Coffee Shop Chronicles: Thoughts from overheard conversations

Boonton Coffee

Boonton, NJ

September 2017

People speak loudly in coffee shops, so it’s their fault I think what I’m thinking.

“She’s tall.  Very nice.  Comfortable.”

— Guy on high school desk chair.

I sip my coffee and wonder if he’s referring to an actual woman or if he’s assigning a gender on an inanimate object.  Maybe it’s because of the eclectic seating in here, but his emphasis on “comfortable” makes me think of furniture, a refrigerator or a sturdy wooden armoire.  The espresso steamer drowns out whatever he says next.

“A Murkrow.”

— Guy standing in line to order coffee.

The Pokémon GO twinkling percussion theme song follows that comment.  I’d recognize that anywhere because my husband doesn’t turn off the music when he plays that game.  I love that game, too, but there is a level in hell where that theme song plays nonstop.  I hear the swoosh toss sound effect of the Pokeball, the boink bounce on the Pokemon’s head and the catch snap, capture click.  He won this round and I hear that trumpet blast of triumph.  Really loud.  His phone volume must be maxed out.

I pause and look down at my phone.  I have the app open as I often do and think, Did I miss something?  A Murkrow doesn’t interest me, but is it time for me to spin?  This is the reason I’m sitting on this mildly uncomfortable bench with my phone tethered to the outlet at my feet. Pokemon GO sucks the battery life from my phone like a kid slurps spaghetti.  I see the Murkrow on the screen.  It still doesn’t interest me, but the conversation does.

The guy at the counter is part of a group of four young adults who look like, well, I imagine they play Dungeons & Dragons.  One of them appears extra-nerdy and could be the reason I hear the theme song over the steaming espresso machine.

Should I get up with the excuse to refill my coffee and casually comment on the game when I’m up at the counter?  I want to go up there and ask them if there’s a Legendary raid nearby.  I know there isn’t, but I want to be a part of their world their all.

I squirm on my bench and watch them shuffle and waddle out the door.  Did I miss an opportunity?

“We need something unique.  Like Starbucks.  Put a slice through our logo….”

— A male Boonton Coffee barista.

Unique?  Is he talking about this coffee shop not being unique?  This long wood table, worn but slightly shimmery as if recently varnished, has a picnic table vibe from it.  But it’s much more commanding than that.

There’s a fluffy leather or vinyl couch on my left with black and white striped throw pillows.

There are two white wood barstools at a white drafting table in the back.  Someone sits there, typing on a laptop.  There’s another table with a world globe as table decor.

Four wall-size chalkboards list the drinks.  Above them, “Boonton Coffee” is spelled out from sliced up old New Jersey license plates.  Next, to that metal montage, a framed The Toxic Avengers movie marquee poster hangs on the wall.  They have a drink named that.  Which came first?

The hip and the groovy vibe is further conveyed with the rough burlap coffee bags everywhere.  Serious coffee establishments display them as art deco, and I’ve not seen them used as full-size wall hangings, here looking shabby chic, bohemian, chill against raw red brick walls.  There’s a stump across the room that looks like a wrapped wood barrel that I can’t tell is a practical seating element or museum-esque décor.  Pleasantly, there’s not a single pillow crafted from that material; that’s so overdone.  The crafted burlap cup coasters are unique.

Like the Starbucks chain could charm this haunt.

“We lost our dog.  Then my dad got news that my grandmother was going downhill…. My mom has two cats she’s really attached to and one ran away…. But other than that, nothing’s new.”

— Guy on the couch to my left.

He ends that with a lighthearted laugh, not a serious laugh but the shrug-your-shoulder kind of laugh.  I glance to my left, expecting to see a pimply skinny teenager.  Instead, here’s a blonde hair, scruffy-stubble-bearded Andrew McCarthy from the Pretty in Pink era.  He’s across from two girls with everyone using the steam trunk treasure chest as their table.  By their body language, they’re all friends, just friends, and he’s the ringleader.  He’s the only one on the couch, leaning forward on the throne and the only one of three with a to-go cup.  The two girls sitting on green-handled chairs have for-here mugs.  Either this guy is super-casual, you know, nothing bothers him, or he has no sense of loss in real life tragedy.  He comments that he’s dated his girlfriend since high school.  I’m glad I’m not her and take another sip of my room temperature coffee.

