Coffee Spills

What I hear and see and think about at the coffee shops I patronize.
Brisk. Fresh. Well-balanced. Occasional nutty and bittersweet overtones.
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Tuesday, November 30, 2004

A cup of coffee, a pile of letters, a few tears

We meet for coffee every Monday morning. Catching up on the Thanksgiving festivities at Panera's yesterday, I learned her sister had brought along a box of letters returned to the family by their father's second wife after his death, written by their mother. What a treasure to be able to see your mother's handwriting years after her death--almost like hearing her voice. We both had mothers who wrote like they talked. Last year an elderly cousin mailed me 30 years of the occasional letters she had received from my mother and it was like having a visit with Mom.

So my friend and her sister now have three treasures: 1) their mother's letters to her own parents written when the children were small--letters from the 1930s and 1940s; 2) her letters when she took a sabbatical from teaching high school Latin and lived in Italy; and 3) letters to my friend (which she had returned to her parents) when the parents had taken an around the world trip describing the sights and events.

What a loss we have with the transition to e-mail. Oh sure. We have the immediacy--my niece Leigh is getting daily e-mails from her college freshman son Brandon. But to never have the actual letters, with the paper they selected, the unique curves of the penmanship learned at an earlier time. What a loss future generations--and even our own--will experience.

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Monday, November 29, 2004

Worthwhile at the Coffee Shop

I have the magazine Worthwhile, the premiere issue, and read most of the (thin) issue at the coffee shop on Friday. One feature article is "What's the best advice you ever received?" [about work or career]. The best advice I ever got was in the book, “Stop setting goals.” I didn’t read it until the month I retired. I learned that what energized me, satisfied me, fulfilled me was solving problems, not setting goals. And that is probably true of over half the workers in America.

The concept of the new journal is that since you spend most of your time working, it ought to be what you are passionate about, what you enjoy. And this magazine tries to help.

You can participate in the final page survey--"The top 50 songs to fire you up" and you can send in your ideas to The list ranges from Aretha's RESPECT to the 1812 Overture to Burning down the house.

Worthwhile also maintains a blog--in fact, that came about in March of this year six months before the paper copy appeared on the news stand. On the 24th, the writer Kevin blogged about stopping at Panera’s for coffee and what he observed there.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Coffee with a not so old Friend

We got together for coffee recently. We both live close enough to Panera's to walk. We are both retired--I in 2000 and she in 2004. I haven't missed work a single day, but she's having a bit more of a struggle--misses "her kids." I've lived in the community for 37 years, and she grew up here. I've been a member of the church since 1976 and she is a charter member. But when she mentioned her best friend in high school, I said, "but she used to baby sit for us."

When she was 18, I was 28. We were worlds apart. I was changing diapers, shopping for groceries, making the dollars stretch for wallpaper and drapes for the new house, feeling the oldest I've ever felt in my life--wondering where had life gone. She was going to football games, planning for college, looking forward with excitement to all that was to come. And now, that 10 years doesn't make much difference at all.

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Saturday, November 27, 2004

Boyfriend in the Coffee Shop

What a surprise when a college boyfriend stepped into the coffee shop that
morning. Maybe five or ten pounds heavier, but the goatee and quiet mannerisms were the same--the standing back to assess the situation, about 5 '10", smiling bright gray/blue eyes glancing around, and wispy dishwater blonde hair peeking out from under a baseball cap. Closing my book, I stood up to put on my coat and noticed he was gone.

Carrying my paper coffee cup to the counter to add a little cream before leaving, I realized he was standing next to me at the condiments while waiting for his order. He said to the clerk, "Thanks for your help." That voice. Yes, it was him. Definitely him. I wanted to watch to see if his sports car was in the parking lot.

Of course, it couldn't possibly be him, common sense whispered in my ear. After all, the former sweetheart is older than me and lives in another state. The young man standing there was perhaps twenty five--young enough to be my grandson. But for a moment . . . I wanted to kick him in the knee.

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Friday, November 26, 2004

Six Felonies

I had taken a seat back by the new stone fireplace. Not because it was lovely and dark and cozy, but because the crazy man who smears feces in the restroom at the mall and attacked a manager at a fast food restaurant where I was eating was sitting up near the door where I usually sit. Not to speak ill of the mentally ill, but I wish his family could keep him at home or make sure he takes his medication. It also makes me nervous to share the street with him when he is driving.

