Those Who Fail to Understand the Can’t Fail Café

It was the perfect place for a failure to be. If you were going for irony, of course. Billed as a “modern version of a retro café,” Marion couldn’t help but titter at the description. Everything was a modern version of a retro something, after all. For it seemed the “Powers That Be” had run out of ideas on how to come up with new material. Or rather, were so afraid that “new material” wouldn’t sell, they all but kiboshed any ideas that actually were groundbreaking. Silenced those with innovative minds into resigned submission, convincing them they were better off falling in line and keeping their head down like everyone else. Because the true failure in our society was the person who deigned to be genuinely different. To break the mold in any fashion. 

Marion was a failure. Most certainly in that sense. Maybe that’s part of why she had hit a wall in her journey to become a “fully realized” human. Which, lest you need to be reminded, always meant compromising one’s own original dreams and ambitions for the sake of making money. That’s all anyone really wanted you to do. Even those who didn’t actually have a vested interest in your life. For if they happened upon you and caught wind that you weren’t moved or motivated by such an all-powerful god as money, they became positively rattled. Asked you questions like, “But don’t you get bored? Doing ‘nothing’ all day? Don’t you want to buy things, take trips?” “I manage,” was the cryptic stock reply she would give. And she did. For one could most assuredly count this little jaunt to Emeryville on the Amtrak as a “trip.” She would even count the twenty-minute walk from the Amtrak station as one, too. 

She tended to show up on Mondays, the day everyone was “busy” doing capitalism, or whatever. Even so, there were occasions when she would find the diner overly full for her own taste, and she would mutter to herself as she sat down, “It’s a fucking Monday.” As though she should be the only one allowed to enjoy being leisurely on this infamous “work day.” But she had to take into account that many people were quite intrigued by this diner. It was featured on a number of food networks (including the Food Network), and it was partly owned by a Green Day member (not Billie Joe Armstrong). So sure, it wasn’t a “dive” (at least not anymore). But, for whatever reason, despite its faux air of “grit,” she gravitated toward it. And it was more than just the name—though that did play a key factor in her sense of “at-homeness” there—but the fact that it existed in such an incongruous location. Practically Pleasantville-esque in its aesthetic (and yes, many towns that end in a “-ville” do tend to look that way). 

It was open from eight to ten on weekdays, closed on weekends at three. Marion also liked something about that. As though the establishment didn’t want to cater to those who had free time on the weekend to actually go there and spend an extended period at one of the tables. This was a place for bona fide failures, she told herself—even if you had to have quite a “large wad” to dine there. The name was meant to be ironic/a nod to how you couldn’t choose wrong from the menu. And yeah, it was first and foremost, an homage to The Clash song “Rudie Can’t Fail” (the diner’s full moniker being Rudy’s Can’t Fail Café), but, to her, that was secondary. What the Can’t Fail represented was something larger. That everything in post-post-post-post-post-post-modern society became a parody, a sendup. Where once the Can’t Fail was a place called Eugene’s Ranch House that catered to the working-class ilk passing through for cheap and hearty sustenance to keep them going, it was now a shiny, polished milieu where yuppies could get their photo ops. 

Eugene’s was revered not just because it was really the only thing in the area to turn to during its heyday, but because, even when times changed, the restaurant’s prices did not (with many commenting on how a customer could still get two pancakes, an egg and two pieces of bacon or sausage for $1.95 back in 1990). The food was presented like slop to be slapped on one’s tray so they could shovel it in quickly and move on with the rest of their day, all without the worry of tipping. But those businesses that catered to the “blue collar” ilk had changed significantly in the wake of the proverbial dot-com bubble. Gone were factories like Judson Steel or Del Monte. For fuck’s sake, Pixar Studios was across the street from the place where Eugene’s once was before it, too, adapted with the era and transformed into Can’t Fail Café, with the original owners passing the lease off to a friend and customer who made band t-shirts. 

But what makes one type of company or aesthetic better than another, ultimately? While, sure, the now-defunct factories of Emeryville gave out “honest” (read: back-breaking) work that underpaid and overexploited, they were also responsible for burying toxic chemicals all over the town. Likely soon to crop up in the bodies of subsequent generations. What’s more, this “dawning of a new era” in places like Emeryville and all across America was, if nothing else, a continuation of the long-standing American mantra about life—which was forever rooted in business: “adapt or die” (ignoring that capitalism will kill us all anyway). Change the product when the consumer changes. If at all possible, alter the product in anticipation of when the consumers themselves will mutate, not yet understanding their own changing needs and tastes. 

Eating from her plate of huevos rancheros (currently priced at $12.75), Marion mused about being one of those customers that the “Version 2.0” iteration of the café had been tailored for. This much was confirmed as she watched an array of not-so-varying clientele trickle in one Tuesday afternoon (she thought she could game the system by not coming in on Monday and it would be less crowded—she was wrong).

She was starting to wonder if maybe all the gravitational pull she had felt toward the café was wearing thin. But when the server came by to pour her another cup of delicious, piping hot coffee, she pushed that thought aside. And sure, when The Clash sang about Rudie “drinking brew for breakfast,” they didn’t mean coffee. But who was Marion to complain about gentrified interpretations of things? Herself benefitting so seamlessly from them. 

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