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Where is the Mermaid Cafe? Print-ready version

by John Steinbreder
Delta Sky
July 2001

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In her pathbreaking 1971 album Blue, Joni Mitchell balanced songs of deep introspection with an infectious pop ballad called “Carey.” That song, carried on a seductive, guitar-driven beat, was pure invitation: “Come on down to the Mermaid Café,” she sang, “and I will buy you a bottle of wine. And we’ll laugh and toast to nothing and smash our empty glasses down.”

Mitchell herself was clear about the general location of the Mermaid Café: Greece, on the island of Crete in a coastal town called Matala. “And they’re playin’ that scratchy rock ’n’ roll beneath the Matala moon.” But as any fan knows, this star has always prided herself on her enigmas. When Joni-lovers tried to track down the Mermaid Café, there was none to be found. At least by that name.

And that’s how the Mermaid Café passed into modern lore, became not a ramshackle water’s-edge hut gawked at by tourists and trading on its notoriety, but a myth.

It’s a lovely myth, too, the editors at Sky thought, someplace where “the wind is in from Africa,” where you could “have a round for these freaks and these soldiers, a round for these friends of mine.” And it struck us that what the Mermaid Café represented was a pure type of destination and travel experience. So we asked a favorite corps of Sky writers to interpret the Mermaid Café, to tell us what it was for them and where it might be.

Mitchell’s geographic clues did nothing to deter a wonderful network of mis-speculations. “Corfu,” wrote one friend. “I read it in an interview.” “You know it was Ibiza, don’t you?” wrote another. “I was there right after she and James Taylor left.” The very best theory came from a writer who at first played coy with the location he was “completely sure of,” and then decided to divulge: “Central City, Colorado.”

Which was precisely the point. The Mermaid Café is anywhere you make it. It’s anywhere where you feel comfortably freed from not just the daily but the earthly chores . . . at least for a while. It’s a place where the sand will be warm to your feet when you first sit down, and then cool off as the sun goes down and the moon rises, a place where some serious thought can be given to the texture of sand and how it feels sliding between the toes.

“We’ll go to the Mermaid Café, have fun tonight,” Mitchell sings at the end of “Carey.” See you there at the usual table?

The Taverna at Vatos is empty for most of the day, as all but a handful of its regular customers prefer to spend that time on the beach at Pelekas: lounging in the Aegean, or dozing on their towels spread across sections of the smooth sand, or reading in the shade of the olive grove that starts 100 meters from the water and stretches in terraces all the way up the hill to the Greek village. But when the sun starts to fall, and the whitewashed walls of the courtyard that surround the simple wood tables and benches begin to lose their midday harshness, and everyone takes their showers outside the bar at the beach, it starts to fill up like a theater just before showtime.

Small Coke bottles are loaded with ouzo made in a distillery just down the street. Salads of lettuce, tomatoes, olives and feta cheese are put out on tables, and bowls of cucumber, garlic and yogurt mixed together are passed around with plates of pita bread. Bouzouki music is played on a tape deck, the shots of ouzo flow a bit more freely, the skin feels warm from yet another day in the sun, and you can’t help looking hard at some of the new arrivals as they walk by. Young, blond, lithe, and most from Scandinavia. I also gaze at the owner’s stately daughter, Thespina. Just out of college, she is already hauling bottles of retsina and ouzo like a pro, and I can’t resist. I suddenly yell like Zorba, “I love all the women.” Thespina gives me a dirty look. Her mother looks up from the stove and threatens me with her spatula. And four complete strangers—an Aussie, a Swede, an Italian and a South African—raise their glasses. At least someone agrees with me.

The music gets a little louder, the sun a little lower. There is deep talk of Lawrence Durrell writing The Alexandria Quartet not too far from us on this island and which of the books is better. There is debate over the quality of Stevie Wonder’s work, and much praise for Songs in the Key of Life and an unforgettable tune he wrote and sang called “Saturn.” There is discussion on the virtues of Mediterranean living and vows never to stray from this blessed land. There are more toasts, a bit more food, some hugs among new friends and jabbering in four or five different languages about everything from French politics to the best places to visit in the Middle East.The evening goes on like this for five or six hours, for five or six Coke bottles of that anise nectar only a country with a mountain full of gods could produce. It is a spirited climb to friendship and friskiness, to losing inhibition and gaining insight all at the same time. After the midnight hour, we start to drift back toward our tents and lean-tos and shacks, back down the darkened trails to the still of the olive groves and the rumble of the sea and the knowledge that anyone we didn’t get to chat with that night will surely be available for a talk and a toast the following night, when the taverna at Vatos opens for business once again.—John Steinbreder

“It’s hard to believe that’s the same moon as back home,” I say, though he doesn’t know what the moon back home looks like. Not my home, anyway.