Two women sat down at the table behind me. I was so engrossed in my paper I didn’t realize they were there until the conversation snippets began to seep into my consciousness.

“Six people out of my class of 52 were arrested for felonies--one for murder.”

Well, that brought me up with a start! Oh my goodness, I thought. Where in the world did she go to school? My high school class had 52 graduates, and amongst us we probably hadn’t had six DUIs in 45 years. Six felonies? And one a murder? I scooted back in my chair a little bit. The clanging from behind the counter bleeped out the next several sentences.

Then she referred to “the academy.” The Academy in local lingo usually meant the exclusive private boys school on the east side of the city, so that didn’t make much sense. She continued, “Some of those never finished.” Over the noise of latte creation from the front of the store I heard the words “chief,” and “officer,” and “firearms.” And then I realized . . . she was talking about a police academy class.

Mystery solved. I felt better. Or did I?

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Thursday, November 25, 2004

Coffee hunt

Many employers really do give Thanksgiving Day off. I discovered this last Thanksgiving when I had quite a search to find an open coffee shop. Panera’s, Caribou, Starbucks, Bob Evans, Tim Horton’s, Wendy’s, McDonald’s. All were closed so employees could enjoy time with their families, or time to sleep in, or time to clean the garage.

Finally I saw an open White Castle and pulled in. I’d never been in one. No house newspaper or classical music, just big windows and small booths, but the coffee was excellent. Perhaps because it was a holiday with no baggage for them, there were two Hispanics, an Asian woman, a developmentally disabled man, and a Canadian supervisor (I don’t know that, but his haughty attitude and countenance reminded me of Peter Jennings, so I’m calling him a Canadian) working the pre-dawn hours. I had to return the next day--they wouldn’t take a $20--and said I could pay next time.

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Saturday, November 20, 2004

Romancing the coffee bean

She came in the coffee shop today. I hadn't seen her for maybe four or five years. A single mom with the stress of a teen-age daughter with too much mascara and a sullen younger boy. They occasionally were with her on school holidays, pretending they didn't know each other. We spoke briefly and caught up--she's working in a different suburb now, having coffee at another place.

A finish carpenter also stopped by in those days. A fun guy with a twinkle in his eye. We always chatted. Another woman used to call him "the stud muffin" after he left--always a little swagger, full of himself, but oh so in love with his metallic cherry red pick-up truck.

He started chatting up Ms. Lonely Mom. Soon he was walking her to her car, as though it wasn't safe for a woman at 7:45 a.m. in Upper Arlington to walk alone through a coffee shop parking lot. Then one day I saw him kiss her at her car door as he opened it. Oh, so gallant.

That's the last time I saw him. She continued to come in, anxiously watching the door and parking lot. Maybe she was just too needy. Maybe he saw the children. Or maybe he found another coffee shop.

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Thursday, November 18, 2004

Talking about politics at the coffee shop

I didn't need formal research to discover that regular groups who gather in coffee shops aren't there to discuss politics, even if that is what they do every Saturday. The groups are social clubs and quite exclusionary, and no matter what the volume, no one changes his mind. I regularly sit at another table and overhear a group of white middle-age, middle-class men, Protestants and Catholics, who are Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians. Frank the Irish-Catholic-Republican-stockbroker and Pat the Italian-Catholic-Democrat-pharmacist will good naturedly rib each other each week, but neither will ever move the other. Or really listen to each other. And after a dose of politics, it is on to a safer topic, like the Buckeyes (Ohio State) or the Golden Bears (high school team).

Since I started serving coffee at the town drug store when I was 16, I have listened to men in groups talk. The faces change slightly, the names of the teams they support change, the companies or farms they work in vary, but the social needs seem to stay the same.

Katherine Cramer Walsh actually picked up a coffee pot and poured seconds in order to be invited into the "conversations" at a coffee shop. She wrote up her research findings in the book, "Talking about politics" (University of Chicago Press, 2004).

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Coffee Shop in a Bank

Grand Island, Nebraska, has a Home Federal branch bank with a coffee shop on the premises to create a casual, friendly atmosphere for its customers. I’ve seen coffee shops in book stores, in apartment buildings, in libraries, in supermarkets, in medical complexes and in churches, but this is the first story I’ve seen about banks using the model to build relationships.

“If you think Home Federal is in the coffee shop business, think again. The cafe is a well-planned part of a new focus, a new way to deliver banking services.

"We used to be order takers," [V.P. Orv] Qualsett said. "Now we want to reach out to people who come to our bank."

