An Eventful Night at the Coffeehouse

 

Cassandra Rowe

 

 

I’m sitting on one of the big, comfy chairs at the Happi Cappi scorching my taste buds on a venti “pumpkin spice” (for a limited time only) latte with skim milk and just a pinch of cinnamon on top, while attempting to read some incomprehensible theoretical bullshit for one of my classes, and I have got a pounding headache.  I keep reading the same line over and over.  And over.  And over.  Okay I need a break.  So after a few exasperated sighs I relinquish my focus, lean back, and stare up at the creamy ceiling way up above me.  I’m not trying to eavesdrop, but I simply quit my futile efforts to block out the distracting voices coming from the cluster of chairs in the corner behind me.  I figure that it must be Oprah’s book club or something.

“….Well, [and I can tell by her tone that this woman’s all fired up and really onto something] I couldn’t help being at once amused and disgusted with this place.  After handing over eight bucks to get in, everyone files in and squats onto the little floor up in the middle of this pitch black room, where a voice on a loudspeaker gives a sad excuse of a background history for the witch trials.”

“Oh boy, a history buff,” I said to myself.  She continued:

“Then there’s a tour of glass-enclosed displays, with life-sized figures that are supposed to represent different versions of witches.  The Wicked Witch of the West, the witch from Hansel and Gretel, and finally a couple of modern-day Wiccans.  I mean, the museum gives the impression that it’s going to give a history of the witch trials.  (Sighs).  They try I guess.”

            I look over my shoulder to get a glimpse of the group of five or six.  Heads of her colleagues bob, shake, and sniggers sound in disapproval of the place.

“This town thrives on tourists that flock every autumn to feast their senses           on this ‘wicked’ place.  Anyway, I find myself wondering, how many people here are aware that Salem is not the only, perhaps not even the most significant sight of 17th century witch trials?”

            The woman goes on to talk to her colleagues about the Hartford trials, explaining detail by detail the prosecution and execution statistics in comparison to those of Salem. 

“So as you can see, [she recaps condescendingly to her friends] the number of prosecutions in Hartford is nearly equal to the prosecutions in Salem, and the number of executions actually exceeds those in Salem.[1]  But virtually everyone is ignorant to this fact because of Salem’s exploitation of the witch trials and Hartford’s more conservative display, or lack thereof, of the trials’ place in history.”

            I hear a couple of men and women mutter a fatigued response.  “Yea, that’s right,” or “you’re right, it’s incredible.”  I get the feeling they weren’t at all ignorant of these facts, precisely because this woman has reminded them of it numerous times before.  Anyway I’m getting kind of tired listening in, so I make a few unsuccessful attempts at finishing the last few pages of a chapter.  After a while, someone else takes charge of the conversation.  The old, deep voice speaks slowly, taking the edge off the atmosphere.  He’s a wise grandfather, and I’m the content little kid in the big comfy chair anticipating each next word of his story. 

“What I find painful about visiting Salem, is it’s…lack of respect, the blatant disregard to the actual innocent lives that were lost here.  [His voice quivers as his small audience each flip through a little blue book.]  As I take my journey through town, the same route that my great, great, great, great [pausing a moment to think and giving a little smirk] great, great, grandmother was taken on in her shackles to Gallows Hill where she would meet her destiny.  On this tour I would see unabashed men and women dressed in 17th century period clothing, hands outstretched with little witch trinkets to sell, or shouting at passersby, pleading them to attend a trial and find their mother/sister/auntie not guilty of witchcraft.  I catch them rolling their eyes at the eager tourists when they think no ones looking, and you can sense just how much they hate their jobs.  Just tryin’ to make a buck.  The mock trials.  The mocking of the dead.  ‘A Bewitchingly Good Time’[2]  reads the T-shirts for sale, making light of scapegoating, persecution, and slaughter of the innocent.  Think about it.  There is no limit to what is commodified in life anymore,[3] even those historical events that we morally and lawfully condemn.”

[His audience is intently listening, mesmerized in a way, as am I.  The same woman’s voice speaks up again.] 

“Yes, exactly.  The idea of ‘witchcraft’ is romanticized in our culture, as something dark, mysterious, and unknown; something we will eat up at every given chance.  Salem exploits this romanticized notion of witchcraft, so that we miss the point that these women, and men for that matter, were innocent, were in all reality not witches, especially in our sense of the word.[4]

            I hear another man interrupt.  “Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but overhear your intellectual discussion over here.”  I guess I’m not the only one.  I hear the man shuffling and pulling his chair over to the circle, uninvited.  “And, well I hope you wouldn’t mind if I just throw in my two cents?”  I glance over my shoulder again and I see the man with an evil smirk on his face, leaning on the back of his chair in a ready-to-attack position.  He lets the question hang in the air for a moment, although it didn’t sound as if he really cared for the answer. 

            “Oh yeah, sure,” the group sheepishly answers.  “Okay let’s spice this discussion up a bit.”  Grandpa urges, trying to be amicable and optimistic about the addition.  I feel a bit uncomfortable for some reason, witnessing the breaching of this conversation to the strange man.  There’s an awkward mood arising from the intrusion. 

