I catch the wave of what could be in the mornings. Usually at a coffee shop, while I’m writing. I write at coffee shops as often as possible because they make me feel like I’m somewhere special in time. Surrounded by people doing their own special things. Working on spreadsheets for small businesses I’ll never know. Sketching. Pulling out notebooks and staring at the wall for long periods of time, then scribbling something. Having philosophical conversations. The scent of slightly burnt coffee beans hangs in the air and all of us feel at home. In our own worlds, yet part of a grander community. A community of coffee shop people.
I’m not trying to over-romanticize it. A lot of it has to do with the coffee itself. The caffeine, I mean. You sit there at a table with one wobbly leg while a woman with a three-legged black lab walks through the line, orders, leaves. Cold air rushes in when she opens the door. A bell dings. You take a couple sips of the hot, earthy liquid, and off goes your mind. Now you’re floating. Near the ceiling, mingling with the smoky coffee bean scent. You’re settling into your body again. No longer do you feel like a stranger. Suddenly, your life is full of possibilities. You could live in France, in Costa Rica, in Siberia, right now, if you were truly determined to make it work. It’s a matter of logistics…making a small change here, a bigger one here, quitting your job, yes, but that’s no problem, no problem at all, and viola, you’re living the life you’ve dreamed in some desirable foreign country. It’s achievable now. Hopefully this caffeine high will last all day. You’ve got a lot of planning to do.
A woman with dreadlocks strolls in with her daughter of maybe three or four. The daughter sprints straight down the middle of the coffee shop, stopping only when she catches a glimpse of you, sitting there with your headphones, listening to pretentious piano music and making vague plans about moving to Europe. These are the strange moments. She looks timid, so you wave and smile, trying to put her at ease. It works. She laughs and is off again, sprinting to the back of the room and leaping onto a black couch. Your good deed is done for the day. You’ve made a child feel like the world is a decent place to be, even if you’re not sure you believe that yourself.
Then there are the baristas. Everyone has their favorites, even if they’ve only ever spoken about the weather to them. It’s this limited interaction that allows you to concoct grand backstories for these people. They work in a coffee shop, so they must be interesting. Artists. Stoners. College students. Drunks. If you were ever to have a full conversation with one of them, all of these fantasies would schlep away like dead skin. Overexposure is the murderer of romance. So keep the baristas where they are: at a distance, behind the counter, moving to the command of the order sheet, concentrating on everything but you. Even as you consider their every motion, wondering what kind of beautiful works of art they must create when they’re at home. It’s all silly fantasy stuff – child-like, really – but you allow yourself to be taken by it, because life isn’t always about being rational. Escapism can be a salve. At least temporarily.
Sometimes you’re away from the coffee shop for a long period of time. When you return, the entire staff has changed, save maybe one of two people. Your favorites are always gone. And you can’t help but wonder where they went, which universities they’ve enrolled in, what countries they’re trekking across, what other coffee shop they now work at. Maybe on the other side of town, closer to home. Perhaps even (gasp) at a Starbucks. That green behemoth. Oh well. I’m sure they did whatever was best for them, and in the end, that’s all that really matters. For you, and for everyone else. We should always be doing what’s best for ourselves, at all times. But it doesn’t work like that. This world’s too full of ambiguity. And we, ourselves, are too many people, all with different motives, different goals. Different urges.
The group of five gray haired 60-something year old men is at it again. They’re somehow here every day you’re here, talking about philosophy and politics, roundtabling how they’d run the world differently if they were in charge. Some days, it’s endearing to know people still have time to do stuff like this – and not just in Europe, where we’d all like to be. Other days, these men get too loud, and your caffeine is wearing off, and through your headphones you hear them say words like “Heidegger” and “socialism” and “Trump,” and you think “Jesus Christ, if you really want to change the world, stop talking about it and do it.” Gabbing is for the birds. The other day one of the guys, the loud one with a German accent who always wears a thin gray t-shirt even in the dead of winter, arrived before the rest. He was sitting there, upright and stoic, sipping his coffee, while “Like a Rolling Stone” played quietly. When the chorus came around, the gray t-shirt man belted out “how does it feeeeeeeeel” in a baritone befitting of an opera. One time, just like that, then silence. A couple people looked at him. Some smiling, others grimacing. Then the guy went back to sipping coffee as Bob moved on to the next verse.
It’s time to leave. The wave has crested and broken. The guy sketching in a notebook across from you is gone. The little girl and her dreadlocked mother, gone. Your dreams of international living are abating. The glow still remains but it’s subdued now, smooth and steady, flat as a pond. Pack your laptop into your bookbag and make your way out the door, into the cold. It’d be nice if one of the baristas glanced up as you were leaving, gave you a friendly goodbye. It wouldn’t even have to be one of your favorites. Just any old one. But it doesn’t happen. The line has gotten too long. They’re too busy. You’re too busy, too. Outside the door, all of life’s harsh realities await. You can’t float forever. But it’s good to do it every once and awhile. If only to remind yourself that there’s a ground to return to.
I drummed up a little contest for the two adults in the car. I grabbed a tin of Mr. Planters cocktail peanuts from the passenger seat. Placed a single nut in my mouth.
And all of a sudden my dead grandpa and I were walking side-by-side down a desert highway.
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