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Monday, August 1, 2011

Conversations from a D.C. Coffeeshop

(pulsd.com, 2011)
How does a wonk survive in the Big Beltway?  In the evenings it's MSNBC, The Guardian, Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight, more You Tube, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Craig Ferguson, Ted, National Geographic, Time Magazine , Esquire, Mother Jones, Democratic Underground, News Max (know the enemy; however, be prepared for your head to explode), emails from Barack Obama's latent internet army, Karl Rove's tweets, thousands of other tweets, updates from museums around the world, a little light white paper reading, check in with my NASA pals, The Economist, Media Matters and NPRCurrent TV, CSPAN, and all the rest are peppered through the week and I guess what I'm saying is that Sarah Palin should have answered the question.  You are what you read.

If you get to hang out in D.C. Coffeeshops, you are what you drink as well.  Me? My favorite soothing beverage, warm apple juice with caramel. And yes, I can order that in a coffee shop because this is not just a coffee shop.  I mean, not like your average coffee shop.  This is Starbucks. And I've been a regular from Maui to Maryland.

In LA you'll see promising writers and giggling shopping girls who pout when they are asked to leave their purse dogs outside.  In NY, no one is talking to anyone else 'cause they are deep in their electronic devices, suspicious of the too friendly or too chatty.  In Maui they are slow and annoyed if you rush them.  And surprising places, like towns in Colorado, you see hippies mingling with matrons. 

Yet, as I keep saying, today this is not just a coffee shop.  Each community has made it their own.  They've added games, or the chance to read Howard Schurtz's book Onward: How Starbucks Fought For Its Life Without Losing Its Soul, with extra store copies lying around. This is your neighborhood coffee shop.

In case you haven't been in one lately, (and I have more than one Union Organizer friend not thrilled with the non-union status of their employees) they are still pretty great.  I always say their 'employees have health plans' blah blah blah. I'm pro-union, but don't mess with my caffeine.  My very ethically sourced caffeine.

(pittsburghhotplate.com, 2011)
This is Starbucks and in each and every one I happen to sit in, maybe craft some jewelry, or catch up on the tweets, there is always that crazy person.  The one that wants to talk too long about something you never thought you would want to know about and now are sure you don't.  They seem so nice at first:
"How's your day?"or "Awfully hot out, huh?" or "Nice dress."
But then the next thing you know you are listening to a song they wrote.  A very long song.

So why go there?  They have most drinks ready for the regulars as they walk in.  Not a company policy, but a game most employees play with themselves to keep interested in the gig. In this D.C. bedroom community coffee shop, it's no different. 

There's this nice hum, someone comes in, orders, makes a joke, and leaves.  Someone says something about the oppressive heat and jokes about 'how nice it must be to work at Starbucks and be inside all day, ha ha ha', "I have to wear a suit, ha ha", "have a nice day" "see you later" etc. etc.  There's usually a shorter guy who seems to be waiting for his drink to cool, but not quite ready to go back outside and he hangs around a bit and seems a little awkward.

(Stuart Isett for The New York Times, 2008)
And even here in the beltway there are those giggly skinny skirted nonfat young ladies who think coffee is fun and use their 180 second wait time to catch up on relationships ala, "So I said, Oh Yeah?!  Whatya gonna do, take your SATs in Europe?"  The young and the gigglies are a staple at Starbucks, the banter just changes a bit the closer you get to the beltway.  Sometimes it's in Japanese, or Swedish.

There are people meeting up to make last minute adjustments to an about-to-be-launched website exclusively interested in bringing to life Azbekistan artifacts through animations, a new take on a dusty museum's contents. Pretty images but not enough to keep my attention.

(Sound Off Starbucks, 2010)
There is always someone interviewing someone for a job and there is usually a table with a Born Again person speaking to the more recently Born Again about what God really meant about this or that.

Lately, there's been this 'Arabic Guy.' Very business like.  (Editor's Note: I call him 'Arabic guy' because he was only speaking Arabic and for no other reason.)  It turns out he's one of those people who use the largest of tables all day as a makeshift office.  He would have meetings throughout the day.  Each arrival also only spoke Arabic, and one man after another would come in for coffee and to argue with the 'Arabic Guy,' politely excuse themselves, and then the next would be beckoned in by the ad hoc Arabic butler sitting at a smaller table who jumped up when signaled to.  Are they planning their next attack, or just business men who've lost their office?  Hard to say.

