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For the Birds

For the Birds

by Brandon Edmonds, images by Filipa Domingues / 22.07.2010

I was in an eatery called Birds recently. A sweet new friend took me there. I want to thank her, and trust we can still be friends. Anyway, it’s in Bree Street in Cape Town. Oh, it’s lovely. White walls, pretty black waitresses, dappled sunlight plopping in through giant bay windows. A winningly seductive patina of care and consciousness on everything. A quiet, homely space. Wooden floors and high ceilings. And the people. Wonderful. Skinny, accomplished, well dressed. People you’d love to meet, to know, to accompany. People who’ve been to Patagonia. Twice. People who know people in Spain. People with shoes hand-made in villages where running water is a recent blessing. People who make love with disarming tact and aplomb. Whose children are gorgeous and insightful. People who eat fried food on rare occasions outdoors, feeling like they’re slumming on our behalf. Who laugh at themselves when they fuss over place settings. People you wish would have kept in touch after graduation. People Woody Allen sees in the passing train in Stardust Memories (1980) the lucky, entitled few.

They were called “yuppies” once. Now they’re legion. Beyond nomenclature. They just are. Consummate consumers. The tasteful considerate foot soldiers of late capitalism. They make Checkers nervous. They keep Woolworths solvent. They accelerate past Pep stores. Black women iron their clothing. Such poised, easygoing certainty is terrifying. Given the facts. Regular readers will expect a litany of social data at this point: a trumpeting of statistically validated inequality. An inequality roving the globe and threatening all sorts of personal and political stability from Bogota to Sydney. Let’s take all that as a Marxist given. But it does make the self-consciously unclenched veneer of easeful tolerance in here, of enlightened enjoyment, asphyxiating.

Maybe I need to get out more. Birds. Okay, birds. Just an eatery. With lovely home-made pies and cakes. All sorts of quality tea. A glass of freshly squeezed orange juice for R12. A pancake with hummus and carrots topped with seeds. Dark chocolate milkshakes. It’s pleasant, it’s hearty, it’s all “good”. Pretty, as Larry David, that bald kvetching scold of the moneyed, would say, pretty, pretty good.

How about Hitchcock? He comes to mind when you love movies and walk into a place called Birds. That wonderfully menacing scene in The Birds (1963) – after Vertigo, and Psycho, his strongest film – when blackbirds gather outside the schoolhouse. The camera sees a single bird on the jungle gym. Pan back: many more. Pan back: a velvety black cloud of them! They’re here to peck out the eyes of schoolchildren. They’re here for blood. That sense of contagion coursing beneath suburban anonymity, that lurking darkness in the corners of civic spaces, is something David Lynch inherited directly from Hitchcock. They constitute a rich seam of American unease. Would we had homegrown Lynches and Hitchcocks emerging to delineate our own social disquiet.

Aptly, there are black birds strikingly painted on a white canvas scrim in the eatery. It’s as if hyper-controlling “tasteful” awareness neutralizes menace by “aestheticizing” it. Makes horror beautiful. Drains threats with graphic invention. Gives disquiet a pretty pattern. Interestingly, tastefulness, the ideology of tasteful consumption, associated with moneyed-educated-well situated thirty and forty something’s, and beyond, has a counterpart in the much younger, much poorer (but just as strictly conforming) hipster sensibility.

Both demographics tend to need experience pre-packaged and thought through on their behalf (by experts and style arbiters / or for hipsters alt.experts and alt.style arbiters). Both must be cushioned from the facts. So the searing reality of social problems is considered, if at all, only insofar as there’s an ‘interesting’ angle. Novelty – good packaging – makes boring, messy and stubbornly persistent inequalities cognitively palatable to both demographics. Young and old. Cue every ad campaign that ever got through to you. Every photograph that resonated. Every article that, cough, made you think.

In a recent Vice magazine feature, a poor African nation was mined for the irony of tons of discarded Western clothing – including T-shirts with incongruous quotations – a prepubescent girl (clearly starving, clearly desolate) is seen wearing one with a gruesomely inappropriate tagline (something like: Kiss me, Baby!) on it – being imported for re-sale. The point is the novelty of graphic dissonance. The glib frisson of Western excess amidst African suffering. Because, you know, it’s a fresh take, a good angle, on an old painful story. It’s also morally desolate.
There are bird sounds by the way. In the eatery. Piped in over the stereo. The sound of birds. Not fuck off birds like vultures or bald eagles, but little birds, garden birds, Disney birds, the kind that land on your shoulder and tweet your troubles away.

