Sunday Morning Hot Tea - No. 48
What I Saw When Spending Hours and Hours in a Coffee Shop
Welcome to Sunday Morning Hot Tea where I send you something to read each week. This week, taking notes while loitering in a coffee shop.
For awhile in the late twenty-teens (what do we even call the years between 2010 and 2019?), I was miserable. Just absolutely down-in-the-dumps, ready to drive my car into a highway median. I didn’t want to die, exactly, but I just wanted to shut it down for awhile, spend a little time laid up in a hospital bed, away from life.
I finished law school (whoopee) and passed the bar (huzzah), yet neither of these accomplishments magically solved all my problems. Shocking, right? I was in a relationship where I felt utterly alone. I worked a job I was good at and where I liked the people, but I didn’t feel particularly fulfilled. I hadn’t started doing comedy again. I was just sort of floating.
One of my only escapes was my notebook. It was an extra large black Moleskine with ruled pages. I don’t remember when I got it. The first few pages are nonsense, just bits and scraps of ideas and thoughts. The first real dated page is April 19, 2016.
I took that notebook and a Pilot Precise V5 in either blue, black, or pink ink if I was feeling wild, and sat at a Starbucks every morning from 7am until 7:55. When my time was up, I would head to work around the corner. I started at the Starbucks in Addison, Texas off Belt Line Road and the Dallas North Tollway. Then, when my office moved, I switched to the one at Preston Road and Alpha. On Fridays, I went to the Original Pancake House where I sat at the bar and had three gluten-free pancakes alone. I called it Pancake Friday. It was one of my most sacred joys.
Neither the restaurant or Starbucks themselves were important. They didn’t need to serve coffee or breakfast. They just needed to be anywhere but my home.
In those pages between the soft black covers, I didn’t usually write stuff like this — stories about my life or true stuff. Instead, I wrote fiction. I wrote suspense novellas and romance novels. I wrote ghost stories and love stories and disaster stories. I was out of my head for an hour a day, somewhere I desperately no longer wished to be.
Sitting in a Starbucks that often, I came across my fair share of characters. Real weirdos and oddballs. Two men with loosened ties, so early in the day, arguing about politics. A man in a work shirt with a name tag that read Freddy sketching the baristas’ faces on a store-copy of the Wall Street Journal. A frazzled lady in sweatpants and no shoes, leaving her car running to come in and grab her drink.
Mostly I would ignore them, but sometimes they were so disruptive or interesting, I just couldn’t. When that happened, I wrote about the strange people around me instead.
This particular morning I remember is cloudy and gray. I’m sitting in my usual table in this shotgun-style Starbucks. It’s the table furthest from the door. My back is to the window, my left arm so close to a rack of coffee mugs I could hit them, and I am facing the pick-up counter. I am wedged in my corner so I can either focus on my work or spy on everyone. The perfect spot.
It has been raining for several hours, but the man in the bright orange shirt sitting one table removed from me is wearing white-framed sunglasses indoors. His brown paper bag from Trader Joe’s is filled with paperback books.
Just a few minutes ago, he had placed his order, then headed back out into the rain to retrieve the load from the trunk of his enormous white Cadillac parked straddling the lines in the parking lot. I am impressed that the rain did nothing to his spiky, blonde hair. His skin looks impenetrable, either by water or anything else. It is as thick as the covers of the book he has retrieved from his car and just as weathered.
He is now standing beside his café table, facing the bar - the same direction as me. In a few seconds, I decide he is a weirdo and that I am going to watch his every move as a writing exercise. So engrossed in his own business, he has no idea, with my pen in my hand, I am taking notes on him.
He has started to remove each book from the bag in turn. Once out of the bag, he first removes the dust jackets of the few hardcovers, wiping their fabric covers with brown paper Starbucks napkins. After wiping them, he stacks each one on top of the last, careful not to knock over the single shot of espresso in the tiny white ceramic cup on the table. One by one, he separates yellowed magazines from the books.
“Tsk tsk,” he says at one book, as if it has been naughty and disappointed him. He resumes whistling a tune that falls in rhythm with the Billie Holiday song on the speakers above. But then, he deviates from the piped-in music's beat with his own offbeat snaps. Without warning, he has started whistling rapidly, repeating whistles that almost exactly match the tone and speed of the Starbucks food oven announcing another breakfast sandwich is done.
“Ecto spimadorium perfectum,” he says and slams a book down.
Jenna, a pretty brunette nurse in fuchsia scrubs, has been waiting at the café table beside him. When she realizes the unsettling behavior beside her, her body tenses up like water dropping on a paper straw wrapper.
“Jenna, I have your grande peppermint mocha,” the barista says. Jenna snatches it from the bar, looking over her shoulder to be sure the man in the orange shirt has stayed with his stack of books.
