An inconspicuous little café sandwiched between a British-themed pub and a family-style deli on Main Street, Hyannis, Massachusetts, is not where I expected a cult to set up shop. Alas. The Common Ground Café really doesn’t look cult-y at all from the outside. It’s got these big fixed windows and planters underneath them with modest petunias; perfectly boring. The exterior does surprise me, though, because I generally don’t think of cults as caring about letting in loads of natural light. Once you get inside, and it’s a whole different ball game.
The entire thing looked as though it was designed by the same person who animated the tavern scene in Beauty and the Beast, exclusively wooden and lit in such a way that everything was a wash of lots of colors that could be classified as ochre or burnt umber or whatever. It felt like I was inside of a tree like a goddamn Keebler elf. The whole place was made up of nooks and crannies and platforms and the whole time I was just thinking, wow, this is incredibly wheelchair inaccessible. It smelled like something I’ve never smelled before that moment, and have not smelled since. It might’ve been the smell of my own fear radiating from my body.
“Hello, welcome,” a man with incredibly long hair wearing an entirely beige linen get-up said. He led us, a party of three, through this woodland hollow to a set of stairs that looked like they could snap at any moment. This restaurant’s dining area also spans two floors. There are a lot of tables. So much room for potential new cult members—I mean, hungry restaurant goers.
“Your waitress, Esther, will be right with you,” said the man who looked like linen-clad stoner Jesus. When my friends and I went to pick up the menu, we saw something tucked behind the napkin dispenser, partially concealed by salt and pepper shakers. I picked it up and read it. “TWELVE TRIBES FREEPAPER: A BRAND NEW CULTURE.” It was then and there that I realized we were in a restaurant owned and operated by a cult. It was then and there that I started texting my mom what may very well have been my last words to her.
Esther came around. She was smiling. She was kind of dead behind the eyes, but she was smiling nonetheless. “Hello, welcome, I’m Esther, and I’m your waitress today. I see you found one of our freepapers!”
I tried to sneakily stuff it into my bag. “Oh, yeah, I reached for a napkin and grabbed this instead.” Esther didn’t stop smiling but she did not find that comment funny.
The menu was formatted weirdly. Instead of your standard “BLT..…………..$1.75,” with a bunch of periods spanning the full length of one line on the menu, each item only had a single ellipse after it, and then a really long, awkward space. “BLT… $5.75.”
“I bet there’s human in that BLT,” I whispered to my friends. That scared them a little. I decided on a GRILLED CHEESE… and it was fine. It came with potato chips. While I ate my just-fine GRILLED CHEESE… I took out my phone and googled where the hell I was. It has a lot of Yelp reviews. Many of them are not good. Turns out, the restaurant is owned by a ‘community’ called the Twelve Tribes whose purpose is “to put an end to the cancer of selfishness that is destroying the human race” (their words). We got the check as fast as possible.
On my way out, I grabbed six freepapers. I read them on the car ride back to Boston, intermittently yelling at my friends from the backseat particularly terrifying sentiments expressed in these pamphlets. I was utterly fascinated. There was one that was called “A Charge to the Youth,” that included such gems as “we are living in the last days of human history.”
A few days later, I brought the freepapers to a party because I immediately recognized the potential for this to be my best party story, and we noticed they had a phone number. We called them. Talked for an hour. I was “Beth.” It felt right. But that’s a story for another day.