“Crap!  It’s Jordan’s birthday.  I forgot to call her.  (Girl laughs) She’s my best friend. (Giggles) (Picks up phone, beep boop dial) I can’t get through.  What’s her number?”

— Girl #1 sitting on one green-handled chair.

She talks about “on my 18th birthday” like it was forever ago, so I figure she is the ripe old age of a college sophomore or junior.  I go with sophomore because that makes me feel younger and them more insensitive.

Sad thing is, I see myself thinking her initial comment.  With my move to New Jersey, I’m now physically closer to my college friends.  This is a great opportunity to reconnect.  I called those friends exactly zero times.  Two of them called and visited me, but I haven’t done the same.  I suddenly want to call everyone, but I’m in a coffee shop.  I’m not one of “those people” who hold a conversation so loud you can hear it over the espresso machine.  That’s my excuse, and I sip my coffee to feel trendy and distracted.

“I’ve tried to find every reason not to like her, but I can’t.”

— Girl #2 sitting on the other green-handled chair.

The 80s phrase “Oh my gawd!” comes to mind.  The tone of the girl’s voice is light-hearted but what a mean person, someone who envied the popular crowd in high school.  Or was she the popular crowd?  She wears jeans with rips down both legs, new ones that are sold pre-destroyed.  Like, she’s so hip.

“Thanks.  It’s been nice sitting next to you.  My name’s Greg.” 

— Big guy next to me at the table.

He reaches out to shake my hand.  Is this awkward or creepy?  Regardless, I’m polite in coffee shops.

“Hello, Greg,” I say as we shake hands.  “I’m Diana.”

He speaks quietly, the way an awkward teenage high school boy does.  His handshake is mildly firm and a bit clammy but without the sweat.  We’re at an awkward angle, so it’s more like a half-handshake.

“Have a blessed day,” Greg says.  He walks away.

There was nothing special about our interaction.  I never saw him before and we mostly ignored each other.  I asked him if I could put my phone on the chair between us because my charging cable is too short to reach the table.  He asked me to plug in his laptop cord because the outlet is beside me, too far from him to reach.  There was no missed opportunity.  It was common stuff.  Or not.

Coffee Shop Chronicles: Don’t stare

Smartworld Coffee

Denville NJ’

August 2017

I dash in, just missing the rain, and see there’s a problem with my regular table.

A woman with a toddler is there.  Her stroller takes up the entire comfy chair area and space next to my usual table.  Drat.  I really need that wall outlet today.  I walk over.

This mom appears to be unpacking toys and baubles for the weekend, much like how I spread out my scrapbook supplies for a one-day crop.  There’s no scrap book store near me, and I suddenly miss Michigan and my friends even more.  Now I want that table even more, just for principle.  If I’d been five minutes earlier, I would be in my space, but I wasn’t.  I glance at her—no, I’m pretty sure this is a glare—and look at her baby bottles, toys, food bags and blankets scattered on the table.  I drop my dry umbrella on the table next to her, the table that’s too far from the outlet.  I hope the sound is loud enough to annoy her and show my distaste.

“Oh, I’m just leaving,” the mom says with a smile.  All this mess is her organizing to pack up?  I understand.  I stare into her eyes and melt into guilt.  The rain, traffic and my phone’s low coughing battery has made me cranky.  It’s a good thing she will never know I was silently taking that out on her.

She packs up quicker than I expect, and I set my umbrella and work bag on my table and walk to the counter.  What looks good?  It all does.  What am I in the mood for?  I stare at the 12 pastries like it’s an endless list.  I notice the barista staring at me.  There’s no one else in the store.

“What do you recommend?” I ask.

“The lemon croissant,” she says after a moment of thought.

Always order something and always go with the barista’s recommendation.  I get the dark house coffee to pair with the pastry and hand her my money.  She takes it, gives me change and doesn’t make eye contact again.

