Mama Buzz café a few minutes after 7:00 a.m.  A man pushes a shopping cart and some bags of bottles and cans down the sidewalk. A lone woman loads up her car with groceries in the parking lot of Koreana Plaza Market.  One helmeted biker has already beat me to the door of Mama Buzz; he tries the handle then gives up and clambers back on his bike to continue his commute.

In the early morning light, the exterior is unimpressive. Dirty, grime-covered windows; a large crack in the glass splashed with orange paint.  Still, peer through and you can see the Formica counter, the bright wall mural of a black-haired, porcelain-skinned woman and the gallery.  It’s intriguing.


Inside Mama Buzz

Alex, 21, who works the morning shift, places six plastic chairs and some tables on the sidewalk outside and then lets me in.  She’s wearing converse sneakers, shorts, a tank top with ‘Budweiser’ emblazoned across the bottom.  Her shoulder is augmented by a large tree tattoo.

To my comment that I will be hanging out ‘for a while’, she nods.
“Yeah.  A lot of people hang out here all day,” she said.  “Some of the scene kids that hang out here – they stay here eight hours a day.  That’s longer than my shift.”

As the Beach Boys drone overhead, Alex bangs things around the tiny kitchen and tells me that she hung out here for two years before she started work a month ago.

“There’s a lot that goes on here.  It’s really laid back and people just kind of do whatever they want. One lady brings tarot cards on Tuesday nights.  There’s a guy that sits in the back and makes origami.  Everyone knows everyone, its kind of weird,” she said.

But kind of cool, I think. And that’s exactly what got me interested in spending 14 hours here.  A couple of weeks ago, I peddled by on my bike—another story—and in this middle-of-no-where desert, Mama Buzz was, well, abuzz.  Too rattled to stop then, it seemed to me a good place to get a sense of an Oakland community. Fast forward a couple of weeks and here I am, laptop in tow, to take notes, observe and see why crowds of biking hipsters choose this particular café again and again.


The Back Patio

After the first customers filter in and out, order coffee to go and leave, a few people drift towards the back patio.  There, origami and strings of Christmas lights decorate the slatted wooden walls. The effect of the mismatched tables, army of retro kitchen chairs and aquarium is oddly soothing.
A middle-aged couple – the woman wears a red bandana and smokes – play chess and pick at pastries in a wooden church pew. As I write, another woman in a plaid shirt, smoking and drinking a large glass of coffee studies me and takes notes on a pad of paper.

Cheryl Rubinstein is one of the chess players. A frequent patron of the café, Rubinstein is a New York native and former Broadway actress. She and her husband Carlos have been here almost every day this week.

Cheryl describes Mama Buzz as ‘an ageless place,’ with a friendly community. “You get into good conversations about art and politics.  It’s not like Starbucks, where everyone has to have their own little private space,” she says. “It’s like your friends’ parent’s basement in the 70’s.”

Both rave about the posting board next to the door, which advertises different musical and community events including bingo nights and swap meets.  “Everything on the billboard is a hit,” Cheryl says.

“This place is a like a clubhouse for adults,” Carlos adds.

Which was one of the goals of the former owners, Jen Loy and Nicole Neditch, who bought the storefront in 2003, according to an archived East Bay Express article on Mama Buzz’s website.

fixingaudioequipmentBefore that, the small space had been a Mexican restaurant. A painter bought it and changed it into a café, calling it Papa Buzz. When Loy and Neditch took over in 2003, they coined the more feminine name and used it as a meeting place for their independent magazine Kitchen Sink.  Several other local galleries were setting up shop in the area at the time.

Like too many other independent journalism ventures, Kitchen Sink folded in 2007 and Jade, the current owner, bought the place two years ago.  She’s around most days, I’m told, although her expected time of arrival keeps changing depending on who I talk to.

As the patio starts to fill up, the morning crowd is dominated by pen and paper types.  I’m almost embarrassed to open my laptop and sign into the wireless network, aptly named ‘Your Mama.’


The Gallery

By 11 the old souls have departed and a few young people with laptops are scattered around at the tables. Ashtrays abound. The classic rock  – Wild Thing, Runaway Sue – has given way to the unmistakable sounds of punk. The crowd is definitely more hip – Nose rings, cut off shorts and tattoos are standard fare here.

“You look like you’re freshly showered,” one of the girls behind the counter tells a female customer.

“Yep,” she replies proudly.

Three women of varying ages, one with a mohawk, sit nearby. They discuss their vegetable garden.  “It’s two zucchinis, two squash, and a couple of tomatoes,” one says.

Another patron with tattoos of faces on his arms and calf (displayed by his one rolled pant leg) lights a cigarette, pushing his hand through his slicked-back hair.  His silver belt buckle is in the shape of a revolver.

I wander inside, where two trays of brownies are coyly tempting customers as they cool on the counter. The walls are painted a brilliant blue and a plastic male torso—two fake sparrows attached to its nether regions- hangs above the patio door.  Vintage-looking round lamps that resemble UFO’s hang above.

Adam, sporting a bull ring nose piercing and two thick black stripes tattooed down his bald skull sits on a barstool, joking with Alex. They discuss Jamie Foxx and Ron Howard.

“Do you think you can give me a handful of cashews with that?” he asks, digging into his scrambled eggs and cheese.  She supplies him with a bowl.

“You want a banana?” she asks.

“Sure I’ll take a banana,” he says.

