Sunday, November 28, 2010

Love in a Coffee Shop (1/4)

Have you ever formed homicidal thoughts while sipping that dark roast panacea at Starbucks? Me neither, I guess. I do get conflicting thoughts about the human condition, however, as I sit there gazing at the cappuccino freaks, espresso geeks, and caffeine fiends lining up to nudge their snout in the trough. I alternately feel like Dr. Albert Hoffmann on a bike and Mr. Kurtz at the innermost station. In one moment I’m bedazzled by the kaleidoscope of absurd, featherless biped mammals who parade before me indulging in the latest office gossip. In the next minute I’m a deranged Marlon Brando wanting to decorate my sanctuary with their dangling, rotting corpses. It must be something in my drink.

At other times I fancy myself a safari hunter espying the wildebeests, rhinos, and zebras at the waterhole. Take for example the snooty, handsome, middle-aged woman in the pantsuit eyeballing the young barista, barely concealing an austere face with an obligatory and condescending smile, and making sure the poor girl does not deviate from the specific instructions regarding her caffeine beverage—all the while, I might add, conspicuously glancing at her watch. “No, no, no, sweetheart. I said I wanted only one extra shot and skim milk with just a splash of sugar-free vanilla syrup, not two shots and 2%. And I wanted a Grande in a Venti cup. Obviously I don’t want room for cream. I don’t understand what’s so difficult here, sweetie!”

Then there’s the small group of men and women who commandeer the sofa chairs to hold their human resources conference session and brainstorm ways to make this year’s corporate party a bigger smash. How about the geezer patrol who take about an hour to order their drinks? Did I mention the weird hirsute fellow sporting eighties-style turquoise-colored parachute pants? He always looks like pain incarnate, but pain incarnate with a unibrow and an unpleasant squint. Trust me, you don’t want to watch him scarf down his oatmeal muffin in wild abandon. Comparatively, it would make a naked AARP convention, our aforementioned geezer patrol perhaps, seem like a pleasant experience. And yet I can’t look away.

Why must employers of one stripe or another ruin my bliss and decide to interview applicants always at a table next to me? I find it quite distracting. Hapless job seekers squirm in answering the inevitable “strengths and weaknesses” question, or variations thereof. Interviewers word it differently but it amounts to the same thing: What are some areas that you find challenging, Bill?  Tell me, Johann, could you share with me some of your life goals and how they might not have been conducive for the work place? These interviewers might as well ask what’s really on their mind, because they’re not going to get a straight answer anyway. Say, Mr. Thomas, are you by chance a whack job? How about an anti-social, high-maintenance prima donna who lacks motivation, a work ethic, and the ability to work well with others? Can you please give us a reason to cross you off our list, because we already have the position filled by the CEO’s son-in-law and we’re just going through the motions for the sake of something philistines call the “law”?

And the answers are always variations on a theme as well, for each applicant, of course, speaks not truthfully, but strategically. I heard someone applying for a bank job answer thus: “Weakness?  I suppose I’m a workaholic and overly zealous in my loyalty to management. It’s kind of weird actually.” Even an obtuse interviewer can pick up on this BS, no? I always figured that I’d just say something unexpected, yet not too outlandish. “What are my weaknesses, you ask Mr. Bank Manager Guy? I’m a selfish person.” Use honesty, offer some introspection, get mildly spiritual, and throw them off guard. Unless it’s the owner of the business, though, they won’t care.

These business-types are such revolting creatures. If I were in an ornery mood and sensed the interview was leading nowhere, I’d like to think that I’d say something like, “Weakness? I really don’t like to talk about it since going off the medication, but I do have a tendency to fall in love with interviewers; they’re like an aphrodisiac that only intensifies when I’m literally wearing their skin in my backyard shed. It’s kind of weird actually. Anyway, you were saying about the accountant position?”