“Yeah,” he says, and I try to imagine what he’s seeing as he gazes beyond the moon of here and now. The luminous disk—almost but not quite full—shimmers in reflections on the water of the placid little bay.

Waves lap gently with small hollow noises against the yachts—large and small, new and worn—bobbing at anchor and nestled side by side at the small dock. I hear a murmur of conversation from the deck of one, where four Americans share a bottle of wine and stories of grandchildren. The limpid breeze smells of brine, suntan lotion and gasoline.

The cafe is just a few feet from the quay and we sit facing the water, our feet propped on the splintered wood railing. I’ve been peeling beer labels tonight, and the table between us is littered with damp paper shreds.

“Meditation,” I call the habit, and he laughs. “I only do it when I have something on my mind,” I explain. He doesn’t ask what’s on my mind, and I don’t volunteer.

“Would you choose this life forever if you could?” he asks, touching the back of my hand lightly with one finger.

“If I could,” I say. “But maybe not forever.”—Sophia Dembling

A Round for These Freaks and These Soldiers
It was Freddie’s idea to get as far away from the club’s contrived 19th hole as possible after our usual 18 holes on Saturday. So one afternoon our little foursome took off for parts unknown and wound up on Tybee Island, 18 miles east of Savannah, Georgia. Tybee means “salt” to the American Indians of the area. To us, it means plopping in plastic chairs, plunking beers on a wobbly metal table and whining about the birdies that got away. This all happens at a place called the North Beach Grill, a flea-bitten oceanside shack—painted turquoise, pink and purple—that would blow away at the mere rumor of a hurricane.

Bette Davis would call it a dump and say it with feeling this time. But we like it. Great fries, great fish tacos, and the only music is the sound of muffled merriment floating between the breeze and the surf. Trouble is, we can never completely surrender to the sea. Golf is too much on our minds. “If I’d hit a 9 instead of a 7 on 15, I could have whipped your buns,” says Laura to Freddie. Or I say, “They’ve got to do something about that weekend pin placement on 18.” Or Danni says, “Putter just wasn’t working for me today.”

All the while, bodies in bathing wear stream by. Quizzical glances are cast at our strange tan lines and the scorecards scattered before us. Last year a guy took one look at us and with revulsion snarled, “Golfers.”

Sometimes, as the afternoon wears on and the sun switches from bake to low broil, we get some wedges and balls from the trunk of the car and go out to the scrub-covered dune that stretches between the grill and the beach and make believe it’s the world’s biggest sand trap and that Tiger Woods has said that there are only four people he knows of who can handle it: us. It helps that we’ve had a few beers.

Back on the weather-beaten deck, we ask the college-kid bartender, who wears two earrings and a smile beyond his years, for a round of Cokes for the road; then we fall silent, watching a huge, dripping scoop of orange sherbet melt into the ocean and quietly congratulating ourselves for having found such a terrific place to forget about golf.—Jolee Edmondson

It Sure Is Hard to Leave Here
The wind here is from the Mediterranean, with Africa just across the sea. The sky over Collioure, on the coast 30 kilometers from the Spanish border, was dubbed “the bluest in all

France” by Henri Matisse, who lived and painted here. The light and ambience brought other artists, too: Picasso, Salvador Dali (famous for his silver-tipped cane), Raoul Dufy . . . and legions of wanna-bes, writers, film stars, philosophers and Parisians looking for summer beach fun. And, for many years, I followed in their footsteps by making Le Petit Café my watering hole. A literal hole in the wall just inside the ancient village walls, a Pernod bottle’s throw from the beach, it opened every night at 10 p.m., and often said goodbye to its loyal customers at 9 the next morning.

The bartender, a burly chap I nicknamed “Monsieur Gorilla,” would greet me with a grunt and a nod. A former wrestler with the heart of a pussycat, he nonetheless ruled with an iron hand should the lively client discussions about philosophy and football spill over into hand-to-hand combat. A man of few words, he was nonetheless quick to offer a drink on the house should one’s love life not be going quite as planned. I received many free drinks from Monsieur Gorilla, I recall.

