What Did We Do? (At the Coffee Shop)

Sometimes, the encounters we dread the most turn out to be easier than anticipated….with the right attitude.

Although a dubious honor, I have been deemed by some as the most impatient man in the world. (my wife crowned me with this honor, and her mother agreed so the winner of the prize was unanimously settled.  I even have a plaque with an inscription of my title on our mantle.) That being written, coffee shops are a terrific place for an impatient to man to become annoyed.  On the contrary, they can also be a place of comfort as well as being therapeutic if your stress is managed properly.  Now, being impatient in a coffee shop is almost as dreadful as being impatient in a Department of Motor Vehicle’s Outlet Store when tabs are going on sale for half price.  Therefore, one must generate the nerve to tolerate even the most simple of inconveniences.

Coffee shops offer a variety of reasons to squat or stand as patrons.  If you are a caffeine crackpot, you run in, run out, even if it means pushing aside a senior citizen or two while trying to successfully get to your car before you are ticketed for using a handicapped parking spot.   You may also get your breakfast in a convenient flash while ordering the Pastry a la Punctual.  This danish is always available (a.k.a., yesterday’s danish) therefore, you can receive it even before the sun comes up.  An additional attraction most coffee shops offer is free wi-fi and a safe, quiet, comfortable environment with which to work. Usually writing from my computer lab at home, I need a daily break from the dogs begging me to take them for a walk.  I need an hourly break from continuously entering the kitchen looking for a snack when writer’s blog block is bellyaching for food.  So, I pack up the computer and head for a coffee shop.  Basically, I need a break from taking breaks. Although I do order a drip coffee, I only take advantage of the latter of the attractions normally maintaining few distractions.

While entering one of the billions of coffee shops in Seattle, I find the last empty available table equipped to uncomfortably sit three.  Two tables directly to my right hold the same occupancy level and are comfortably occupied by one person each.  Perfect.  I order a cup of coffee and set up computer camp: backpack, laptop, notebook, pens and cellphone (for emergency purposes only).

Fifteen minutes pass and the words I am forming into complete sentences may be the beginning of a nice anecdote….and I believe the conclusion just walked through the door.  It is a man in his mid to late sixties, well dressed, probably successfully retired, and bored with laptop in tow.  The two strangers, let’s say in laptop stations one and two, also analyze the situation.  Collectively, we share a glance and read each others’ minds.  Which station will he choose to share?  Station one sits a young lady looking like she is probably armed with mace, although her broad shoulders tell me she wouldn’t require it with this new patron.  Station two holds a middle aged techno servant to the corporate Gods who doesn’t even smell the least bit friendly. Or,  Station three, me……a person making eye contact with a smile too often with strangers leading them to believe I am as harmless as they come.  Station one and two don’t even flinch.  They think I’m doomed, and they are correct.

Sure as Seattle has Starbucks, this gentleman asks me if he may share my table.  With a semi-phony smile, I say, “of course” and make ample room.  (Working on patience also breeds kindness.)  Indeed, there is plenty of room, but he strikes me as a man seeking conversation which is the very last thing I am seeking.  To convince him I’m busy, I began writing sentences making no sense at all just to keep him from saying or asking anything.  My fingers begin bouncing off the keyboard like tiny kangaroos in heat.  I can’t afford to pause, yawn, sneeze, cough or even clear my throat.  Feeling him staring at me searching for the right time to squeeze into my life makes me so self conscience I begin to sweat, and I know he can see the drips forming on my receding hairline like a Scottish army of nervous souls.  While fidgeting with his laptop, I flash a glance at him wondering if he knows the shop’s wi-fi password.  Certainly, I would offer it to him for no charge.  Again, working on my patience breeds kindness, but unfortunately, too much kindness.  If taken advantage of, kindness can manifest into anger.  Responding to my glance, he busts in with his first question: “What did we do without computers?”  Pompously grinning, Stations one and two knew I’d take the bait.  Since the question can be construed as rhetorical, I can take advantage of the option to ignore it, but don’t.   Rather than smiling and shaking my head in response with an incredulous “Duh, I don’t know” look on my face, I answer his question as though I could see it coming on the AARP express lane of rhetorical questions.  My thoughts weave concise statements of what it was like for me before computers.  “We played outside.  We played kick the can in our backyard. We had disorganized rock fights and rotten potato fights in neutral fighting fields.  We competed in wiffleball, baseball, and football in our yards, and played basketball at any park with a hoop.  We boxed and played hockey in our basement and ate dinner as a family.  We walked through wooded hills where hobos made their camps, and when forced to, we read books.  When one random trail in the hills grew tiresome or monotonous, we’d find a different one to blaze on the way to a seven eleven where they’d be giving away day old donuts.  We built tree forts, snow forts, walked throughout our neighborhood on Halloween and weren’t afraid the neighbors would poison us.  Ya know, that sort of stuff.”