Finally, in this coffeehouse catalogue of horrors, there’s the soccer mom or effeminate guy in a sweater (or just about anyone) who can’t seem to sit still without gluing her Blackberry to the ear. How blessed I am to be privy to this woman’s conversations, in all its minutiae, whether I want to be or not. Why should I finish off my Orhan Pamuk novel when I can learn about her sister’s pituitary gland or the fun she had in spraying various shower gels on her arms and face at Bath & Body Works? I also assume that she was trying to break a Guinness world record on the number of words she could stuff into a ten-minute phone conversation. Once in a while she would start whispering loudly, evidently about something she construed to be more personal, like Jerrold’s internet porn addiction. As her non-mellifluous voice resonated throughout the coffee shop, all I could think about was whether Jare-Bear was her son or husband.

If I were to draw up a sketch of this place, it would depict darkened figures and triangular faces with tortured, Munch-like expressions, awash in bluish-grey hues. The caption would read: Dante’s Tenth Circle of Hell: Coffee Shop Patrons.

Stone drunk at a house party, I was once shared with my friend Dan a theory about this strange place, and I’ll try to remember it here, minus the slurred speech and scatological interjections. The ubiquitous Starbucks’ logo has in a way replaced the double arches as the cultural symbol of the American imperium. More fundamentally, the coffee franchise has become the priestly tent wherein the central rite of our secular religion takes place. To the propitious gods of materialism, prosperity, success, debt, and good intentions we pour libations over the altar, the barista counter, and make our sacrifices. We utter our Italic mantras: Venti, Grande, Espresso in nomine sanctu pecuniae. I bring forth tears of joy just thinking about it.

What are we sacrificing? We’re offering up our self-cognizance and historical perspective, liberals and conservatives alike, and thereby gaining smug insularity or jingoistic self-righteousness. The heavenly aroma seals our communal solidarity. I confess that I’ve had more time to refine my theory, but sometimes the original genius can only come when you’re jumping into the next-door-neighbor’s pool in a makeshift cowboy outfit.

I am exempt of course from these morose musings, for I am the Enlightened One traversing the narrow road. You might conclude that I’m a caffeine addict like the rest of them; instead, I’m more like a bodhisattva who has temporarily relinquished paradise to bring other souls along the path. That’s not entirely true. Actually, I fell asleep in the sofa chair again and, in a new version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, have awakened as another benumbed automaton of contemporary bourgeois culture in America. True, it’s easy to be melancholic, negative, critical and cynical. I have in fact mastered these disciplines. But it’s coffee beans, “free trade” naturally, that have seduced me, and not a large seedpod forming an alien version of me.

I have often practiced the black art of caffeinomancy, awaiting some epiphany, some kind of transcendent guidance in each gulp. Alas! Those beans—handpicked by the poor Colombian peasant woman whose hut was destroyed by FARC or the Rwandan banana-peddler whose family was slaughtered over a decade ago—give me only a nervous twitch and high blood pressure. Sometimes they cause me to hallucinate. For example, as I watched the girl plop the mocha syrup into the innocent cup, I swear I actually saw drops of blood from a staggering U.S. marine fall onto the dirt road between Jalalabad and the Khyber Pass after a pressure point IED took out his Humvee.

Wow!  Where it did that come from?  I think I'm still chewing on some of the work I've been doing for a foreign policy news magazine.  Let me just finish my thought.

In those rare moments of moral clarity I damn Starbucks. I curse its five-dollar coffee, its pastry poisons, and the morally complacent middle-class environment that it enables. Perhaps customers will die of cancer from their cell phones or of high blood pressure from their red-eye mochas. Such hopes give only small consolation. I guess I lied about homicidal thoughts. Barista, pour me another cup and set sail this lost soul on a sea of dark brown oblivion before I contemplate the sweet release of death.  Sorry.  I have a strange tendency to get morbid when I'm actually feeling happy about life, and vice-versa.

Truth be told, the real reason why I decided to put off self-slaughter and the netherworld is because of what happened the other evening, December 16 to be exact. If we’re going for precision, let’s say from about 8 to 9:37ish pm. That’s when I talked from the heart with Kate. I shared with her, well, what I had been thinking for weeks, possibly months.