Adam is a cartoonist and a novelist as well as an unlicensed ‘narc therapist’ to his friends, he tells me. He’s been coming to Mama Buzz almost daily for three years.

We discuss Jamaican groceries, dreams and how he dressed as the grim reaper to get admitted to Stanford’s hospital for PTSD.

“Here’s something to put in your article. I faked it as a chef at the Museum of Natural History in Denver for a year and a half, and they never caught on,” he says.  He was really a deep fry cook.

When I ask why Mama Buzz, he thinks for a minute. “You know how the corporate guys go to Starbucks to have all their meetings? All the underground guys come here,” he says. “It’s a meeting place for minds; there’s creativity.  Sharing ideas.”

The Afternoon Shift.

The clientele on the patio, which many people seem to prefer to the more formal gallery room, flaunt fashions as varied as the kitchen chairs. One guy in a purple sleeveless shirt with a carriage on it brings a wooden, unpainted skateboard to the table.  Another woman wears a brown felt wide-brimmed hat with a jaunty feather and moccasins.  Her friend drinks from a white mug with someone’s beloved dog photo on it.

At 12:25 Alex announces that there is no coffee left.

“Are you kidding?” a customer demands.

“No, I’m not kidding, there’s really no more coffee!”

A yellow dog appears out of nowhere and settles down for a snooze on the warm concrete ground. Nearby sits a girl with short blonde hair and big sunglasses smoking Marlboros.

pplarrivingatmamabuzzThough Mama Buzz seems to be made up of locals who walk or bike here, it’s far from diverse.  Many people are young and most are white.  The substantial Korean and African American population that one sees when walking down Telegraph outside is nowhere to be found.

At 1:10 the coffee is replenished. The place is crowded. I move inside to the gallery where the atmosphere is a bit more business-like. People stare at their laptops, unblinking.

This room, off to the side of the kitchen, is furnished with some odd tables and chairs and art by the Pfeiffer sisters – the current exhibit.  The paintings feature surreal Parisian scenes with sad-eyed subjects.  Storybook placards supply explanations in English and French prose.

I try and nestle into a pew and listen as two women talk about Twitter, Facebook and interfacing.  “I really want to be seen as an intellectual woman who can tell stories; or a loving person who can also be intellectual,” one says to the other.  Her companion nods, her face serious.

Lizzie, the new barista, tells customers that they’ve now run out of ice.

“We have a terrible ice maker that only make about six cubes,” she tells me when I order a spicy mint iced tea. “Only about one customer an hour gets ice.”

I am not that customer. But I don’t really mind.

People seem to come in waves and at 4:15, the back patio is still packed. The Rubinstein’s are back – another table, another chess game.

scottandthehatScott, 26, on the pew seat next to me, is intently knitting something, which turns out to be a hat.  “Today’s my first time here,” he tells me.  “I was riding by and I just wanted an apple juice.”  He has a big red beard and wears all taupe.

We discuss potholes and he tells me about an anarchist bookstore on Shattuck.  “I taught myself to knit,” he offers, and explains his technique, which involves four to six knitting needles.  I lose him halfway through.  “Where are the good farmer’s market’s around here?” he asks.

The Late Shift.

At 6 p.m. more bikers start to roll in.  A smell of burnt bagel wafts through, despite the open doors.

The patio demographic keeps shifting.  Ten people, mostly women, drink Italian sodas and beer and wave their cigarettes around as they talk. The crowd has grown older, slower, quieter.  Techno music plays.  A nicely-dressed man who looks like he’s just come from an office downtown walks past and shoots a curious glance in the window.

At 6:35 I manage to snag the owner. Jade, 27, with long dark curls, speaks quietly and wears a black t-shirt with painted-on Native American jewelry. We sit out front on the plastic folding chairs in the early evening sun.

A native of New York, she has lived in Oakland for six years working as a cook, among other things.  She spent a lot of time hanging out at Mama Buzz before she decided to buy it two years ago, with the help of a microfinance loan from a local nonprofit.

“I pretty much know everybody and that’s why we’re alive, still,” she says. “It’s cool, but it’s hard to compete with all of the new yuppy shit that’s going around.” She hasn’t paid herself in seven months.

Still, their popularity among the local artist population is hard to deny.  When I ask about regular customers, she initially says 50 but then, reconsidering, ups the number to 100.

Their bulletin board is probably the most looked at and posted on board in the East Bay according to more than one customer and Jade describes the clientele as “artists, people who live close by, people who work for themselves, or work for non-profits.  It’s a way to stay connected; it’s a good touchstone.”

After having to cancel music for several months, Mama Buzz has their next show on June 25th, which will feature an acoustic artist, Zoe Boekbinder.

When I ask about the orange paint-splashed crack in the gallery window she looks disinterested.  “You know,” she says, “people smash things.”

At 8:30 I notice that the music has stopped; I walk out to check the patio, which is crowded again, this time with men, young and old. They smoke and read the paper. The Christmas lights are on.  I somehow now have the dog mug.

9:05 p.m….Adam, of the striped skull, is back – nine hours later.

For the first time I notice the security camera on the wall is pointed towards the ceiling.

9:30 – Just when I am settling down with a beer outside, thinking I have a good half hour to go, I find out that they are closed. No matter the hours posted on the door and website.

As I leave, the Stork club next door, already reeking of cheap beer, is just opening. Two kids covered in piercings sit on the sidewalk.

Outside of Mama Buzz, a man still sits on one of the plastic chairs nursing a paper cup of coffee.  Maybe they are still open.


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