I thought it provided a definitive answer to his fairly easy question. Chuckling, he adds, “Yes, those were the days.”  At that point, I believed the conversation began with his introduction, proceeded with my body of evidence convincing him there was life before computers, and ended with his conclusion.  Not so fast.  His eyes slide from mine to my shirt.  “Are you from Spokane?”  Ahhhhh!  I look down at the shirt I’m wearing and notice it is adorned with a caption reading, “Spokane Sasquatch”.  This is a college in Spokane and its mascot is the Sasquatch.  (I did grow up in Spokane and teach middle school there for upwards to fifteen years before moving to Seattle.  My wife thought the shirt would be  a nice gift and a friendly reminder for me to never return to Spokane unless they actually found a sasquatch roaming the hills I used to climb as a child.)  “Yeah.  I was born and raised there.”  That’s all it took.  Quickly, he proceeds, “I was born and raised their too!” Of COURSE, he was born and raised there as well!  This is perfect!  We will have so much to talk about!  We can share so many stories of our old crapping grounds.   Now, it is all Station one and two can do to keep from falling off their high chairs laughing at the uncivilized knucklehead from Spokane entertaining this man’s wish to commiserate.  Placing my normally impatient pistols down on the floor, I wave my white flag and surrender.  Very kindly, with terrific patience and a semi genuine grin, I respond, “What a coincidence.”  Growing up a few blocks from me, he remembers the hills we roamed as children.  He attended the same church as our family.   According to him, his father or his father’s best friend, both well respected physicians in Spokane, may have delivered me and another one of my siblings into this world.  Graduating from Gonzaga University in Spokane, he raised an eyebrow when I told him I graduated from Washington State University.  His raised eyebrow seemed more like an “I’m so sorry” than an “Oh, what an interesting school to choose, and what led you from Pullman to Seattle?”  You see, once you begin and accidentally encourage conversation with many people like this very kind man, the questions coming your way usually cease to exist.  Notoriously, this is when I begin twitching and feeling uncomfortable, because knowing then, I must find a way to put out the conversational fire before it gets out of hand or the coffee shop closes.  However, I find a way to relax and remembered moving to Seattle, thinking how very busy everyone seemed to be, making many of them extremely impatient and extraordinarily rude.  That could have rubbed off on me that very day.  It didn’t.

I didn’t fabricate a story of how my wife was 9 and a half months pregnant and I should probably get a move on to the delivery room.  I didn’t send a text to a friend, requesting he call in a bomb threat to our coffee shop of horrors.  Rather, I merely enjoyed listening to this man find pleasure in talking about his memories of a hometown revisited with a common stranger.  Before the shop closed, the gentleman and I shook hands, and he made his exit before I did.  Perhaps, he was tired of me asking so many questions when fully engaged.

Ultimately, I engaged in friendly fire, and not a soul was harmed.  It didn’t feel charitable, and I didn’t walk away thinking, “well, I’ve done my civic duty today.”  In fact, it turned out to be a pleasure.  Patience and kindness are virtues we almost, at times, try to avoid.  I’ve been guilty of it.  But, when you look upon such terms, try to recognize them as honorable traits instead of obstacles of displeasure.  I guess you could ultimately say, even when busy,”sometimes, ya gotta stop and smell the strangers.”




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