It was and is the kind of bar where, while food was served, food was not the point. Countless late nights stretched into mornings debating popular culture, village politics and the vicissitudes of life with assorted rakish artist, writer and journalist pals. Occasionally a French movie- or football star would swoop in with entourage in tow, looking for a dark place to relax and not be bothered. Le Petit Café complied with grace.—Mary Alice Kellogg
Five Signs You’re at the Mermaid Café

1. Sun Direct exposure turns the hairs on your forearm a golden blond, which will appear silver when the moon rises.

2. Sand Direct exposure to toes and feet provides something to do with excess energy.

3. Sea There is a gentle lapping at the shore’s edge that, indistinct at night, seems like a purr.

4. Sound The jukebox magically plays everything you want to hear and nothing that you don’t.

5. Sustenance The menus are ketchup-stained.

Five Signs You’re Not

1. Selection The wine list is longer than three items.

2. Sommelier He’s wearing one of those funny things around his neck.

3. Snobbery The people at the next table are knowledgeably discussing the difference between the ’89 Chateau Petrus and the ’90, using phrases like “mouth-clenching tannins.”

4. Stemware There are specific ones designed for specific beverages.

5. Standards And if you should decide to “laugh and toast to nothing and smash [y]our empty glasses down,” it will add very appreciably to your bill and you’ll be asked to leave. Immediately.


The Wind Is in From Africa
The olive-drab motorcycle was in surpriseingly good condition, considering that it probably hadn’t received regular servicing since WWII. The rental price was reasonable, even for 1985: 850 drachmas per day, about 11 bucks. Back in our room, Malene and I realized that our rental agent hadn’t asked for our names, or even looked at our passports. We’d signed no papers. All we had was a written receipt, listing the price and a few lines we hoped gave us permission to drive it.

We took off the next morning for several days of crisscrossing Crete. I wore baggy shorts, a T-shirt, a battered fedora and a pair of old, beloved huaraches held together with bits of wire and tape. Malene wore a sundress with a bikini underneath and a pair of canvas tennis shoes. Our baggage consisted of two blankets and a bag of oranges. It was late July and baking hot. We stuck to the coast road, first traveling west from Iraklio to Rethymno and then on to Vrisses before heading down to the southern coast. The road rose into cool, refreshing mountains with groves of cypress, almond and fig trees. We bought local olives, cheese, bread and Cretan wine, spread our blankets under the trees, and picnicked and dozed during the heat of the day.

Whenever we were near a beach, we swam. We found hidden coves and private, deserted beaches. We parked the bike in the sand, stripped off our clothes and swam and dove until we could barely lift our arms.

One afternoon near Hora Sfakion, we stopped at a small taverna to find something for dinner. A fisherman had just put in, and his young son was dividing the fish between two squat barrels. Malene asked the boy what the difference was. The boy, who spoke English, looked at her as if she were slightly mad. “Why, this,” he said, pointing, “is the ‘A’ fish, and this is the ‘B’ fish. No one ever buys the ‘B’ fish. If you want one, I advise you to take the ‘A’ fish.”

We took our “A” fish down the road to a sheltered cove, laid out our blankets and built a small fire with the fragrant branches of some nearby oregano bushes. We ate roasted “A” fish with slices of cucumber and tomato, and washed it down with sharp retsina.

A warm breeze came across the sea, and we imagined the wind had traveled the Libyan desert before it came to find us. We sang “The wind is in from Africa, last night I couldn’t sleep” over and over because we didn’t know any other verses and because the moment was too perfect, too fleeting, too precious to waste on sleep.—Kent Black

I Will Buy You a Bottle of Wine
My Mermaid CafÉ is a pretty brick courtyard that used to have a fountain and several Bradford pear trees strung with white lights. It began life as a gas station and has gone through many incarnations since its heyday. The food is mediocre and the service is worse, but on a warm, breezy July evening, you can sink into the sagging deck chairs, slip off your sandals and look up at the sky.

I am almost always in the company of an old friend who twitches with nervous energy. “Hey, mama, what’s goin’ on?” he says as he pulls up a chair. He sits down and shifts position about 20 times, jiggles his leg and looks around the place to see if he knows anyone. “What’re you drinkin’?” he asks. “Fat Bastard,” I say, grinning. I order it just so I can say the name and, well, because it’s the cheapest wine by the glass on the entire menu. “Heh heh! Fat Bastard. Want to get an appetizer?” he asks. And I usually refuse, pleading poverty. “Oh, I’ll get it!” he says with mock disgust. “OK,” I say. “Besides, you owe me some money.”