A woman came in while I waited and set up shop on the table in front of me.  Literally.  The small circular table is filled edge to edge with trays of beauty products or creams or probiotic somethings.  There are two pre-filled boxes open and a variety of bottles and tubes lined up in a neat array.  I’ve seen meetings like this in coffee shops—the recent one of a wedding photographer comes to mind—but what kind of permission do you need from the store owner to have this display?  I’m curious what she’s hawking, but I get an Avon vibe from her.  I don’t stare at the products because I’m not in the mood for a sales pitch.  A blonde woman walks in and greets the saleswoman with a handshake.  Good.  I can get back to my writing and lemon croissant.

After maybe 15 minutes, a couple comes in and sits at the comfy chairs next to me.  I hear smooch smacks.  Are they kissing?  They must be doing some tongue thing because it is one loud wet sound.  I want to look and stare my appall, but is that just as rude as this makeout session?  The sounds stop.  She leans back in her chair and finger-brushes her hair onto my table very close to my food.  I stare at that, at her, but she doesn’t see me because she’s staring at her kissy-face man.

 

A wet draft smacks me.  The rain started, hard, and a woman pushed open the side door.  I look up and squint.  She scowls at me.  I have my reading glasses on and can’t focus that far away.  I was just looking up to see the commotion.  I better use those glasses and just stare at my papers.

The saleswoman has left and a family comes in.  Some older woman takes a young girl to the bathroom while everyone else pushes two circular tables together.  The girl, who must be someone’s daughter, fidgets and jerks her way back to the tables.  Don’t stare at people who are different, my folks always said to me growing up.  It’s not polite.  I wonder if she’s going to bump or fall onto my table.  Does her family have her under control?  I feel weird trying to think of a PC word to describe her—disabled? Physically challenged?—so I look up.  I can’t help staring, whether safety or curiosity.  One male adult at the table, maybe her father, is signing at her, or at least gesturing with his hands.  Everyone else sits down with coffee or whatever, and I can’t get a sense of family dynamics.  Just as well.  I stare down at my papers and get back to work.

I finish the page and see a shadow over me.  It’s not on top of me but in my peripheral vision.  The shadow doesn’t move.  Is it staring at me?  I look up and see a cluster of people.  Three people hold cardboard cup carriers.  Sloshy drinks.  Heavy rain.  Closed door.  This is a recipe for disaster.  I stare and instead have horrible, messy images.  For a heartbeat, I think of being one of those people who stare at disasters then turn their head as if what they saw was invisible.  I know how I’d feel if my to-go drink was dropped and spilled everywhere.  How disappointed after all that to-go effort with no way to go back for another drink.  I can’t let that happen and make someone else’s day cranky.  I could hold the door even if the man with them doesn’t.

“Can I help?” I ask, loud enough so they can hear me over the music.

“No, we’re fine.  Thanks,” one woman says, and it’s not in that polite I-don’t-want-to-bother-you way.  This is confidence, like they’ve done this a thousand times before.  They must have because the woman balances the tray on her thigh, pushes the door and glides out into the rain.  The man holds the door with his foot while the other woman walks through, then he lumbers behind.

I lose sight of them in the rain, between a car and telephone pole.  I’m hit with their wet draft, but this time I don’t mind that I stared.  I hope they make it.

Coffee Shop Chronicles: Making friends in coffee shops, Part 2

The Fine Grind, a coffee bar

Little Falls, NJ

March 2017

Now that I have a seat, I’m restless.

It’s March, and far from feeling like winter. I settle into my cushion bench seat and look around the room.  This is still the only place to sit.  I reach for my writing bag when my for-here mug of Columbian coffee is brought to my table restaurant style.  What unexpected service.  Coffee shops are usually more self-serve.  I already know I’ll be back.

Time to look busy.  First thing, set up the tablet.  While it boots, I’ll look even more productive with my Happy Planner calendar on the table.  It has my blog schedule in it.  Next, my yellow notepad, a few colored pens and voila!  I’m all set to do work.

I don’t feel productive.  I feel cluttered.  I’m restless.

I always carry a few distractions in my workbag.  The item I’m craving to use is my Café Bingo game.  It was a gift from my writerly friend, Kelly, who said, “I thought of you instantly when I saw it.”  Yep, she got me right.  The idea is to Bingo with coffee shop stereotypes.  There are 12 cards, but I can play by myself.  I wonder: can I cover the entire board, or at least get a bingo?  There’s 0nly one way to find out.