The cafe concept fits that like hot coffee on a cold morning.”

Monday, November 15, 2004

Dump Him, Honey

She was the morning, cheery, part-time, counter assistant when I first met her at the coffee shop. An English major. We joked she was going to write the “great American novel.” She was excited about graduating from college, and even took some time off in June 2003 to travel to New York to check into grad school.

I’ve stopped asking her about her plans. She now has an official store name tag. She has a title. And responsibilities. Doesn’t smile as much. She, or her parents, probably spent $70,000 on her education and she is figuring schedules, taking complaints about spilled coffee, ordering supplies, training new college students to take orders and doing quality checks.

Some mornings I see her making furtive phone calls before 6:30 on her cell phone. The smile and bouncy step are gone. I suspect she has settled. She hasn’t settled for marriage instead of career or grad school--the way my generation might have done in the 60s. She’s not even a fiancée. No, I suspect it is “significant-otherhood.” Or maybe just shacking up, with no commitment beyond next week-end.

Dump him, honey. Move on. He doesn’t deserve your talent and sense of humor. Chase your dream. There’s plenty of time later for guys who will waste their lives and yours sleeping in.

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Saturday, November 13, 2004

Conversations in a Coffee Shop

A short piece of fiction begins and ends in a coffee shop--

"I walk into the corner coffee shop, order a cappuccino, and sit at a table
by the window. I reach into my purse, pull out a small notebook and write:
girls serving coffee—young and slim with eyes like breath mints. I sigh and
slurp the foam off of the top, staring out the window until I see him
hurrying towards the entrance, looking rushed. My stomach does a casual
flip, then lands at the soles of my feet, heavy as a stone. I stand up and
wave him over, even though the shop is empty enough that he sees me right
away. He holds up an impatient finger, telling me to wait. As he goes to get
his coffee, I sit back down, feeling vaguely discouraged and somehow wrong; like a dark hair in a dish of pudding." Read the story here.

Lisa LaTourette-Pershan wrote this for the literary e-zine, The Moonwort Review, issue 8.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Best seat in the house

The Panera's bakery where I have my coffee in the morning is located close to three elementary schools (one public, one private and one Catholic), one middle school and one high school. Parents stop there with their children on the way to school.

One morning two little guys sat down at a table next to me by the fireplace while dad stood in line to get the breakfasts. The older one said, “I’ve got the best seat.” And the little guy chimed in, not to be outdone, “I’ve got the second best.”

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Dads and kids

Today at the coffee shop I could overhear a father giving his son a pep talk about his team from a booth by the window. He was using some pretty big words and heavy concepts, like “challenge,” “perceive,” “encourage,” “good clean tackle,” “keep your head clear,” and “confidence.” I turned around expecting to see a brawny high school linebacker having breakfast with his dad, but it was a little skinny kid, maybe second grade, sitting on his knees so he could reach the table. He was staring out the window while dad droned on about team work, probably wondering where childhood went.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Jason's Self Deception

Jason goes to the coffee shop to study; but he's really there to eavesdrop.

"It seems to me that, to the extent to which I am self-deceived, my weakness of will is mitigated. For my intention to “get a lot of work done” is tainted by my concomitant, but not consciously acknowledged, intentions to “listen to inane, yet strangely transfixing, coffee shop conversations and prevent feelings of guilt from stopping me”. To extent that the first intention is tainted, it does not seem so bad that I don’t follow through on it."

He blogs at Fake Barn Country.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Coffee and Bear Claws

I saw two women walkers at Panera's wearing reflective vests over their exercise outfits. I hope they were at the end of the exercise routine and not the beginning. Two large coffees and two huge sacks of bagels, brownies and bear claws could slow a woman down. And I think that was a women's track team--about 16 of them--sitting next to me. I've heard Panera's stock is dipping due to the low carb craze, but around here it seems to be the place to stop after exercise.

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Monday, November 01, 2004

What you don't want to hear

I'm a morning person and like to go out for coffee early--before 7 a.m. I might visit three or four different places in a week. After awhile the faces of the customers and staff become familiar. Today I heard the words you do NOT want to hear any place you eat or drink.

I could see and hear the bakery manager, but not the person in the back area (food prep) he was talking to. "You're sick, man. I'm ready to call 911. You're going home. You're sick!!" (Protesting from the back room) "Go home. Take care of yourself." He did.

I passed on the free samples set out for us early birds.