One recent heat wave of a day, we found ourselves, sharing the big table, the Arabic Man and I.  He with his meetings, me with my beading, and no real sound accept for me occasionally singing along to the Starbucks soundtrack of the day.  O.K., maybe a little more than occasionally.  We were all sharing A.C. so no one could really complain.

Now no matter what Starbucks you go into, anywhere, if you hang out over the course of a week, you eventually meet one of them.  They are what I call the coffee crazies, and D.C. is no different.  You just get your own grade class of vagrants.  Those in button down shirts with pockets, with a large volumous tome in front of them from which they are taking notes.  And they turn and focus their gaze.  Oh no, please, I'm just making jewelry, I'm not looking for, no, er
"Hi, yes, nice to meet you, yes, thank you, I love making jewelry, its therapeutic, yes, I've traveled all over the world shopping for these pieces, yes, oh, you're Vietnamese, Nice to meet you.  Yes, Cam on.  No, I don't speak much more Vietnamese, I'm sorry but.  Oh?  Really?  You've developed a matrix of how to teach Vietnamese and wrote a book about it that got swept away in Katrina?  Really?  No, need to show me, ah, a napkin, yes, I suppose you could draw a chart on that.  Yes, I see.  Fascinating."
Now remember that on this particular day I had been sharing the large table with the Arabic guy for awhile now.  He'd been a foot away from me, fuming about sharing the table with me, but not saying anything.  When a bead would roll his way he would just put it back with my things, not speaking.  And now here was this man, apparently who had been a prisoner of a Vietnam prison for 8 years, and voted for Bush, and right this minute, with the urgency of a CIA movie, he had to explain to me the matrix of Vietnamese, TO ME, and share the wisdom of the origin of words themselves and is doing all of this standing over both I and the Arabic man from across the way. So this guy is standing over us saying how Ba and Ba with a different sound show you the connection between the word father and what was it? neighbor? and how if we taught words according to this matrix instead of just all the words at one time, like you do to a child or to learn English that it would teach us so much about, that's where I lost him, and the Arabic guy just couldn't take it anymore and started coughing, loudly, and sort of puffing up his chest at the same time.  He wouldn't tell me he was annoyed at sharing the table and he sure as heck wasn't going to tell this elderly Vietnamese prison camp veteran that he had not shared his views on Bush or that his presence over both of us was, to say the least, odd.  No he just huffed and cleared his throat and at some point the birdlike physical messages were received and the Vietnamese man went back to his table and kept talking to me.

I didn't have the heart to keep sort of yelling that I couldn't hear him that well from all the way over there, with the occasional grinder noise or frapaccino blender going...so I just said, 'ah huh', and 'really?' once in awhile until he packed up his notes and his very big book and left with a ton of bows on the way.

The beltway has it's very own brand of coffee crazies.  And those of us who spend many a day on a tab or a tablet or an iPad or a phone, or laptop, or sometimes even stop to write a letter, we sort of bond after an incident like that.  Every one sees it.  They can't stop it.  They can't  help but overhear it.  And afterwards you know you've been touched by humanity.  And all the other patrons know too.  They see you.

The next week I drove into that same lot, and towards that same Starbucks, and as I cornered the entrance looking for a space, the Arabic man was there and saw me coming.  By the time I was served my Venti Cafe Vanilla Frappaccino 2% Nowhip Not Lite upside down extra shot of love, the Arabic man had packed up his things at the large table and as he went to relocate outside he waved at the table and smiled at me.  He sat outside with his family, they were clearly sharing the break in the heat that had swept in after an earlier Thunder Storm.  It's the watering hole I guess his whole family uses too, 'cause they came and showed off the grandchildren as the light of the day started to fade.  This is our Starbucks.  Our collective melting pot of caramel and mocha and whole milk.  And now I didn't see the business man.  I saw the family man.

Now, maybe it's time to learn Arabic.

1 comment:

  1. As long as they're not singing a song to me about milk fountains, I think I can tolerate that person pretty well who wants to engage me for an extended period of time... Starbucks on Dupont Circle, we should... we just should....