VERY EARLY in the morning, she crosses the bridge from Rosslyn and walks up M Street to the Little Tavern. She is a red-haired woman, freckled and 21 years old, quick to smile and quick to laugh and quick to make friends. She takes the seat closest to the door and opens a spiral notebook and starts to write -- a Bohemian out of place and out of time but never out of coffee.
Outside, the M Street traffic is awful. Trucks rattle the ground and buses go by with their deep whoosh but Leslie Cobb writes on. She prefers to write in places like this. She likes the action and she likes the little family she gathers around her -- men like Mike and Doc and Sky King and all the people who like to talk to writers.
So far, she has written at the Tysons Corner Hot Shoppe and the McLean McDonald's and the Falls Church McDonald's and the Crystal City Drug Store and the other Little Tavern, the one on Wisconsin Avenue, and what she does is listen. In her head, she is Hemingway making the rounds of Parisian cafes -- a Movable Feast -- only she lives in Rosslyn and she has to order coffee and Big Macs instead of wine and cheese. No matter. She sits and writes and listens with the big ear of the writer.
Sky King bursts through the door. He is a street person. He is wearing a bowler-type hat and a dark, formal jacket and black pants and a pair of green running shorts over the pants. He is wearing layers of clothes and from his neck hangs a Lone Ranger style mask. He is bearded and wild-eyed and caked with filth. He wants a cigarette.
"Hey Mike, you have a cigarette?" he asks the counterman. "A Lucky Strike?"
"No, not today."
"Mike, I really need a cigarette."
Through all this, Leslie Cobb does not stop writing. She is hearing, but writing, too. She is writing, in fact, about Mike the counterman. One day he was golfing and he sliced the ball into the woods. He went looking for the ball and went into a field and came upon two tombstones -- just two. Nothing else. He told Leslie about it and she started to make up a story. It's about the family who lived on the land and the couple who is buried there now and the Civil War and Virginia.
Leslie looks up from her writing.
"He'll come back," she predicts.
The door opens and Sky King fills the doorway. He shouts: "You take one foot-long hot dog and you . . ." A truck drowns him out.
"Get lost sky," Mike says, and moves out from behind the counter.
Sky gets lost.
Leslie Cobb writes on. Her father is an architectural engineer who has preferred to work abroad. She has gone from country to country and everywhere she has been the outsider. She left a boyfriend in Morocco. She left a friend in Iran. She has lived among the bombs and the terrorists and gone to school with children whose fathers were kidnapped. Overseas, she wrote in cafes and here she writes where she can. Soon, she will leave this Little Tavern and go somewhere else. She moves on when she becomes too well known, keeping the friend she makes, coming back to visit -- extending her family, learning, learning, learning, And fighting the loneliness.
A bus driver comes in, orders coffee and says hello to Leslie. A man who retired as the counterman at the Wisconsin Avenue Little Tavern comes in and recognizes Leslie. A man named Doc comes in for coffee, asks for the New York Daily News under the counter, and says hello to Leslie. Sky King comes back and it becomes clear that Mike will not give him a cigarette.The day before Sky King had squandered his government check. This seems to bother Mike a lot and he tells how Sky took the check and bought boots for all his wino friends and then cheeseburgers for everybody and now has no money left. It is as bad as the time Sky bought straw hats at a Georgetown store and tried to sell them on the street. He wound up giving them away.
Leslie asks for another coffee, but Mike says no. She's had enough. She laughs and he pours and then launches into another story. Leslie writes. She writes the date in the margin and then picks up where she left off.She writes through Mike's story and Sky King comes back to use the bathroom and me asking questions and then Sky King demanding a cigarette of Mike.
"Get out! Not today. Not today, Sky King. I'm not kidding you now. Stay out!"
Leslie Cobb writes on. Among her friends is a spinster she met in the Hot Shoppe and former countermen from everywhere. Up the hill, the kids of Georgetown University would not understand her or her life, she thinks -- especially all those years abroad.
"I've learned to keep my mouth shut," she says. "People are not interested in things they can't identify with. I try to write it out."
At 9:55 a.m., Leslie Cobb pays her bill, closes her notebook. Outside, two helmeted cops tell Sky King to move along. Leslie Cobb takes her book and heads up the hill to her first class -- American history -- at Georgetown University.
She's there to get an education.