All images © Filipa Domingues.

14   8
RESPONSES (71)
  1. Sean says:

    This place looks awesome, thanks.

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  2. Anonymous says:

    I read the first three (nauseatingly coy) lines, anticipated another Cape Town-y circle jerk, and scrolled quickly down here to make a mean comment. Come to think of it, that’s all I ever do on Mahala.

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  3. bree says:

    Well whatever works for you @anonymous – you’re an (ass)et to humanity.

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  4. Bob says:

    I enjoyed this, it was fresh take, a new angle on an old, painful story.

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  5. Roger Young. says:

    But was the pie any good?

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  6. Anonymous says:

    Hey, someone needs to keep you guys honest.

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  7. nissim says:

    i think I follow most, if not all of this piece. Well, I think I get the gist anyway.

    What makes me feel uncomfortable about the place is that everyone sits aound these big tables that are actually just sheets of cheap board from Timber City (R235 for a 2.4, x 1.2m sheet) and they’re all sitting on two stacked milk crates covered with a skinny-ass cushion.

    As if the owners couldn’t afford better – deliberately trying to make people feel like they’re “at one” with the unwashed masses sitting around in their shebeens smoking “pot” and drinking beer from quarts or gourds (ha-bloody-ha)

    The irony of this equanimity, efficiency and anti-consumerism in their simple furniture faux pas is lost on most patrons – who think it’s absolutely normal to pay R45 for a breakfast pancake with some fruit inside.

    Too chickie for me. Too pink too. But if I really wanted to pull one of those blonde from the polo club, it might just be the place.

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  8. dylan says:

    excellent. nice pics, too.

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  9. nissim says:

    nos·tal·gie de la boue

    Pronunciation: \nȯs-tȧl-zhēd-lȧ-bü, -zhē-də-\
    Function: foreign term
    Etymology: French

    : yearning for the mud : attraction to what is unworthy, crude, or degrading

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  10. Anonymous says:

    great stuff. mahala needs more of this

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  11. jain air says:

    ‘The tasteful considerate foot-soldiers of late capitalism’ – omg that’s brilliant! Marry me now.

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  12. Sara says:

    But you find the same crowd at that organic market in Woodstock and at any given art exhibition in CT

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  13. Michelle says:

    I am imagining the pitch for this article: “Um Andy, I’m going out to lunch and I think I want to turn it into a think piece. You know … kind of food review, but touching on Hitchcock and Lynch and the glib frisson of Western excess amidst African suffering. But only if I can actually use the phrase ‘glib frisson’. Oh, and the word ‘hipster’. And of course I’ll pass judgement, I mean insightful commentary, on everyone else who happens to be there.”

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  14. Baby G says:

    Beautifully written- I can almost taste the pie!

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  15. the sloth says:

    Huh. Hadn’t realised Birds screened their soundtrack in favour of the itty bitty, sweet and manageable garden variety of bird. Must go take a listen. I’m not so sure Birds is the most obvious culprit when talking prepackaged, sanitised experience, but this is a nice piece. Funny, I wonder if the clientele will come to their coffee spot’s defence or whether they will feel too exposed.

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  16. brandon edmonds says:

    That’s uncannily close to the money, Michelle. I happened to eat there. These thoughts came to mind. I wrote them down and passed them along. As for ‘passing judgement’ – you’ll find on closer reading a conflicted desire to be these people, to be this well-adjusted-and-off. It’s a confession of class longing. Burp.

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  17. Max says:

    Edmonds, you golden god, even though I have a destructive bunny chow in me, your words made me wanna go eat there. like now.

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  18. brandon edmonds says:

    How do you say ‘thanks’ in Russian?

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  19. Andy says:

    MIchelle you forgot my response…

    Andy looks up bleary eyed and confused. “Huh.. cool… do whatever you goddamn please!” While whispering under his voice, “jesus fuck who are these people, and how did they learn to use those big words?”

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  20. Andy says:

    PS – wolves is next. Montle & McGee… you have an assignment.

