Cafe São Paulo 1961. The name is timeless, it has that ring, throws long shadows, it could be a caption in an album, a very old album, perhaps with a photograph of you – yes! can we say that – an exotic picture of you…showing you in…an incident…let’s say…in Asakusa, a long time ago…
It is cosmopolitan here. Here on Kokusai Dori – International Street – opposite where once was the French-inspired Casino Folies, the Rokku entertainment district, and never mind that the decaying wax food display at the entrance to São Paulo 1961 is entirely Japanese cafe fare. And now there is a big official sign outside, boarding up one window, saying Notice of Construction. The workmen move in next week, September 4. Too many places are disappearing lately. So tonight you want to ask them at São Paulo 1961, what’s up with all this demolition.
It’s cool in here. The red quarry-tiled floor. Latin music plays over the cable radio, just above audible, a horn-section tango. The only waitress on, and looks like you’re the only customer, she gets up when you enter, comes to the counter. She was sitting down the back, in the go-down level, past the spiky palm, on one of the moss-velvet armchairs. From there you can see up the small flight of stairs and clear out the glass front door to the street. You can see everyone who comes and goes. There’s a floor above, which also looks over the entrance. Up the back, no one can see. You hear a newspaper rustle, a clinking coffee cup. There’s some good privacy there.
Has he ever been to Brazil, your dad? The sisters laugh. I guess he just liked the idea of it, says one.
We’re not closing she says, we are rebuilding our home, above this cafe, and also rebuilding the cafe, and reopening next May. She says it’s a family business. Three of them. Her dad and little sister, who presently appears in a scarlet T-shirt from behind a red velvet drape at the top of the stairs. She comes down to work. They stand at the counter. Has he ever been to Brazil, your dad? The sisters laugh. I guess he just liked the idea of it, says one.
On another day you ask the father. His name is Masami Makita. He opened this place in 1961. He thought he could make some money. No he hasn’t. Brazil was exotic then. Coffee was exotic. So why are the walls like something out of Shakespeare? I don’t know. I saw something like this somewhere. Maybe a ryokan? I liked the feel of these uneven walls. The new place won’t have two floors. Doesn’t matter that we lose the extra seats. It’s not like we’re so busy. Our coffee is not cheap. 500-yen a cup. Not like those chains. So it keeps customer numbers down. That’s OK. We are only small.
There are faded prints on the walls, an Utrillo, of Montmartre, with a brass plaque that says the original is in Boston. An engraving of Versailles. Someone gave them to me, he says, and then, Did you see the other one? It’s pretty good. It’s there, downstairs. We just had it done. A painting of this place, from the street. By a painter for hire, no one we know. But now we have a memento of the atmosphere.
On another night, a garrulous thin man with a grey crewcut and two lady companions comes up to the second floor where you are eating spaghetti Napolitan, those thick noodles with the sticky ketchup sauce, and they sit at the Space Invaders-style video mahjong table. He asks for the master but the Makita sister says, He’s gone to bed. And you might have to move if someone comes in to play mahjong. Of course, he says, and he starts telling the ladies about the wall lights that are shaped like bunches of grapes, and sees you listening and calls over to you, These grape lights are splendid, I installed them you know. They’re about 30 years old, American-made. What’s that you say, this place is closing for a while? Oh that’s terrible. I never heard. Well in that case, I oughta get me some of these lights, hahaha!
Later he poses under his grapes. He says, Hey I asked about the lights and you know, she said I can’t have one because they’re going to use them in the new place. That’s a bit rough. He laughs. You know, there’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 of ’em.
The coffee is cloth-drip and good. The master says his supplier for 50 years is in Asakusa too, Fuji Coffee. Half the beans are from Brazil, he says, I guess depending on the time of year, but there’s your Brazil connection.
You say you like the ashtray. Almost makes you want to smoke again, this shape and typeface. He says, Yes there are people who make logos. Here, look at these, our original matches from when we opened. On the box, an American Indian picture. I don’t know what that’s about. Sort of the same region. Well, maybe not. He shrugs and laughs.
This is cosmopolitan. In the window there’s yakisoba fried noodles. He says, The Napolitan is really popular again. He says, You know, this sort of food is making a comeback.
It’s the weekend of the 32nd Asakusa Samba Carnival. You wonder if they’ll be busy, if the Brazilian buzz will affect them here. On the evening of the day, the Makita sister tells you they sold a lot of spaghetti.