Baltimore’s Red Emma’s coffeehouse proves that communism works. Okay, it’s not a country, and it’s not got much to lose (except a buck), but no one who works there seems to mind. There are no power struggles, unless you count the baristas bickering over who gets to make a customer’s iced latte. Emma’s propaganda boasts “democracy behind the counter,” and since all of the workers co-own the shop, that works too. Though, who cares really? Their “Grounds for Rebellion” make a damn good mocha, and that makes for a well-oiled machine. And by oiled, I mean patronized.
It takes my best friend Anna and me ten minutes and four blocks to find parking on a Sunday in April. Frustrating as it is, I don’t blame Red Emma’s (though it would be nice if they had a parking lot for the People); I blame the arts district. Red Emma’s façade, mounted in block capitals (red, of course) across the exposed basement level of two classically Baltimorean row homes, is one block north of the city’s regional theater, two blocks east of the Baltimore School for the Arts, three blocks from the Walters Art Gallery, and less than a mile from the Maryland Institute College of Art. Whoever said communism is a flawed economic system didn’t take into account the single most important business mantra: location, location. Artists are famed for their activism. Where but Red Emma’s would they get their coffee?
Fair enough, when I was in high school at the School for the Arts, two blocks was too far to get coffee in between classes (and it didn’t help that no one at Red Emma’s seems to be in a hurry), so I ducked into Donna’s, a Baltimore coffee franchise conveniently located a mere one block away. Location. But I yearned to run to Red Emma’s, feeling myself a part of the revolution, fighting against the school district’s rules against off-campus lunch.
The first time I made it to Red Emma’s was on a field trip to the theater. I departed the mass of my peers and brazenly stepped down the stairs into a darkly lit, heady basement, the brightest lights shining from four old PCs lined against the near wall. I wondered who was using them. (Now I know: whoever wants to.) Without time to browse the handmade signs pinned to the counter for the specials, I asked for a dark roast, made it weak with sugar and milk, and ran to rejoin my party, passing the hundreds of journals, lit mags, rags, and zines that are stacked on tables and in racks, dominating the front of the shop. My absence had gone unnoticed by our chaperon. “You went to Red Emma’s?” a friend whispered, eying my coffee cup. I kept my lips sealed. I was now a part of the revolution.
“Revolution of everyday life,” proclaims Red Emma’s flyer, which I pick up without reading when Anna and I arrive. We are tired, annoyed by the four-block walk from the car through chilly weather we didn’t dress for, and jealous of the owners of bikes locked against the railing right outside the door. We stand awkwardly between bar and tables for the first minute, staring two seats into existence. No seats free, but in that minute we remember where we are. I glance at the flyer and read “community solidarity” before deciding to sit with a stranger at the far table. “C’mon Anna.”
Anna’s first time at Red Emma’s was only last summer, after her graduation from Baltimore City’s Polytechnic Institute, one of the two most intensive public high schools in the city. She was ready for rebellion. Meeting me after my internship at the Baltimore City Paper, we would stroll to the coffeehouse in summer heat, past my old high school, Donna’s, and the district’s token thrift store, the Zone. Anna refused to order at Red Emma’s that entire summer, intimidated by the casually mismatched and disheveled hipsters, fearing the dreadlocked, grunged-out, all black-wearing punks, and generally recoiling from the men with beards. Perhaps she thought they wouldn’t serve her in her yellow sweater, her orange dress. Her straight and side-parted red hair. We lived on my favorite menu items: iced mochas, Naked fruit smoothies, and Malepesto sandwiches made with fresh mozzarella, tomato, and pesto on a bagel of choice (mine: sundried tomato, half-price if a day-old).
“What do you want?” Anna asks me. I stammer something about an iced mocha and watch in awe as she walks to the bar. She comes back five-minutes later and sets my drink on the table. “I’ll be right over there,” she says, pointing to a newly emptied table where she then places a latte and her computer. She is studying for a government and politics exam.
Left sitting across from the stranger with nothing to do but stare, I do. I can only assume he is an anarchist, with his books, his computer, his headphones, his green T-shirt with illegible writing and a little cat on the front. I mean, he has a shaved head. He shifts in his seat and my eyes dart to the wide front window, which is halfway up the wall and overlooks the pavement outside. We really are underground. A wrought iron fence is set up at the back of the window, which serves as a display case for communist literature. Oh yes, Red Emma’s is a bookstore too.
There are cardboard signs hanging from the ceiling that point me to various sections of light revolutionary reading: Anarchism, Activism, Feminism, Labor, Maxism/Communism. They have more neutral sections (Anthropology, Civil Rights, Poetry, Art and Comics), more provocative topics (Prisons, Policing, Politics, Religion, Pakistan and Israel), and local topics like Urban Baltimore. Their flyer claims the “best philosophy section in Baltimore!” pretty unrealistically, since their entire stock takes up only half a room, and the Enoch Pratt Public Library’s main branch is up the road. Red Emma’s most likely does have the best Emma Goldman section in Baltimore. I carefully avoid it, and pretend to know what specifically Emma Goldman did, other than make anarchy (cause anarchy? Be an anarchist? Whatever, I bet Emma wouldn’t want me to obey the rules of grammar); I pretend I belong. But surreptitiously, I Wikipedia her.
Emma Goldman (June 27, 1869 – May 14, 1940) was an anarchist known for her political activism, writing, and speeches. She was lionized as a free-thinking “rebel woman”—
I stop reading almost as soon as I start, resisting the urge to cover my computer screen when a fellow Wi-Fi-er unplugs his computer next to my table. I close my screen slowly, consciously playing it calm, and casually glance around the room. Anna is hunched over her notes, the back of her black sweater giving me the cold shoulder, her red hair hanging in front of her face, so I can’t even catch the attention of her peripheral vision.
Mine is caught, however, by the shuffling of an old and jolly-looking man in a blue jumpsuit who, by the length of his beard and the grey of his hair, may be Santa-in-training, though his frame is more stalk than stuffing. I hear a coin drop on the counter, and a jovial interchange between cashier and skinny Saint Nick; he walks away with a cup of tea and I wonder if communist charity extends to Baltimore’s homeless. “It depends on who’s working, what kind of mood we’re in, and how polite they are about it,” says a beret-wearing and bearded 20-something whose shirt declares, “One Big Union—we want the Earth.” He probably bought it here, where shirts for sale line the walls: the sleekly designed “PANTHER POWER AMERIKKKA” T- has a silkscreen of rapper Tupac (who happened to attend the School for the Arts before moving to California and allegedly getting killed, and whose mother, Afeni, was a Black Panther). On the front of a small, red, muscle shirt, a beauty-marked bombshell outlined in black cries “I said Anarchy, not MANARCHY!” My eyes gloss the signs I once didn’t have time to read: a neon-yellow enticement for “BLENDY FREEZY DRINKS” hangs below the hand-made “UNION MEMBER? You get a 5% discount!!”
I look down at the flyer I’ve been fingering and notice a new assertion: “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.” Then the music that’s been tinkling in the background registers, and I remember: Red Emma’s introduced me, with a Clap of Hands and a “Yeah!” to Alternative music. It gave Anna and me a place to form a friendship that is now stronger than coffee. It gave us a place to grow up and be independent, our own personal revolution. I tap her on the back. We pack our things. We thank Red Emma’s. And leave.