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  21. Jake says:

    Hahhaha..the piece, the messages, the whoel bit! Well done. After leaving CT for France a month pre-WC and looking back into the CT fishbowl from the land of truely irritating crass consumers with bad taste, I gotta say a brekkie for 45R in a house with bird noises on a table from DeLaRey (ooops sorry Timber City) is a flippen dream..In France its 55R for a plate of kak chips with a plastic squirt tube of rancid mayo…if wanna buy a slice of pie outside of Dijon in a local bakery…pay 35R for a tart smaller than the palm of my 7 yr olds hand…a big slice, yummy, 90R!…and it wasn’t made by some artisanal fundi searching for ripe fruits in late summer, industrial mass produced barf tart for 90R…BE HAPPY! CT and its denizens of wealth that have cool places to dine every day…so what if we little people only get to taste once a month (or once every two). CT Rocks!

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  22. Max says:

    “Spasibo”

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  23. Doctor L. says:

    Extremely dope writing. Seems to keep getting better and better.

    My second reading highlight of the day after this:

    http://bit.ly/aZXlIi

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  24. the great haloumi says:

    I agree with everything you have to say except for one glaring error – Hitchcock’s strongest film was Marnie.

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  25. Brandon groupie? says:

    Three whiskies down the hatch, far too late for anything erudite, except to say- I read Mahala for the genius of Brandon…if only I was younger…and single…sigh- and those Starlings in Hitchcock, they flock to the tree above our cottage, en masse- scary, be very scared!!!

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  26. brandon edmonds says:

    Yay groupies! Mature, boozy, entangled groupies…um yay!

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  27. Anonymous says:

    Creeping Trotsky…WTF.

    “It is not only fine feathers that make fine birds.” AESOP

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  28. snapper says:

    brandon, have you ever seen the british series ‘big train’? they do a rip-off of that exact scene in the brids. except the birds are replaced by ‘the working class’.

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  29. @Jake says:

    Cool story bro.

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  30. The JZA says:

    Nice piece. Just, you know…Birds has been around for like years and it’s hardly news that it’s a hang-out for affluent urbanites. Attacking the decor and clientele of a long-established eatery is lame. Why not take your acerbic wit across the road for beer and sausage at & UNION? There’s a whole big story there, full of words like ‘glib’ and ‘hipster’ and ‘wanker’.

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  31. tilda stilton says:

    JZA, you may well have a point there. How much does a beer cost at that joint again??

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  32. anonymous says:

    This place looks like every other fucking place in cape town, awsome thanks

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  33. brandon edmonds says:

    I hadn’t eaten there before so…it was new to me. I’ll definitely check out & Union or whatever. @snapper I have seen that Big Train sketch. It’s brilliant. Have you seen the Michael Jacksons running across the prairie scene from that show?

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  34. Island mentality says:

    Had no time to read the any of the response, don’t even live in the land of CT or the country for that matter anymore.
    Amazed to see we are still scarred of anything that doesn’t comply to our boerewors sensibilities.
    Have and enjoy your cake for once.

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  35. brandon edmonds says:

    Dude, ‘boerewors sensibilities’ – you get that from this article! The cake’s on your face.

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  36. Anonymous says:

    Fools!
    You wrote this on the 22nd July 2010 – where the hell have you all been!
    Edmonds, being alate arrival from eTekhwini you’re excused.
    Yes, idiots, it’s time to graduate from the dregs of Long Street and Sacha’s overcooked swill.
    Heike Frauke and Gran have been making slow cooked Namibian German love to us for years now.
    Eat da pies, da quiche, da streudel. Get there early.
    Quickly before its too late.

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  37. Andy says:

    are you talking about Birds?

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  38. […] review of Birds Boutique Café in Bree Street, which has a vaguely similar vibe to Superette, on Mahala.  (This is not so much a review of the café but rather of the […]

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  39. Cantankerous says:

    I LOLLED. Fine scalpel.

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  40. Chris von Ulmenstein says:

    I loved your writing!

    I could not find a positive thing to write about my recent visit to Birds, and gave them a Sour Service Award today : http://www.whalecottage.com/blog/cape-town/waterfront-boat-company-sweet-and-bird-boutique-cafe-sour-service-awards/

    Chris

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  41. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kamini Pather, tom robbins. tom robbins said: @ms_kamini the sometimes brilliant Brandon Edmonds on Birds Cafe http://bit.ly/fSMb1S […]

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