Strange Brew

A visit with the young, the beautiful and the surreal at Phoenix Coffeehouse

click to enlarge CAFFEINATED RETREAT: Once inside the Phoenix, - on Central Avenue in downtown St. Pete, patrons - immediately feel at home among the regulars. - Scott Harrell
Scott Harrell
CAFFEINATED RETREAT: Once inside the Phoenix, on Central Avenue in downtown St. Pete, patrons immediately feel at home among the regulars.

Attractive bartender notwithstanding, I'm the only one in the Phoenix Coffeehouse between the ages of, say, 19 and 40. It's a disconcerting feeling for someone used to being in either the youngest (see "Dave's Aqua Lounge") or the oldest (see "the Dashboard Confessional show") bracket. Where are my contemporaries? Somewhere there are drinks. Somewhere there are members of the opposite sex. Somewhere there are DVDs with multiple bonus features.

But the 20 or so folks here are too young, too smart or too far up the 12-step staircase for the bars, and much too real for the dance clubs. There's no alcohol (except for, you know, mine), and none of those hormonally charged air pockets between the entrance and the head that signify probable layage. Neither is it Movie Night, if in fact they have one.

It is Open Mic Night, though, and the place is fairly strewn with the kind of beat-to-shit acoustic guitars that make more well-equipped musicians wonder, when they see them at parties and in dorm rooms, how anyone could wring even one clean chord out of them. They're instruments that invariably end up as part of either a homeless person's cache or an art installation, but they always find somebody along the way who'll love them enough to learn their language.

The Phoenix used to be The Realm; they changed its name in an effort to shake certain rapidly solidifying Goth/Dark Crystal connotations. (Not that they've got anything against that crowd, the bartender clarifies — they just want everybody to feel welcome.) At present, the place strikes an oddly successful balance between dark and light. The back area by the bar evinces a slightly shadowy vibe, while the colorful seating area up front could be a lo-fi Central Perk, minus the exorbitant set budget and anyone remotely approaching the Friends' age range.

The performers do their respective things in the corner by the front door. There's no stage to speak of, just a tiny PA. There's also a cool, child-size three-piece drum kit that would fit into a little red wagon with room to spare, and some kid is rocking the thing while another coaxes improbable melody out of one of those scarred acoustics.

A group of peers crowds close, while the older patrons hang in back or on the patio, politely waiting their turn as a whole. A young guy and girl casually hop up in front of the sofas, and just as casually bust out a flawless, energetic two-part harmony like they just thought of it. Afterward, the guy stays up for a fast, unplugged hardcore number, a few more screw around with the drum kit (apparently I'm not the only one who feels the toy's almost inexorable siren song), and the all-ages portion of the evening draws to a close.

Forget any notions (thankfully) of laptop-choked Starbucks or hipsters for whom cool has toppled over into caricature. The Phoenix is like somebody's rumpus room, only with ample seating, a cappuccino machine and food in Shrink-wrap. In the context of our basement-less climes, its attraction for the restless and underage is obvious — it's like getting away, and getting together, without actually going out.

A bit of a natural intermission ensues, only to be shattered when a man my age that I hadn't noticed before gets up and plays the theme from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Seriously. He does that one song ("They're heroes on a half-shell, and they're greeeeeeen!") then leaves.

The older guys break out nicer instruments and discuss what to play amongst themselves. A few of them engage some of the kids in conversation, and receive it in kind, as opposed to eye rolling or visible signs of "the creeps." These are guys with graying ponytails and baseball caps, guys you might mistake for dive-bar lifers were it not for their (mostly) comparatively clear eyes and mellow, congenial manner. It's a bit harder to discern the place's draw for them, until a few snatches of dialogue relating to Christianity and sobriety are overheard.

And when a pair of fellows gets

up front and begins enthusiastically plying some spiritual blues, it becomes clear. They obviously, dearly love to play, and they want to do it in front of appreciative types, somewhere they feel comfortable — for several of the folks here, the concept of hanging out in a bar and waiting for their turn is probably about as inviting as a coupon good for one free seawater colonic.

The two play well, with a simple, well-worn style that speaks of countless evenings spent on front steps and weathered couches. By the time they're wrapping up their third song, most of the kids have filtered outside to skate, smoke or sit on the curb with their friends. But the older patrons fill the vacated up-front space in turn, applauding, forwarding requests or tuning up their own guitars.

I suspect that if I hang around long enough, the age-tide will turn again, and again, until either the Phoenix closes for the night or there's no one left to make the next cyclical flip. I won't, though. The Phoenix is a nice place, and it's populated with nice people. So nice, in fact, that after a little while you begin to crave a shove or a particularly inventive vulgarity the way somebody who's spent six weeks in cafes on the French Riviera might not want anything quite so badly as a Quarter Pounder With Cheese. I've gotta go outside to smoke, and if I start walking that way, I might not stop until I find something seedy.

Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].