It was at Hazel’s, a coffeehouse I have been frequenting this past year, located across the street from the university administration building. We had been meeting there throughout the semester. In truth, we hadn’t really been “meeting,” but sort of coexisting there, or doing our own thing there independently, but together. It’s hard to explain.

I’d be buried in my book and she’d be working on her laptop. We hadn’t really been communicating with each other, at least beyond an occasional “Hi” or “Are you in line?” or “Oh, are you using this chair?” Eventually we graduated to “Could you watch my stuff while I go to the loo?” But these intermittent exchanges of pleasantries eventually, gradually, wonderfully, transformed into something more meaningful, at least for me. I’ll explain this happy (and complicated) development in due time. Right now, to be honest, I’m simply ecstatic about that December evening. Pardon my euphoria. As a relatively self-cognizant person of a melancholy disposition, I realize it won’t last, but let me enjoy it for now.

It all started many weeks earliertwelve and a half, actuallywhen we both went up to the condiment counter, me with my mocha, and she with her soymilk latte. You’d think this would have happened earlier. We both reached for the yellow packet of sweetener and chuckled.

“Hi, my name’s Kate by the way.” She smiled. “It looks like we have the same schedule more or less, huh?”

“Hi.” I extended my hand and instantly felt foolish beyond belief for doing so. My friend Dan got endless mileage out of this one when I told him about it later. Good evening, ma’am, he mocked, with a stiff manner and in a curt business-like tone. He then started to strut around his townhouse like a Prussian officer.

I told her my name and added, “This is fun, isn’t it? It’s like arts and crafts, putting together our coffee. Here, you want the yellow one? I’ll take one myself, plus a blue and pink packet. Now I take the stir stick and blend all the colors together!”

“I know, right! That’s funny. I think that way too.”

“But I take it quite seriously. Sure, to the untrained eye I’m simply over-sweetening my beverage. To the esoteric initiates—and I’m sure you’re one of them—I’m creating world harmony and celebrating the racial rainbow of the world.”

I made her laugh. That’s a good thing. That's a real good thing.  When I get nervous I immediately kick into a silly mode and start quipping inanities, and it’s a hit and miss as to whether anyone gets it or not. But that’s largely beside the point in a way, because I’m usually just aiming to amuse myself. I’m also not immune from feeling my way towards a punch line heedless of propriety. I confess, though, that I wanted to make a good impression.

Afterwards I reflected on her positive reaction to my shenanigans. Had she been weirded out (and I guess I wouldn’t have blamed her), it would have all been over. Honestly, despite our earlier non-consequential exchanges, it wasn’t until now that I thought of her as the mother of my children. Not really. I said that for dramatic effect. But for some reason I felt drawn to her. Dan would say, Duh. She’s a hottie! I’m not sure that explains it, not entirely. So, I decided to capitalize on this success by serving up a more delicately refined witticism, something urbane that would evince some intelligence and cultural literacy, lest she think I’m just a Dufus McSnort. I had the perfect rejoinder and was about to utter it when…

“Excuse me!” came a nasally voice. It was Unibrow interposing himself and grabbing greedily for a napkin and cinnamon shaker, spilling crumbs everywhere. What is this demon-spawn doing here? When the barista called out his drink from the counter, he brushed us aside and yelled obnoxiously, “That’s mine! That’s mine!” This spectacle was enough to ruin the moment. Kate was walking out the door, but not before our eyes met as if to say, This guy’s a nut job, huh?

I hadn’t seen her for almost a week thereafter, not that I had been looking. One time she was getting in her car as I was pulling into the lot. I already knew she drives a royal blue Volkswagen Jetta, nice but not too flashy. It’s not like I’m stalking her, but I do feel bad for overturning one of her potted plants as I was maneuvering for a better view into her window from the back patio. No, I’m just kidding! Fortunately we talked at more length on Tuesday, the day that she stays over an hour to plunk around on her laptopnot that I notice such things.

