D’s Coffee Corner brings the exotic to Pomona

by Daniel Bayer

Some stories are easy to get; this isn’t one of them.

I’m standing outside of D’s Coffee Corner in Pomona for the fourth time in two days. I’d been told that the place gets busy around nine, but for the second night in a row I’ve been met with darkened lights and a conspicuously unlit “Open” sign. So far I’ve only managed a short interview with the manager, Rukiya Mohammad, and a few photos of a locked door and an empty, though promisingly funky, interior – not enough to eke out an 800-word story. I’m beginning to feel like Hunter S. Thompson, sent to cover a motorcycle race but winding up instead with a story about not getting a story. And unlike him, I don’t have any illegal pharmaceuticals to dull the rising panic I feel as deadline approaches. Fear and loathing in Pomona, anyone?

Located across Merritt Drive from the decaying husk of Cotton Mill Square, a former textile-mill-turned-failed-shopping-center-turned-monument-to-de-industrialization, D’s (which will soon change its name to the Taj Mahal Coffee House) sits on the edge of Pomona, one of Greensboro’s oldest, yet least-known (to outsiders, anyway), neighborhoods. Too far from UNCG to attract artists and musicians like Glenwood, too working-class to draw the attention of young professionals like Aycock, the neighborhood – bordered by Merritt Drive to the east, Norwalk Street to the west, Spring Garden to the north and the Norfolk & Southern railroad tracks to the south – began as a mill village for workers at the textile plant in the early 20th century.

Now D’s, with it’s porcelain elephant statuettes, ornately carved furniture and Southeast Asian flavor, is bringing a touch of the exotic to this resolutely blue-collar part of town.

“It’s been open for about six months,” says Mohammad, who manages the shop for her sister Fatima. “We decided to open it because we like coffee, and we also like the hookah.”

The hookah, for those not versed in Lewis Carroll’s The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland or its musical adaptation, the Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic classic “White Rabbit,” is a water pipe, long used in the Middle East and south Asia to smoke tobacco and, in the past, other, more stimulating substances.

“It’s an old-fashioned way of smoking cigarettes,” says Mohammad. “It’s like a flavored tobacco, and you just put it in there and light it up. There’s water in the pipe and you smoke it like a cigarette.

“It’s Arabic, from the Middle East. It’s very old-style.”

Hookah cafés are common in Israel, Turkey and other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries, and have been appearing in recent years near college campuses in the United States, particularly in cities with student populations and immigrant communities from those areas of the world, according to the admittedly not-always-accurate online encyclopedia Wikipedia. This info seems to jibe with various stories I half-remember from old National Geographic magazines, however, and besides, it’s another 50 or so words on the way to the magic goal of 800.

“There’s a lot traffic in the morning, and it’s busy in the nighttime, too,” says Mohammad, on the pair’s decision to locate the shop in Pomona. Unlike coffee houses in other parts of the city, however, such as Coffee at the Summit or the Green Bean, D’s has not become a gathering place for neighborhood regulars, according to Mohammad.

“I get a lot of college students from UNCG, and also other people come here [specifically for the coffee shop],” says Mohammad. “It’s not really busy around this time [6:30 p.m.], but it gets busy around eight or nine. They come here to smoke.” I have a romantic vision of people from other cultures, plus a few daring local hipsters, smoking hookahs while animatedly discussing eastern philosophy and foreign affairs late into the night. Sadly, it’s a vision that I’m afraid won’t be realized in the flesh before press time.

Mohammad informs me that operating hours on the door are left over from the previous business, thus explaining my first, unsuccessful attempt to make contact with the operators and patrons of the establishment on a Monday morning. The shop is actually open from six to midnight, she says, though two late-evening sojourns in search of customers to interview for this article come up empty-handed.

D’s doesn’t have live music, says Mohammad, but in the past they’ve had belly dancers, including Patika Starr, well-known in Greensboro for her fire dancing performances.

“I just hope it gets busier than it is right now,” says Mohammad, as the shadows of the late-afternoon sun begin to descend across the vegetation-enshrouded ruins of the former textile mill across the street. “I’m trying to do some changes. If it gets really busy, I’ll bring some food, or sandwiches or stuff like that.”

(Mohammad later tells me that she closes early on Mondays and Tuesdays. When I go by there late on a Saturday night the shop is open with several customers inside, most of whom are, indeed, puffing on hookahs. I don’t have the time to interview anyone, unfortunately, because I’m on my way to a previously scheduled engagement.)