“Now, I don’t want to be rude, [the rude man begins] but do you honestly believe that the witch trials only deserve to be represented in some sort of noble genre?[5]  Should this specific history be placed and protected in an enclosed glass case and only be put on display under a certain light?”

The group seems a bit shocked at his accusatory tone as well as the intense scrutiny this outsider had put their discussion under.  Responding to the bewilderment on their faces, he attempts to explain himself. 

“Well, I teach history you see, and I am assuming that you as well are in the profession.  And so I took a particular interest in your dialogue.  I’ve analyzed the ways in which historiography has failed to evolve since the nineteenth century.  Long gone is the time when we can believe that historical representations are a mirror of actual past events.

It is now implausible to believe that ‘history’ presents an objective account of ‘facts,’ whatever those are.  History is constructed, and attempt to tell a story of the past.  You may find it sickening, my friends, but glamorized representations of unfortunate past events are now acceptable ways to tell those stories.[6]  However, it’s not as if history is now an aimless free-for-all.  For the ridiculousness of Salem; the trinkets, the T-shirts, the mock trials, they aren’t meant to be taken as literal interpretations of the past.  If these versions of history don’t purport to be a literal representation of the past we can’t criticize them for veering a bit from the truth.”[7]

            He finished with his rant, and he looks around at the scowling circle.  Peering over the back of my chair, I can tell by their faces that they hadn’t exactly been in the mood for a fiery debate.  He then adds, “My suggestion might be to….lighten up,” he says with a dramatic shrug of the shoulders and another evil grin.  Screw it, this is too exciting.  I’m finally turned around in my chair now, watching a mess unfold. 

            The woman stands up with a grimace distorting her face.  After glaring at the intruder for a moment or two, she glances down at the hand on her hip that’s holding the cup.  Then of course, she throws her coffee in his face.  “Rude son of a bitch,” she declares before walking out. 

            After watching the gaping-mouthed reactions from the grandpa, the rest of the circle, and the coffee covered offender, I turn back around and slump down in my chair, giggling to myself.  But then I start to consider their short lived debate. 

            I have to admit that I agree with some of what the rude son of a bitch said.  I mean, is there anything inherently wrong with Salem’s commodification and fabulated accounts of the witch trials?  I think it’s safe to say that most people in America know the “true” history of the witch trials, and know that innocent people were persecuted.  Most people also connect this history with the moral lesson it lends itself to, to be wary of political motives and social fear that result in scapegoating.  If anything, the fact that Salem glamorizes the history of the witch trials may give more recognition to this important historical message. 

            Persecutions such as the Red Scare, Japanese internment, and most recently, racism and violence against Muslim Americans after September 11th are modern versions of “witch hunts.”  This convenient term serves as a reminder of the irrationality of scapegoating and challenges any justification for it.  If Salem wasn’t notorious for the witch trials, if Salem simply took the route that Hartford did and opted not to celebrate its dark past, would this moral lesson be paid any mind?  Of course, we would give a superficial recognition to the event as we passed by it in high school history courses, but the romanticized notion of witches that Salem plays up is what stays with us.  If the witch trials in Salem were a forgotten story, as they are in Hartford, I believe that for most people, this history would be somewhat trivial after all this time.  Salem’s commodification ultimately contributes in giving a comparatively insignificant number of innocent deaths an extremely significant historical lesson.    

            Feeling a bit enlightened, I decidedly get up to leave and get some fresh air after a few hours of taking up space in the busy café.  I head towards the door, facing the grumbling man who is still soaking up his coffee-drenched shirt with a couple hundred napkins.  I pause for a second, shrug my shoulders, and before heading out the door, toss the remainder of my (cold by now) pumpkin spice latte with skim in this familiar man’s face.  His book was giving me a headache. 

 



[1] Dr. Lindenauer discusses the statistics of the Hartford and Salem trials at length in the presentation she gave.  Leslie Lindenauer, “The Hartford Witch Trials,” Unpublished paper given at Western Connecticut State University, October 2007.

[2] James Scrimgeour, “The Route,” in The Route and Other Poems (Normal, IL: Pikestaff Press, 1996).

[3] Dr. Scrimgeour alludes to this commodification of the witch trials characteristic of modern Salem.  Scrimgeour, “The Route.”

[4] Dr. Linenauer discussed the modern romanticized notion of witchcraft in the presentation and how it is misrepresentative of the women who were persecuted during the trials. 

[5] Hayden White discusses the notion that some historical events are thought to presume a serious or noble genre in  Figural Realism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 27-42

[6] Hayden White explains in “The Problem of Truth in Historical Representation” that “such glamorizing representations have become increasingly common and therefore obviously more acceptable over the last twenty years or so.”   White, 27-42.

[7] “For unless a historical story is presented as a literal representation of real events, we cannot criticize it as being either true or untrue to the facts of the matter.”  White, 30