The Hard Times Cafe is my favorite coffeehouse in the Twin Cities. Not because the coffee is good. It’s not. It’s usually burnt and tastes like motor oil. Not because the atmosphere is good. It’s not. Most of the staff are grumpy and mean. They play heavy metal music so loud you can’t even think. So why the heck do I like this place sooo much ?!?

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Ghosts. Spirits. Romance.

Stephen Collins Foster died on January 13, 1864. Despite being the greatest pop songwriter of his generation, he died with one scrap of paper, 37 cents in Civil War scrip and three American pennies in his pocket.

Stephen Collins Foster was the father of American music and quite possibly one of the most influential musicians to have ever lived. Foster defined American pop music in his day. He was America. Hell, he was born on the 4th of July. 1826. Foster was to the Civil War what Bob Dylan was to the 1960s. Foster and Dylan are a lot alike – but I imagine when Dylan kicks it, he’ll have more than three pennies in his pocket.

Stephen Collins Foster wrote more than 200 songs, many of them becoming mega hits during the Romantic period of Western Classical music. Romantic music was original, highly poetic and drew inspiration from classic literature, fine art and supernatural beliefs. Ghosts. Spirits. Romance.

That scrap of paper found in his pocket? It simply said “dear friends and gentle hearts”. That was most likely a line from his next song. The one in his head. The one that is lost forever.

A ghost drifting from this world to the beyond. Foster’s last song – and his most famous – was published after his death. It’s called “Beautiful Dreamer”. 

Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me,
Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee;
Sounds of the rude world, heard in the day,
Lull’d by the moonlight have all passed away!

It’s a damn good song, but for my money nothing beats a Foster tune from 1854 called “Hard Times Come Again No More”. The song begs for the rich to consider the plights of the poor. It’s haunting. Eerie. Beautiful.

While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more.
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh! Hard times come again no more.


Danger Dancing with Despair

I think about that song every time I go into the Hard Times Cafe. Maybe for no other reason other than they have the same name. The Hard Times is my favorite coffeehouse in the Twin Cities. Not because the coffee is good. It’s not. It’s usually burnt and tastes like motor oil. Not because the atmosphere is good. It’s not. Most of the staff are grumpy and mean. They play heavy metal music so loud you can’t even think. The place smells vaguely of diesel gas and feces. And every surface is a bit sticky and gross. It’s kinda like the bathroom of a two-bit strip club…if it was located in a truck stop, but worse. There’s an impending sense of danger dancing with despair, and you’re not sure why you feel it so strongly.

I honestly don’t know why I like the Hard Times. Maybe because it’s a place I practically lived at when I was younger. Homeless. Wandering the streets of Minneapolis. It was warm and if you had a couple of bucks you could buy a coffee and pass out in the corner. Nobody would bother you.

Thankfully, today I go to Starbucks. I preorder my latte on my iPhone app. I’ve worked hard to be able to do that. It makes me feel good.

I went back to the Hard Times today. For the first time in a long, long time.

And I heard the voice of Stephen Collins Foster whispering his lyrics in my ear…

‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more.
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

Sometimes its nice to experience the gritty and the raw. To experience a world that is not clean and pristine. To live outside of Starbucks. If you go to the Hard Times, you’ll probably like it: it’s an experience. It’s unique. It’s real. And that’s what travel should be: an experience…unique and real. 


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