These cards are reusable.  Cool!  I wasn’t sure how that worked.  When I read “pushing back” the squares on the package, visions of pieces popping off onto the table, never to be replaced again filled my head.  With this, you fold the cardstock squares back while playing and then refold them when you’re done.  I’m set to play with only one rule: I can’t count myself in any of the squares.

— Barista

That’s the center square and a gimme.

— MP3 player

Who carries these anymore?  I amend that to seeing a cell phone with headphones.  I see a hipster guy plugged in over in the comfy chair corner.

— Tip Jar

There’s one at the register where I ordered.  I don’t recall the handwritten note on it, but I’m sure it’s something like “Fear change? Leave it here” or “Tipping isn’t just for cows.”

— Newspaper

Sure enough, there’s an older man in a comfy leather lounge chair in the corner.  He’s reading a real newspaper, buried beneath an umbrella of inky pages.

— Laptop

Uhhh…yeah.  Who doesn’t come to a coffee shop without a laptop?  You have to look hip and trendy and productive.  Okay, I’m two for three right now, but my Surface has a detachable keyboard, so it would count for that square, if I included myself, which I’m not.  I’m still hipster-ette.

— Briefcase

There’s a guy in business clothes–a suit, maybe–with a speckled tan bag next to him.  I can’t see it exactly because it’s sitting on the floor and I don’t have a clear shot.  I count it.  I wouldn’t expect to see one of those hardcover square boxes with a latch and handle, and I’m surprised I think that.

— Cell Phone

This is another gimme.  A more challenging square would be “No cell phone.”

— Reuse of Cup

Remember, I can’t count myself.  A lot of people have for-here mugs on their tables.  Some people don’t.  What a waste.  Unless it’s tea.  Tea almost always needs a disposable cup.

— Date

I’m not sure how to count this.  The square shows two stick figures holding hands with a heart between them.  It’s just past lunchtime, so there are no caffeine kisses here.  There are lots of people sitting together in twos, and I’m sure someone is on some kind of date.  Meeting a friend for lunch, I count that.

— Iced Drink

I don’t see ice cubes anywhere, nor a dome lid cup sitting on any table.  Straight ahead there’s a woman with what looks like an icy blended drink.  It’s a shade color different than the store’s cardboard cups, but that’s good enough for me.

— Bulletin Board

This is a local coffee shop. Of course, there’s one.  Heck, even Starbucks has them.  The Fine Grind has theirs on the back wall between the bathrooms.  I saw that the first time I was here, but I found it awkward to peruse while people pee nearby.

— Spilled Drink

I didn’t expect to see this, but within five minutes of pulling out this game, a patron sloshes something on the floor.  It looks like water, but I feel rude staring at him.

— Meeting

There are no poster-board graphs or carpet swatches anywhere in here.   There’s no table of suits. There’s no cluster of notepad papers.  I bet some of these couples are in some sort of business meeting.  I glance at Briefcase Guy and wonder, can I count him twice?

— Rushed Patron

There’s one person walking deliberately to the door, so I count him.  He’s walking with a purpose not trudging along.

Now even the game is making me restless and bored.  I don’t think I can find the rest of the squares right now.  I can’t see outside the door, so I’m not sure there’s a Dog Waiting, another game square. This coffee shop is smooshed in a strip mall, not stretched on a quaint, tree-lined street among boutique stores, so I doubt I’d ever find one.  The woman at the high-top table against the wall, she may be dressed in All-Black Attire, again another game square, but I can’t tell if those are black pants or dark blue dress pants.

The other items I can’t find now are: Book; Menu Typo; Foreigners; Student; Latte Art; Goatee; Political Debate; Pastry Crumbs; and Artiste Glasses.

What I can’t wait to find is a friend to play this game with.

Coffee Shop Chronicles: Making friends in coffee shops, Part 1

The Fine Grind, a coffee bar

Little Falls, NJ

March 2017

It’s my second week in New Jersey, and I see a woman in a yellow University of Michigan sweatshirt.