“Kate, right?” I ventured, as I passed her on my way to order a coffee at the counter. Not wanting to seem like an indulgent slob, I ordered—horror of horrors—just a regular coffee. She lifted her head up from her computer and gave a flustered, but cute, look.

Aware of her facial expression, she explained, “Sorry. I’m just…”

“No, that’s okay.” I was hoping she would say my name back, but no such luck.

“I didn’t get the grade I was expecting for my paper.”


“This instructor says I overuse the passive voice. I don’t even know what the passive voice is! He even took off points for stylistic issues! Can you believe that?” She shot me an incredulous look that soon melted into self-consciousness. “Oh, I’m sorry, enjoy your coffee.”

“Well, I don’t know if I can now, frankly.” She chuckled.

Her chuckling emboldened me to continue.  “I am shocked by that. Yikes, passive voice. That shocks me, I should say,” I said with a grin, proud of my off-the-cuff quip, albeit too subtle for her to appreciate. “So that’s what you do on your laptop? You’re taking classes. How cool!” Did this statement make me sound like I stare at her all the time?

“Yeah, I guess I’m not the most social person in the world. Always got my nose in my course textbooks or stressing over work for my job. Hey, you seem like you’re smart. Can you tell me what this means?” She slid her Dell laptop around to face me. She wanted me to decipher comments for her and no doubt agree that the instructor is either a buffoon or miscreant—my words, not hers.

“Let’s see here,” I said, looking into the screen and stroking my goatee. “You mind?” I gestured to the chair.


“Something, something about something,” I muttered, feigning heavy concentration in a comically pedantic manner.

“Stupid or what?”

“He’s alleging that you did not sufficiently provide analysis but simply summarized the contents of the book.”

“But I did! That’s stupid, don’t you think?”

“Yes, indeed. You got a C+? Rubbish. This is…well, let me scroll down to your concluding paragraph….uh huh…okay…indeed…I see.  Hmmm.  Dotted ‘i’s, crossed ‘t’s…yes…clarity of expression…active voice…good. This is an A paper, as far as I’m concerned.” Kate nodded her head in jocular approval.  “But seriously, you should talk to the instructor about this grade. Explain your case.”

“Yeah? I don’t want him to think…”

“No, you should. Definitely. So what’s your major anyway?”

“That’s a long story. But I won’t bore you….” She paused but sensed I wasn’t going anywhere. “Okay, so I started out as a sociology major, and realized there’s no jobs in that field; but then I thought I’d eventually go to graduate school and teach at a university, so I transferred to literature. I know. The same problem. I guess I didn’t really know what I wanted. Anyway, I now do HR for a non-profit organization here in San Cappiola, but I’m trying to get a degree in organizational management. I’m a business major, basically.”

Business. Hmm. I don’t want to give the impression that I wasn’t paying attention, but, being a multi-tasker extraordinaire, I also couldn’t help but admire the powder blue shirt and lavender sweater she was wearing. She got up for a moment to get a napkin and I watched her backside, but not in a sexual manner. Honest. She looked so good, in a natty, handsome way. When she walked, for that matter, she moved her body with a sort of regal gait—not arrogant but almost prissy and self-assured.

Her cell phone “rang” with the opening to Abba’s “Dancing Queen.” “Shit, sorry, I’ll get it!” She smiled nervously. By the time she dug the phone out of her purse the vocals were kicking in: Oooh, you can dance, you can jive... I shook my shoulders, as if to say, Don’t worry about it. I’m fine.

Even the way she said shit was cute. Do you know how awkward it is to sit there, barely knowing a person, while the person, especially an attractive member of the opposite sex, is talking on the phone. Should I get up and leave? Should I pull out my book and read? I felt like Dufus again.

“Well, I gotta go. Shit.” She glanced at her watch. “Let’s definitely talk next time.”