One of the things I missed most during the “lock down” days of the Covid-19 pandemic was working at my local coffee shop.
I’ve worked from a home office fulltime for four years now, and prior to that, often enough that I usually spent the first couple of hours each morning curled up in a favorite corner, fresh latte in hand, letting the hum of the espresso machine, the buzz of chatty baristas, and streaming music blend into the most perfect background noise for a morning of emailing, brainstorming or writing.
Said coffee shop has been back open for a long time now, but I’m just now finding my groove there again. Strange that something I missed so much became something I had trouble remembering to return to.
I woke up this morning knowing I was going to have trouble concentrating at home. Every single point of possible distraction was illuminated: laundry, a needy dog, dishes in the sink, landscaping I wish I had time for, even closet organizing, which I despise, seemed to be screaming, “Look at me! Look at me!”
I threw everything I needed to do my actual job in a bag and walked away.
I had just finished a muffin, was enjoying my first few sips of latte, and was wading through email when I noticed them – an older man, maybe early 70’s, white, hair neatly coiffed, dressed nicely but casually in jeans, tennis shoes and a tucked in gray tee, and a young man. The young man, shorter, slighter and with dark olive skin, was in a coat, and I quietly laughed — the temp hits 65 here in Kentucky on an August morning and people done with a long humid summer start dressing like it’s Thanksgiving.
The young man spoke, and I realized, through his garbled and halted speech that he was likely either a survivor of brain injury, or, he had a developmental challenge of some sort. He hollered a cheery hello to the baristas, and the older gentleman smiled, placed a gentle, but firm hand on the younger man’s shoulder and said, “Just two coffees, please.”
It took everything in me not to stare, because y’all, I was hooked. I desperately wanted to know things — who were they? Why were they together? What was the story?
Reluctantly, I returned to the tasks on my laptop screen.
And then, two minutes later, I heard, “Hello!” I looked up to see the younger man standing right next to me, his companion looking at me with what could only be described as a silent plea to be cool about this invasion of space and quiet.
“Hello!” he said again, louder this time. I smiled, closed the email I was working on and said, “Hey there.” He grinned — so big, y’all. And the older gentleman’s face relaxed and he offered a slight, grateful nod of his head in my direction.
The younger man asked me a question. I couldn’t understand him so I said, “Can you say that again?” He did, and I tried, but I just could not make it out. His companion saw my desperation and immediately came to my rescue, “He wants to know if you’re from Egypt.”
He wants to know if I am from Egypt?
I rolled with it.
“No, I’m not from Egypt.” The younger man looked disappointed, so I added, “I was born here. In the United States. In Arkansas.”
Y’all, you’d have thought I’d offered him a million dollars and a new pony to boot. He turned to his companion, a smile splitting his face and echoed, “Arkansas!” I laughed, out loud, and said “Yep, Arkansas.”
He turned right back around and told me something else, quite emphatically, and again I looked to the older gentleman for help.
“He wants you to know he is from Baghdad.”
“Baghdad!” I said, and my new friend nodded vigorously, as I added, “That is much further from here than Arkansas!” And he just cackled.
I guess maybe the older gentleman thought I needed to return to work, because he kindly and quietly redirected the younger man to a nearby table and their coffee. I watched them for a moment, hundreds of questions on the tip of my tongue, and then went back to my screen.
Ten minutes later, I heard a faint voice, that sounded like it was saying, “Bye!” but I was caught up in responding to a coworker. “BYE!” I heard it again, louder this time. I looked up and there was my friend, waving fiercely and the older gentleman just shaking his head in amusement.
“Hey! Bye,” I said, “have a good day, ok?” He nodded, and then reach out his fist for me to bump it. I obliged, but just as my fist was going to make contact with his, he grinned, quite devilishly, and jerked his fist back, smoothing it over his ear while managing what I think was a wink.
And I just laughed. And laughed some more as they walked away, the young man quite pleased with himself, and his companion chuckling, as his charge yelled, “Bye!” and waved at every single person on the way out.
And that, y’all, is why I work at coffee shops.
Because where else do you have a random conversation with a man from Baghdad who has trouble communicating vocally, but who did not hesitate to make connection with every person he saw.
Covid-19 has stolen such moments from us. So does social media. So does the fear of being shot. Our anxiety and fear and uncertainty about these days we are trying to survive sometimes causes us to make our world very small — circling up around ourselves the people and things we know for certain.
But this morning, my world got a little bigger. Because I know that somewhere in it is a young man from Iraq who thought I was worth talking to this morning. And I hope he has the best day.