“Thanks,” she says. Before the word is over, she’s gone, out the door and into her Kia.
“You talk like my brother sometimes,” one barista says to another, pulling a shot from the espresso machine.
“I know!” cries the man in the orange shirt, answering an observation that was not directed at him. “Don’t mix us up!”
Over the scream of the steam, the burble of the espresso, and the voices of the drive-through employees, the baristas do not notice.
The books are now all removed from the paper sack and standing in three stacks on the small round café table. The man in the orange shirt pushes his white sunglasses up on his face further and sits down to go through each one, page by page. With the delicate way he handled them and the time he spent wiping off the covers, I figure they must be pretty valuable.
He makes it three pages in the first volume before he begins tearing pages from the first book, each tear on beat with the horns in “New York, New York,” which has begun playing above us. Ok, I guess I was wrong.
An older gentleman, about sixty years old, with red, tired skin and a mop of gray hair walks in. He is bent at the waist and walks head down, straight toward the pastry case.
“I want a piece of that coffee cake,” he says, pointing into the case. “Not an end piece.”
The barista at the register does not have the chance to say “Hello,” “Good morning,” or “I have poisoned all the pastries.”
The older man follows his head, bent at the waist, past the glass case toward the register where he orders a drink. Just as he starts to speak, the milk steamer goes off and I miss what he ordered. No matter, I can wait.
This man appears fairly normal from the waist down – wrinkled linen khakis and brown leather shoes with sensible socks. But he has topped off his outfit with a mint green sports coat, just as wrinkled as his pants. His white button down is split in the middle with a necktie. It has thick candy-cane stripes, alternating periwinkle and dark burgundy. His black-framed reading glasses are down low on his nose, which only cause his head to point down further as he looks over the top of the rims to see.
The older man turns and passes by the man in the orange shirt just as the latter is mid-page rip.
“Pardon me, sir,” the man in the orange shirt says.
My heart races. They’re going to talk.
“Yes?” the older man replies over the rim of his glasses.
“I just wanted to compliment you on your ensemble.”
“Thank you,” the older man says, unfurling his newspaper and settling down at the café table one removed from the man in the orange shirt.
“Are you a haberdasher?” the orange-shirted man asks. A fair question, given the ensemble. He could be a haberdasher or a farrier or a cobbler, whatever occupation he could get in the era from which he has time-traveled.
“No,” the older man says, without looking up. “And it’s quite unusual for me to be dressed this way.”
It is quite unusual for anyone to be dressed that way. Did he wake up, find some dirty khakis from the laundry bin then say, “Oh no, no clean sport coat. Better grab my trusty ol’ Kentucky Derby outfit instead”?
The man in the orange shirt is so impressed by the ensemble he has paused ripping the books.
“The combination of colors, that dark wine color on your tie. The mint jacket,” the man in the orange shirt says, trailing off. I expect him to do a chef’s kiss motion. He doesn’t. He just starts ripping pages again.
When the older man says, “Thank you,” I realize his voice sounds exactly like Charles Grodin. I smile and write that in my notebook.
“I just wanted to say top of the morning to you, and thank you for your fastidious approach to fashionability,” the man in the orange shirt says.
“Thank you,” Charles Grodin repeats. He presses his face down toward his newspaper. Soon, the barista calls out his order. It’s go-time. I am so excited to hear what this bizarre time traveler has ordered. I hold my pen at the ready.
“Venti non-fat latte for Ross,” she says.
Venti? Non-fat? Latte? For Ross? I desperately wanted to hear, “Earl Grey in a mug for Arthur” or “Extra hot Americano for Winston” or “Verona pour over for Clarence.” Anything but this.
Let’s be clear, I’m not hating on a non-fat latte. That’s fine. I am also not judging the fact that he got a venti. Some days are venti days for sure. But that coat calls for something whimsical and Ross - ugh, Ross - has let me down.
Ross ditches his newspaper and walks head-first toward the bar to get his drink. He returns and shuffles through the pages of the paper once more before leaving. He takes all sections with him and leaves behind only an advertisement for Sprouts Grocery Store. My illusion of him is wrecked. He’s not some eclectic haberdasher. He’s a doofus in an ice-cream colored jacket who doesn’t like vegetables.
“Thanks again,” Ross says to the man in the orange shirt.
By this point, Orange Shirt is intermittently snapping, flipping through an ancient Highlights for Children magazine, and conducting an invisible orchestra.
“You’re a modern inspiration,” Orange Shirt says to Ross’s back as he walks out.
They both were modern inspirations. Taking me out of my own head for awhile. Giving me a chance to track their every move. Two oddballs just feet away from the normal girl at the far table, eavesdropping on strangers, scribbling page after page in her notebook until the ink runs out. Just a couple of characters haunting this Starbucks, so early in the day.
Until next week, that’s the tea, and writing at the back table is where you used to find me.
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