Really?

I live in some vortex that I can’t escape my former home state.  Are there more of them?  I scan the room.  The big windows behind me let in light, but at this hour, there’s more shadow than light.  It’s one of those wood-floor hipster coffee places with tables scattered around the room to add a cohesive look with a funky vibe.  The tables match way too much.  It’s not like Plymouth Bean back home–I mean, back in Michigan.  Speaking of, I don’t see any more Michigan folks, but I also don’t see a free table near an outlet.

Just as well.  I can’t resist.  I shuffle left and say, “I notice your sweatshirt.  I just moved here from Michigan.  Did you go there?”

“Oh, my daughter goes there,” she says with that proud momma smile.  “She’s a freshman and loves it there.  When we went to visit, it’s beautiful there.”

I have my own opinions of campus.  There’s too much cement with wide walkways and sidewalks, making the campus look grey.  I’m used to my campus with its lawn stretches of grass and tall, green trees lining thin sidewalks.  There’s too little greenery for me to call Michigan’s main campus pretty, let alone, beautiful.  I smile politely.  I hope my eyes don’t betray me.

“What about you and Penn State?” she asks, nodding at me and my sweatshirt.

I heft my writing bag on my shoulder, adjusting it.  The bag’s getting heavy and awkward.  I spy a free table on my right.  I want to snag it, but I can’t resist a Penn State question.

“My husband and I are alumni.”  I pause.  I never know people’s reaction to that:  Love?  Hate?  Ambivalence?  I have no idea what the atmosphere is in New Jersey these days, especially now that Rutgers, The State University joined the B1G Ten.

“My other daughter goes to Penn State,” she says her eyes bright.  We’ve made two connections in about 30 seconds.  I’m almost spin-dizzy.   Really?  What are the odds?  Is there some practical joke camera hidden behind the dark paintings on the wall?  I feel foolish flicking my eyes around, but still, I do.

“She loves it there,” Proud Momma continues.  “She got so involved with THON last month.”

I swallow my tears.    I danced in THON   [https://www.thon.org/  –open link in new window]   twice: as an undergrad and years later as an alum.  THON is 100% student-run event that raises money for children with cancer.  This year, they raised $10.1 million dollars.  That’s the money raised this year.  I am so intensely proud of that organization and my stamina to stay awake and stand on my feet for 46 hours.  Simply saying the word THON makes me weepy.

Please don’t let me cry.  What will this woman think of me?

“They raised a lot of money this year,” she continues.  “She was so involved with it.  She stayed awake the entire time.”

Thank you, dear woman, for giving me time to compose myself.   Now I have the voice to ask, “As a freshman?”  This event is intensely popular, and participation as a dancer or committee member is competitive and priority is earned by upperclassmen.  I can’t think of a single freshman dancer.  Ever.

“She didn’t dance.  She didn’t have to be awake all 46 hours,” momma says, “but she was up for at least 24 hours or more.  Still, I donated.”

Still?  I would hope she didn’t need her daughter’s involvement to donate to this charity.  Given her daughter’s status, she was probably part of some general stay-awake cheering section for an organization or special interest group.  I wonder if she’s a pledge in my sorority.

I don’t the chance to ask because the man next to her shuffles his for-here plate and to-go cup.  He slides down the cushioned bench and stands up.  I feel his eyes rolling, so I look down at the wood floor.  The man must be her husband because he gathers her coffee cup.

“Take care,” I say to her and nod to her man.  They crumple napkins and brush crumbs on the floor.  I adjust my bag on my right shoulder and shuffle towards the pastry case.  I always check out the food in a new coffee shop.  I want to see a shop’s dedication to local or defrost.

I glance back to see if the woman waves at me.  She doesn’t, but she and her man step far enough away from the table that it won’t be rude for me to dash over and claim their seat.  I plop my workbag on her seat and toss my coat on the bench seat behind the table.  I look down and see outlet under the bench.  Thank you for giving me this space.

Coffee shop Chronicles: An awkward coffee conversation

January 2017

Starbucks

Livonia, MI

My fingertips touch the grande cup of coffee when I think to ask, “This isn’t yours, is it?”

