William S. Burroughs has never been to Nova Express Cafe, titled after one of his cut-up novels, but he'd probably enjoy himself there.
Not that there are any narcotics around, or even any alcohol, as Burroughs would have sought in life and fiction, but a cup of ginseng tea can be quite the restorative.
The environment is pleasantly diverse, unlike the generic coffeehouse. "Every coffeehouse, they go and buy thrift store stuff and it's a coffeehouse," says Argentine Judith Keter, who owns the place with her husband, Cary Long, who hails from Bakersfield. Instead of the usual battered chairs and bad paintings, Nova Express is a deft and whimsical theme park, showcasing Long's own work. "I thought this would be a democratic way of displaying my art," he says. "Anybody who can afford a cup of coffee can see it."
A huge green dragon looms out of one wall, like something that belongs in a Flash Gordon movie. "It's a fragment of some alien architecture," Long says. "I used some leftover garden hose, two screen doors, and a couple of buckets of plaster. The building inspectors didn't quite know what to make of it."
The rest of the place is equally bizarre, with little pockets of Orientalism abutting Mayan-inspired alcoves. There are Lava lamps, cow skulls and wall sculptures that look like big furry anemones.
"I'm a big fan of fantasy architecture, like the doughnut shop in the shape of a doughnut," says Long, "I've tried to make the place with these little fantasy zones, depending on your mood."
"We wanted to set up a place away from the heaviness of the bars," says Keter. "In Buenos Aires, you live in cafes. In New York and San Francisco, too. We wanted to do that here."
And people here do seem to be engrossed in conversation, or a good book. For the lonely or aloof, there's a formidable rack of sci-fi paperbacks and magazines like Smithsonian, National Geographic and Omni. Late at night--or early in the morning--Nova Express becomes a scene of sorts, though it's never exactly trendy, and you won't feel like an idiot here if you're over 30.
Artist Richard Stein likes to come late at night with his girlfriend. He knows Cary from way back. "He's a hick from Bakersfield, he played high school football, did a lot of running around and ended up in a Buddhist monastery. I met him in art school in Berkeley," Stein says.
He points out a Long creation, a table inlaid with real scorpions encased in Lucite. "His art is very sincere, it's real. . . . It's post-hippie-Bakersfield funk."
At midnight on a Thursday, things haven't quite heated up yet. "We have a D. J. coming at 5 a.m.," Keter offers. In the meantime, you can pick up another ginseng tea at the bar and get cozy with your sweetie--or a dog-eared copy of "Day of the Triffids."
Where: Nova Express Cafe, 426 N. Fairfax, (213) 658-7533.
When: 5 p.m. to 4 a.m. nightly (though frequently open until 6 a.m.)
Cost: Cappuccino, $2.25. Ginseng tea, $2.