It’s a standing joke between us that started over a convoluted bar tab many years ago. “No, I believe it is you who owes me some money,” he retorts. Usually we carry the charade to ridiculous levels: “You owe me so much money that you’ll have to take out a second mortgage to repay me.” But on these nights, we drop it and just soak up the evening air. A song will hum through the stereo speakers nearby, and when we both recognize it, we smile in acknowledgement. “Now that’s a blast from the past.” “Yeah.” And then we start the remember-whens. “Remember when Robert and Ted had that party on St. Patrick’s Day, and the cops came—twice?” “Remember that band—what was it called?” “Mao-Mao Fighter Pilot.” This is my friend’s cue to quote the one lyric we remember: “Rice! Rice! What’s your favorite food? Rice! Rice!”

After awhile, he doesn’t fidget as much and says, “Hear that? That’s a tree frog.” “I always confuse them with cicadas,” I say. “No, no,” he corrects me. “Those short, staccato sounds are tree frogs. My father used to love hearing them. He loved July, it was his favorite month.” I’m never sure what to say during these interludes, so I
say nothing. My friend looks around the courtyard some more, and after a bit, I sit up. “Well,” I say, as a prelude to asking for the tab. But he cuts me off by barking, “Sit down!” And he calls the waiter over to order another round. “I’ll get this one,” he offers. “OK,” I say, settling back down. The brick is cool under my feet, and as I lean back to look up at the stars, I remind him, “You owe me some money, anyway.”—Nancy Oakley

I Got Beach Tar on My Feet
He was 6 foot 4, blond and gorgeous. He also knew it. He wasn’t a mean old daddy exactly, but a mysteriously distant lover, and I liked him fine.

We spent the days working on our tans, the twilights with the blender, the evenings dining on hamburgers of dubious origin served up by the bartender (who didn’t seem to own a shirt or shoes and didn’t much care). After dinner we’d sit at the bar and play Othello and schmooze with whoever wandered in: college students, guides, and those whose unnaturally deep tans and too-bloated faces signaled that they had stayed on the island a bit too long. If it got too warm, or if the conversation was one we had heard two nights in a row, we’d take a moonlight dip. Then to the room, where we hoped the toxic bug bomb we had set off before sunset had killed the mosquitoes that thrived here. Often it did. More often it didn’t, and the night was spent fighting dive-bombing bugs. In the mornings, he would lovingly clean off the dead mosquitoes mashed on the bathroom mirror, the better to check out his tan.

The cafe no longer exists, of course. It has been replaced by a glitz-crammed full-service resort that crowds the perfect half-mile crescent of Caribbean beach. The guy also no longer exists . . . at least in my life. If you’re a woman, never date a man prettier than you are.—M.A.K.

And We’ll Laugh and Toast to Nothing
My Mermaid CafÉ goes by the handle of the Salty Dawg Saloon and is composed of several log structures that have fused like scuttled ships at the very end of America, the far reach of Alaska’s Homer Spit.

For western mermaids, it’s the first bar in the hemisphere, a turnstile between the wide ambivalence of the Pacific and the close comforts of humanity.

Inside, every possible wooden surface is tattooed with curses, amorous and lustful intentions, initials, and the home ports of invisible patrons. A sign reads “no carving,” and it’s not a joke. There is a human skull behind the bar. The floor is covered in sawdust, and if you want to call ahead you’ll have to dial the pay phone and talk to whoever picks up.

The word “Mister” is never used politely. The Dawg is not big on salary history, resumes, titles before a name or a bunch of letters afterward. The pretentious person is generally eaten alive. A woman who was sure the name of her alma mater would astonish a lineup of customers was graciously assured that her level of education certainly exceeded her intelligence. Strong handshakes, belly laughs and a straight look in the eye are the currency here. People are actually interested in what you did today, but they don’t care at all about before that.

Bring cash. The only credit cards around are expired and tacked on the walls with the rest of the decorations: the orange life rings, and autographed five- and 10-dollar bills from highliner boats, and money from all around the world, and bad paintings and old photographs and anything that you can throw away, and the ceiling is quilted with old T-shirts you’ve never seen before. The list is long, composed of all the things you can do without, or learn to.

The world is getting to be a place where you take off the wrapping and there’s nothing inside. Wave it fare-thee-well at a place like the Dawg—or any cafe that takes its mermaids and their habitat seriously.—Geo Beach

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friscodrifter on

Perhaps it's coincidental rather than a possible source, but there is a reference to the "Mermaids' Tavern" in James Joyces Finnegans Wake. It's on page 229.