“Oh no,” the guy next to me says. “I watched her make mine because I got hazelnut in it. I’m trying something new.”

I didn’t really think it was mine; I was being polite. I always order a tall coffee in a grande cup so I have room to add milk. The barista set my side of steamed 2% milk on the counter at the same time she put his tall coffee down. That’s why I asked. Just in case.

It’s an embarrassing thing to touch someone else’s coffee cup. What’s the etiquette? I’ve seen people ask for a new cup of coffee, perhaps thinking of all the germy diseases that transferred from that two-second touch. I’ve seen people walk away without a second thought. Do you, the toucher, ask the touched if they want you to buy them a new cup of coffee? Touching a for-here mug, however, is that whole salad bar sneeze guard thing, except that there’s no sneeze guard at a coffee shop. Fortunately, I don’t need to worry about etiquette. Not today.

“I’m not a hazelnut person,” I say, stirring a Splenda packet in my mug. “What kind of coffee did you get?”

“Just the regular, the Pike,” he says. “I’m just a coffee guy. What about you?”

“I got a Veranda.”  He stares at me. This conversation has just turned awkward.

“It’s the blonde roast,” I explain. That’s how the Starbucks baristas refer to it. There’s dark, medium and light roast. Blonde is the lightest; Pike Place is the standard medium roast; and there’s a rotating variety of dark roast. Knowing to say “blonde roast” means you’re hip with the proper terms and slang to fit in. You know how to order a drink. You’re a regular. I’m a regular, but I still refer to the coffee by the BEAN/BLEND itself, mostly because the dark roast rotates. The average blue collar drinker uses the roast terms. Will this guy understand me?

“I’ve never had that,” he says as he pours excess, filled-to-the brim coffee into the trash bag.

Ew. This is why, I get a grande cup. Would you pour hot liquid into your trash bag at home?

“It’s the light roast,” I say, reaching for another Splenda. “It’s smooth…”

“Oh, yeah, yeah,” he interrupts me.

I’m a bit put out. He wanted to experience something new with his hazelnut. I want to share with him something I like that could turn into a new experience for him.

“They used to offer a vanilla blonde,” I continue, thinking of our shared reference of flavored syrup. I pause, he’s staring at me. I can’t tell if its stop or go, so I continue, “But the vanilla took away from the taste.”

He looks down at his coffee, stirring. I look over his shoulders at the signage board. It’s a place for my eyes to rest on before stirring more milk into my coffee.

“I got a friend who’s a coffee specialty guy. He comes for the special coffee,” the guy says.

Special coffee? What’s that? I’d like to try it if there’s something unique. “Does he come here to this store?” I ask.

“Yeah.”

“Oh, he must get the Reserve coffee,” I say, pointing to the signage board I was just staring at. Good move there. This store is a Clover location, which is one that has a special coffee machine. A Clover coffee was the first cup of coffee I had today, but you can only get a free refill with one of the regular coffees.

“Yeah, that’s it,” he says, his voice energetic, finally. He had sounded impatient, like I was keeping him from leaving or something, but now, he continues the conversation. “I call him a coffee connoisseur.”

If your speech could roll its eyes, this would be it. He wipes up his trash–poured coffee–he spilled. “Me, I’m a coffee guy.”

It’s that act of wiping the coffee that catches my eye and stops me. He’s cleaning up his mess, like he would do at home. And he’s really cleaning it up, wiping hard with the napkin and scrubbing the counter space.

‘Just coffee guys’ don’t do that. Heck, coffee connoisseurs don’t do that.  I do it when I can because there’s nothing more icky than setting your cup down on a sticky counter. Even when I put a napkin down first, I hope that sticky drop under my napkin is honey.

He says something else, but it’s that friendly garble-rush of someone finishing a conversation with no room to continue. I don’t hear what it is because I stare at his clean counter area. I was wrong about him? He takes a seat at the window seat behind me. So, he wasn’t rushing to get out to his car after all. For some reason, him sitting there surprises me. Regardless, our moment is over.

I’ve spilled some Splenda on the counter. I’d wipe it and brush it into the trash bag, but there’s a rim around the trash bag that I can’t get over. I brush the white powder on the floor instead. It’s something.