First, though, I must tell you that I love coffee shops! Sights, smells, sounds, flavor, and texture all come together to create an environment that welcomes almost anyone. Where else can you put an overstuffed electric-blue couch next to a pair of Danish modern leather chairs? What other place has smells of coffee, chocolate, cinammon, and cardamom floating freely for your nostril's delight? How many other eating establishments allow you to nestle down in big squishy, comfy, sofa while kicking your feet up on the table? I frequent coffee shops several times a week and I love to have meetings and appointments there because the atmosphere tends to disarm people much more than sitting in THE PASTOR'S OFFICE seems to do (ominous organ music crescendoes).
That's how I found myself sitting in a local coffee house several weeks ago, waiting for an appointment with someone. I arrived early and sat there nursing my coffee and watching the people around me.
A small group of police officers sat on the patio, lounging, laughing, but also lethal, in their vests, uniforms and guns. There is an air of readiness to police officers, their heads on swivels, constantly aware, ever vigilant. One of the officers is clearly ‘The Old Guy,’ shaved head, grizzled squint to his eyes, and clearly the center of attention from the other three. Two of the others have been cops for awhile, aware of their surroundings, confident and experienced, but comfortable. The last guy is plainly the new guy. In all the cop shows, he is ‘The Rookie,’ still possessing an eagerness and shininess that is noticeable to anyone who looks. The new-cop smell still hasn’t worn off yet. These guys have a long and ranging conversation, but no one sits anywhere near them.
A gaggle of large women come in, clearly secretaries or other anonymous office personnel. The three could be sisters, all pale and pudgy. Non-stop prattle emanates from them as they gossip about the other women at the office. I’m not sure who Susan is, but if they are right, then she probably shouldn’t be doing that with their boss. I don’t think these women like her very much. After getting their coffees and pastries, they move off to a table and sit together in a cloud of perfume and judgment.
Near their table is a pretty young co-ed, listening to her iPod and lackadaisically surfing the internet on her laptop. She looks very, very sad: the kind of sad where her eyes seemed to have tears ready, waiting for the slightest motivation to fall. I wonder what her story is, but I don’t ask. A young college age boy sits directly behind her, also surfing the web and listening to his iPod. Maybe if they both got out of their data-driven isolation cells, they might have something in common and maybe she wouldn’t be so sad.
Behind me are two men speaking in rapid fire Spanish. I catch snippets of family life and stories about their students. It sounds like they are both teachers. They have similar complaints to those of my English-speaking teacher friends.
Looking over, I see that the cops have left, only to be replaced by a young girl in her teens with hair a shade of red that doesn’t occur naturally. She sits next to her heavily pierced friend. Both girls are busily texting, but occasionally break their silence to comment to each other while pointing to something amusing on their phone. It appears that they are texting each other and at least one third party, but they don’t speak much to each other in person, just inside their electronic realm.
A large man in an even larger cowboy hat pulls up a footstool to sit and talk to an even larger man in a camouflage trucker’s hat. Cowboy Hat guy is wearing shorts and sandals, and looks like he could do some damage to a horse if he sat on it, so I’m pretty sure he really isn’t a cowboy. Cowboy Hat and Trucker Hat get into a heated discussion about politics, but take periodic breaks to glance over lasciviously at the sad young co-ed. They ignore the business man sitting next to them in a suit as he talks too loud and too fast on his cell phone, gesturing passionately as if the person on the other end of the line could see him. He keeps checking out the sad, pretty girl periodically too.
A black guy with shoulder length dreadlocks brings his bike inside and orders coffee. I think to myself wistfully that I wish I could pull off the dreadlock look. It just wouldn’t look nearly as cool on an overweight white guy as it does on a buff black dude. He looks around the room briefly, and then leaves with his coffee and bike.
All of these people come together in the same place, brought together by coffee. There’s little else to connect them otherwise.
I find myself saddened that each one sits alone, or only with those that are very much like them. In all this diversity, I can only find homogeny. I don’t want to surround myself with people who are exactly like me; who look, act, think, believe, and talk just like me. And.. I don’t want to be alone in a 2-dimensional, online world that exists outside of reality, either. I want to strike up a conversation with each of them, to find out their individual, poignant, funny, sad, and hopeful stories. I find myself wondering why someone would choose a gray existence of mirrored personalities over the rich tapestry of real people around them.
Life is real, and it is short. Let’s get out there and make it exciting. Let’s not just live lives in proximity to each other, but let’s actually live our lives side-by-side with each other. Let’s hold conversations with people who look strange to us (because we probably look weird to them). Let’s talk about our experiences, our beliefs, and our ideas, withholding judgment for a time, and seeking to find commonality and even growth by the exposure to thoughts we’ve never considered. If you’ve read this far, I dare you to go to the local coffee shop and strike up a conversation. Ask someone who looks interesting what their story is. Buy a cup of coffee for someone and find out what they believe. Say, “Hi,” and smile at those around you and ask them how their day is. Then, sit back and hold on tight as your horizons are broadened and your life gets far more interesting.