I was hunched over my laptop at Starbucks at the only table available – right next to the sugar/creamer/napkin stand. I’d been driven out of my house by another neighborhood power outage – third time this month – and while I appreciated the electric company’s many advance warnings (automated phone calls and a postcard in the mail: “There will be an outage on Tuesday from 8 am to 5 pm.”), nevertheless I did feel a tad resentful when I’d had to pack up that morning and head out in search of internet access – because I was doing so on a Monday, SoCal Electric! Monday!! Thanks for the warning, hey?! Job well done!!
By the time I’d made it to Starbucks, every seat was taken except for the one tiny square table I got. I lunged at the power outlet, jammed in my plug, and thus, my territory claimed and my laptop coupled with the rest of the world, I fired up, clicked on the mouse, and tuned out the proximal world.
When the tweaker came in and announced herself loudly to the room with nonsense words, and proceeded forward in jerks, I came back to the room. Her friend got her a coffee and handed it to her, and she jerked herself over to the creamer stand and proceeded to tear packet after packet of sugar in rapid succession. Rip, rip, rip, rip… I think twelve packets, meanwhile singing snatches of songs, jumping about, lurching forward and back, everything herky jerky, saying words and saying nothing. Loudly. Everything about her was aggressive, and every sensory function I had was focused on her.
Flash back to the early morning when I was 29 or so, eating my usual breakfast with my then-husband at the Duane Reade Coffee Shop in lower Manhattan before we went off to our respective law offices. As always, the background of our conversation was an irritable ongoing patter behind the register: “Whaddaya want whaddaya want whaddaya want come on come on come on” as the clutch of pre-work, well shod customers yipped their coffee orders and the men behind the counter grabbed the white paper cups with the iconic blue Greek motif , flooded coffee into them, shoved the cups under the creamer spouts, scooped sugar from an open tub, flinging the crystals like burning embers, pounded the lids on, grabbed paper bags and SNAPPED them open smartly. The cashier winged coins across the counter from the mound of change next to the register, which the customers swept up and pocketed as they grabbed up their bags. The countermen shouted out each order for unspoken confirmation as they whirled and poured and grabbed and flung: “coffee extra light,” “coffee black,” “scrambled egg on a ROLL to go,” “TWO coffees, one extra light extra sweet.” My husband and I referred the place as the “Sit Down, Eat Up, Pay Up, Get Out” Coffee Shop.
One day, there was a man in the booth behind me and he was arguing with his companion. The argument heated up, and the man started throwing himself around in his seat, which backed up to mine, causing my seat to jerk too. Then he started barking out his words, and suddenly he jumped out of his seat, yelling, and grabbed the metal coat rack that was bolted into the side of the booth divider, and ripped it right off. He was standing exactly beside me. Like if I moved my elbow I’d bump against him. The coat rack with its several big coat hooks lolled around in his hand.
The coffee shop went silent. Movement ceased. The customers were frozen. I locked eyes with my husband. Every muscle in my body was wood. Every sense I had was on the man; I listened and I watched with my whole being and I didn’t move and I didn’t look at him.
Neither sound nor movement came from the booth behind me – because, as it was clear now, the booth was empty.
Suddenly one of the angry countermen yelled, “You get out!” and kept yelling it, “Get out, get out, get out!”and he rushed out from behind the counter and ran straight at the coat hook man. He lunged for the metal rod with the wide hooks. He grabbed it, and gestured to the door. “Get out!” He pulled again.
The man let go, shambled out the door, shouting back over his shoulder. The counter man marched back behind the counter. The scene unlocked, everyone started moving again, and the rapid angry patter of “Whaddaya want whaddaya want whaddaya want” started up once more.
The tweaker was still singing – belting out a few song-like words, really, and she wasn’t moving away. She jittered where she was one way and another. Again I was that wooden statue, muscles burning, and I listened without listening and watched without watching. “Get out, get out, get out,” I thought.
The others in the place were pretending nothing was awry. They kept talking, the barristas kept pouring and steaming. The only attention on this girl seemed to be from me and from her soothing friend. He moved toward the pastry case. “Hey, you want a coffee cake?” he said. “You want something?” She kept jerking and talking loudly, belligerent nonsense. He bought the pastry, he walked toward her, holding it out; they moved away from me. She danced around a bit in the center of the floor and finally they made their way out the door.
“Whaddaya want, whaddaya want, whaddaya want,” I thought. I thought I’d like to feel 29 again. But not this way.