Inside the heart of a place
While the Spanish club met, poet John Knoepfle wrote essays from downtown Springfield
A benign rainbow trout sits comfortably – as best a trout can – before its coffee cup, smelling a lily. Yes, it’s our favorite trout from the mural painted by Julie Hulvey that once graced the wall of the Trout Lily Café, on Sixth Street downtown. For 12 years we enjoyed that trout, and coffee, and cinnamon buns, and pleasant conversation, at this imaginative spot presided over by Kate Hawkes, until the state offices were dispersed (by the governor) far from downtown Springfield, and the numbers of people working downtown were no longer enough to support the café. Kate, and other downtown small businesses, were forced to shutter their doors.
One group of locals who persisted to the end, gathered every Tuesday morning at seven to be greeted by Kate, served their various breakfasts, and to speak Spanish. Sometimes they studied a book, sometimes argued a verb, sometimes sang carols in Spanish, sometimes one reported with eagerness a recent trip to Mexico. An occasional Spanish visitor to Springfield stopped by to chat. The group greeted many – Hola, hola! – who came to the café for their morning coffee.
One member of the group, but not in it, was our local and national poet, John Knoepfle. While his wife, Peg, chatted with some fluency (she lived her teen years in Peru), he sat nearby and thought poetic and non-poetic thoughts. He noted the people coming and going. He noted what was going on out on the street. He noted the changing art shows, all by local artists, that Kate hosted on her walls. He noted the artistic difference in the two restrooms, where he alternately washed the sugar and cinnamon off his fingers. He contemplated that blissful fish, wondered how it could manage its coffee cup, but was sure it would figure it out. Did he scribble down all these observations while the Spanish club carried on, oblivious to him? Did he turn his thoughts into poems? No, he wrote little prose essays, from one to three pages, about the passing scene.
These have now been gathered into a booklet, Tuesday Mornings at the Trout Lily Café. Our coffee-sipping trout graces the cover. The time span is September through mid-January, 2006-2007. We witness autumn coming on, outside. We observe the Lincoln law office across the street. We see the café transformed by Halloween décor (stay away from the skull at the basement door, beware the multicolored bats and the little ghosts on the coffee cups), downtown Christmas preparations both outside and in. John has an eye for interesting wanderers, and also for comely lasses. He remarks warmly on Diane, Kate’s helper. He sees Bill Furry out on the street. He shows much appreciation for Kate, herself. Her imagination, and her love for art, people and fun that made the Trout Lily unique. Not to forget the pecan slice, the coffee cake.
If you ever loved the Trout Lily Café, as so many of us did, this is the booklet where you can revisit what a remarkable and valuable spot it was for our community, and reminisce on your own trout lily experiences. And if you came too late to only hear about the café, or never managed to be downtown during its hours, here are words that will fill you with both delight and regret.
I have never seen a more “inside the heart of a place” little book. It’s a stunning accomplishment filled with love, humor, an occasional tear. You can open it anywhere and live through a Tuesday morning downtown. And you can purchase your own copy, colorful trout and all, at a modest $5 on Wednesday, Jan. 14, 5-7 p.m., at another beloved place – driven from downtown but thriving at Vinegar Hill, 107 W. Cook – the Holy Land Diner. Afaf will greet you with goodies and cries of joy, and John will sign booklets. Kate will be there. You might even hear a little Spanish. Plus, there will be magic markers and a big poster for you to scribble on: “What I Like, What I Miss, in Downtown Springfield.” We miss the Trout Lily. But come enjoy the company, and John’s words, and feel that special ambience once more.
Jacqueline Jackson is professor emerita at University of Illinois Springfield and a regular contributor to Illinois Times.
Tuesday Mornings at the Trout Lily Café, by John Knoepfle. Twenty essays published by Christmas Press, 60 pages. For copies by mail send $5 plus $1 for handling and postage to Peg Knoepfle, 1700 West Washington, Apt. B402, Springfield 62702. Book-signing reception is 5-7 p.m. Jan. 14, Holy Land Diner.