Play Date With the Lost Generation

My toddler’s secret identity as a drunken artist of the early 20th century.

Natalie Matthews-Ramo

“Such nice markings,” she said, handing me the mauled piece of construction paper. I raised my eyebrows and hummed in agreement. Yes, he’s a minimalist. The paper had several trails of pink marker, a dash of red, and some purple hesitation marks. The same colors appeared on my son’s palms, as he was most taken with the dynamics of uncapping and recapping the felts. Beside him, a little girl had rendered a catlike form with cubist intensity. Her hands remained clean.

The instructor closed the class, which is held in the back room of a café, with French folk songs and a reminder to encourage our little “artistes” in all their creative endeavors. I imagined her heading home on a bicycle with a baguette in the front basket and the theme music to Amélie playing her out.

As parents wrangled their offspring out of the classroom, I held the paper up to show my son. “Don’t forget your artwork,” I said. He looked at me questioningly over his juice box, as if I’d told him we’d be custom-framing the half-chewed cracker that fell out of his mouth that morning. “Do you want to carry it?”

“No, mama,” he said, rolling his head back dramatically and careening his little body toward the door with the articulation of a drunk. Since his second birthday, those two words have formed a solid partnership.

The class is titled Baby Art Club. It is hosted in what is called a Play Café. What this means is that as well as offering the array of frothy espresso drinks, it features a penlike enclosure in which to deposit small children. In the soggy spring of the Pacific Northwest, this café trades on the promise of shelter, caffeine, and contained anarchy.

It is not a good place to set up a laptop and dig into those spreadsheets, or a place to Instagram delft-blue teacups against pristine teak surfaces. Privacy and tranquility are in short supply, but the target market has other priorities. This place charms the caregivers of urban children. We live in tiny apartments we can’t afford. We set up our cribs in closets and narrow solariums, the city views taped over with blackout paper. We are desperate for space and conditioned to expect that it comes at a cost.

It is a Play Café, not a Play Coffee Shop, and this, I believe, is vital to its brand. Referring to this space of random shouting and tears as a café is a Francophile reframing of the experience for those parents who read the expats of the Lost Generation in college, dream of visiting the Louvre unfettered by strollers and sippy cups, or at least own a poster of Robert Doisneau’s The Kiss. It appeals to those so stirred by romantic notions as to drag a grumpy toddler to a $15 art class. It is absurd, and it works.

“Fox, fox, fox,” yells my son, pronouncing the X sound as a startling K. Juiced on sugar and marker fumes, his short legs thrash past me into the play area and toward his favored base camp. He prefers to independently occupy the toddler-size kitchen playhouse, where wooden cupboards will be opened, inspected, and slammed for a shift varying from five to 15 minutes, depending on intruder traffic. A mother turns to observe the source of the swearing, and I point accusingly at a stuffed fox against the bookshelf.

If you close your eyes, the ambience is perhaps not so unlike the cafés of Europe in the opening decades of the 20th century. Unlike the hurried commuters settling for McCafés or the remote workers at Starbucks entranced in Wi-Fi, we imagine the patrons of 1920s Parisian cafés as rowdy modernists, intellectuals, and revolutionaries. Their manners and hygiene were perhaps questionable. Hotbeds of the avant-garde, those cafés thrived on a raucous atmosphere. Perhaps most importantly, those cafés served absinthe.

I leave my son with his head in a wooden minifridge to order a latte at the counter. As I wait, I imagine a side business selling shots of Irish whiskey and liqueur from a converted stroller in the parking lot. Behind me, a loud clatter overpowers the cheery ambient music as a box of blocks is upended at the top of the 5-foot slide. A wild-haired boy howls his victory as the blocks pile up like a freeway accident on the mat below.

In the corner, a baby still small enough to get in for free rises up in a cobra position and projectile-vomits milk product across the colorful foam tiles. The two toddler girls who were cooing over the baby’s fine curls recoil in revulsion. The barista grabs a spray bottle and rag, approaching the scene with resolve. The baby looks surprised but not terribly apologetic. It is hard to imagine the gentry of neighboring coffee shops sustaining their detachment in the presence of bodily fluids. You have to be ready for anything in this place.

In 1923, American writer and critic Malcolm Cowley got into a fistfight with the owner of Café de la Rotonde and spent the night in jail. Hemingway is said to have used the café down the street from his apartment, La Closerie des Lilas, as his unofficial office. A young Picasso and his penniless cohorts spent more waking hours in La Rotonde, Le Dôme, or Les Deux Magots than in the unheated shacks they rented in Montmartre. The cafés were far more comfortable than their cramped studios. I sip my latte and think of our 9-by-9-foot living room that multitasks as a playroom, office, and general dumping ground.

One day in the early years of the 21st century, I sat with a traveling companion at a café table in Paris. I could not tell you if it was La Rotonde or perhaps Les Deux Magots, but any respectable Parisian would have dismissed it as a tourist trap trading on the nostalgia of a past life. We, of course, were tourists. We were not the girls with delicately patterned scarves and coming-of-age journal entries to be written en plein air. We were of the variety nursing sunburns and lethargy, back sweat and hair in need of washing. I had one foot up on our elaborately rigged backpacks while my friend studied the menu in desperation for something that would comply with her low-carb Atkins diet. I had yet to read The Sun Also Rises, but I had the Da Vinci Code packed somewhere under dirty tank tops. Gertrude Stein would not have invited us to her salon.

The cafés of the avant-garde, if they do exist in contemporary times, are elusive. Today, Starbucks boasts the promise of a uniform experience anywhere in the world. Authenticity is uncoupled from originality. The Play Café is a different beast entirely. Small children don’t need liquor to facilitate spontaneity, their big ideas, and even bigger emotions. They are natural nonconformists, form tenuous alliances, and have an unstable sense of ownership. If you are looking for a scene with spirited energy, this place is paramount.

My son emerges from the kitchen playhouse with a swagger built on satisfying cupboard slams and the empty pings made by plastic-molded fruit thrown in some dark crevasse from which they will be hard to retrieve. He strides past the wild-haired boy, who is now attempting to commandeer a fire engine, and plunks down heavily on a bean chair beside the cubist cat artist. Since the art class, she has tucked her skirt into the waistband of her striped leggings, creating her own brand of haute couture. She lounges across the girth of the lumpy beanbag as though she plans to be there all afternoon. My son relaxes in his seat and begins twirling his hair like a miniature man about town. The two figures sit together, unspeaking, observing the carnage of the room. I cup my warm mug and watch the rain on the café window. Just imagine their future masterpieces.