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Desert Companion

Zeit bites: Sense of place

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Joshua Ellis
Illustration by Brent Holmes
A series in which writers find meaning in specific locations around town

The glory of Roma

The nonartisanal allure of the last best place

Café Espresso Roma was not an upscale joint. In fact, it was literally underground, on the bottom floor of a submerged shopping center across from UNLV, next to a Kinko’s. The stairs that led down to it were constantly occupied by a repertory cast of teenage hoodlums, gutterpunks, tweakers and junkies and flamboyant lunatics. If you ran this gantlet of panhandling and cigarette-bumming, you would discover that the coffee inside was not artisanal. It was not lovingly crafted. It came out of a coffeepot or an espresso machine, and you bought it and drank it as you sat at the wobbly marble tables and hung out with your friends, which was the real point of Roma, as it has been the point of all great coffee shops since Edward Lloyd opened his in London in 1688.

If you’re a bohemian type of a certain age, Roma — and the Newsroom, the café that preceded it in the same space, and Copioh across the street and Enigma Downtown — were ground zero for Las Vegas’ tiny cultural and countercultural scene. The Killers played their first shows there (at the open mic I hosted, as a matter of fact). They were cheap and often grotty places where you might find a junkie passed out in the bathroom — or running the espresso machine, if we’re being perfectly honest — but they were also a home for those of us who wanted more than lounge acts and slot machines. When I moved to Vegas at the end of 1998, I was pulled into the strange attractor of Roma very quickly and stayed there until it closed in 2003, a victim of low revenue that did not reflect the real value of the place to all of us who fell in and out of love there, who started bands and wrote books and just congregated to smoke and drink coffee and talk about music and movies and politics and art and total nonsense.

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I don’t miss many places, but I still miss Roma, gone now these 14 years. It was my first best place in this city, and nothing has ever really taken its place for me, or for a lot of other people. Sometimes you don’t need a lovingly crafted coffee experience. Sometimes you just need a place to be, to chill and to congregate. Magic is not made in a carafe or a French press; it’s made in the spaces between people. And we made a lot of magic back then.

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