Coffee shop Chronicles: An awkward coffee conversation

January 2017


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.


“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.

Coffee Shop Chronicles: On staying and leaving,

Cherry Hill, NJ
October 2002

I’m shaking from hitting the curb as I pulled in.

I don’t see any damage, but I’m uncontrollably jittery.  It’s a good thing I brought my journal tonight.  My mocha Frappuccino will just add caffeine to my jitters, but the journal, well, that’s relaxing.  I hope.

It’s an older journal, and I’m looking for something writing related.  A passage caught my eye this morning, notes from my belly dancing article for U. S. 1. It draws my mind back to the interview.

Kim, my instructor, says, “I learned that I want to stay there.”

She’s talking about her time in Turkey. “It was more of a style and a feel that I learned,” she continued, discussing her dancing techniques. “Turkish feels very funky, earthy, aggressive.”

Movement draws my attention. The two chess guys have left my table, so I pop over, freeing myself from Mr. Wobbles here.  I’m closer to the windows now.  It’s suddenly dark outside, the dark of a storm approaching.  Trees are stretching their branches in that helpless way, reaching to stop the storm, knowing they can’t.  They’re victim to the tosses of storm winds.

I continue reading my notes and transcription.  I might as well because I can’t find what I’m looking for. 

“It confirmed a lot of things I’ve learned over the years,” Kim says.

“You learn things and you’re not really sure what their roots are.”

I spread out with room to spare and reread the U. S. 1 Philly nightlife article.  I still adore the twists and turns of the language.  I don’t like the attitude of the writer–she comes across as too know-it-all in-your-face–but the language is alive.  “Rolling sushi with ‘frightening perfection'” is still my favorite.

Her vibrant language makes you want to keep reading to discover what she’ll describe next, and how.  This is how you write Show Don’t Tell: “J. Crew crowd and martini meat market.”  Her typing tongue makes some of my Singles articles pale in language comparison.  But it also inspires me to write outside the box, to stretch, to compare and to create.

Back to my journal.  What did Kim say next?  How good was my article with the material I collected?

“I learned and loved it and wondered later, ‘where does it come from, why does it feel like this, what does it mean?’”she says, “so it brought these things home and I got my answers.”

My fiancé–oh, I just love the sound of that– just called to share warm fuzziness.  He’s on his way up for the weekend, and he was thinking how he’ll only be doing this drive for a few more months–155 days, to be exact.  Then I’ll be in Delaware.  That made him think of the box and shopping bag of my stuff upstairs.  I take a symbolic “something” every time I drive down to spend the weekend.  He said he realized soon all my stuff will be in his house.  Our house.  We did a simultaneous awwwwww. Together.

He’s an adorable man.  We are going to have a great life together.

10:15pm.  I’ll be kicked out soon.  That’s okay—I’m done for the night.

Coffee Shop Chronicles: It’s all phone and games

Espresso Royale

Ann Arbor, MI

November 2016

There’s a PokéStop right outside the Espresso Royale–next door at Noodles & Company, actually–but I can spin as I sip my coffee.

It’s Autumn Spice coffee today.  That’s new; I’ve never seen it here before.  Different, a hint of cinnamon and sweetness that’s smooth and full.

I stare out the window, down the street where I used to work.  Financially, it was a great job.  Mentally, physically and even spiritually, I’m glad I left.  If I judged my overall experience as I do customer service, well, I wouldn’t leave a tip.  At all.  There’s a PokéStop outside my old building, and I bet if I still worked there, I couldn’t spin it from my desk, adding to my misery.

That was a lifetime ago, and I’m here in a coffee shop, finally sitting down.  The barista didn’t want to bus this table.  It’s the first rude, experience I’ve had here.  I asked him if he would clean the table, he said, “If you want to move the dishes to another table, I’ll get them.”

I didn’t want to touch the dishes.  They weren’t mine.  That was the point.

There were three saucers on the table, one coffee cup and a glass of water.  Ew.  Would I move dishes in a restaurant?  Am I expecting too much here?  It’s not like they were super bustling busy.  He took the dishes but didn’t wipe the table.  I have my own glass of water and I have napkins, so I’ll do this.  Besides, servers never dry the tables, leaving them wet and sticky.

My phone is open beside me on the dry, smooth, nonsticky table.  This way I can see when the PokéStop sets, and I can spin for more Pokémon items.  Everyone here has a phone out, necks cricked down as fingers type.  Several students have headphones.  One girl wears earbuds, and another girl has the full-on heavy metal jacket-type earphone helmet.  I bet they’re noise canceling ones.

Why don’t people talk anymore?

I’m as much to blame since I watch for PokéStops and critters these days.  I rarely look up at the sky.  I’m surprised I’m looking around now.  Well, the PokéStop is purple, waiting to reset.

This is not a setting for talk, especially with everyone’s insulation of isolation.  These are solitary college students who never knew of a time when coffee shops didn’t exist.  They don’t know the intricacies of speech or the delight of hearing a friend’s voice on a phone call.  A phone call.  Yes.  At the beginning, phones were made for dialing, not texting.

I like texting.  I got into that at my last evil ex-job–not the one down the street here–when every incoming call was monitored and logged.  My husband used to call me just to hear my voice; then he sent me “thinking of you” texts during the midday instead.

I miss Dad at times like this.  He’d be here talking across the table, talking so much that he’d annoy me and I couldn’t focus on my work right now.  But he’s not here, and he won’t be.  He died almost 12 years ago–11 years and 10 months ago, I calculate.  I don’t feel like counting the days; this is close enough.  Right now, I’d rather be annoyed than lonely.

The baristas aren’t chatty.  It’s-all-get down to business, an atmosphere feeding off of the students.  This place is not like any of the three Starbucks I frequent near my house.  They’re friendlier there; heck, they’re friendly.

Must be a class break because the streets are busy and the sidewalks congested.  There’s a line almost out the door.  People sit around me, gather in twos and threes and there’s conversation.  It’s the lunch meeting crowd.  The people across from me talk about meetings of some sort, and two guys set up laptops behind and chatter about something mathematical or scientific, something I know nothing about.

I like the more noise part, but it’s all business.  It seems no one is talking just for fun, about life and sharing what happened today. You know the casual meeting for the joy of company.  No one’s even talking about games or PokéStops.

I miss all this daily hustle and bustle, walking to shops and restaurants and being among people.  But I don’t miss work.  If any ex-coworkers came in, I wouldn’t talk to them, and that’s just fine with me.

Coffee Shop Chronicles: Coffee, books and the end of an era

img_7200Borders Bookstore

Canton, MI

April 2011

I came here because I have a coupon.

The coupon is for 33% off one item or 20% off your entire purchase.  I’m upstairs sampling the vanilla bean loaf, and there’s this weird aftertaste.  The black tea is helping only so much.  I’m glad I have a peanut butter sandwich with me.  It’s not gourmet breakfast, but I do feel like a queen as I look over the café railing down upon the bookstore.

It’s 9 o’clock on a Saturday, and it’s a bustling morning.  I stood at the door as the store opened, and now I’m in my favorite seat here, a table along the railing.

I think, dream and wonder…why do I have only one coupon?  I want to walk out with the whole bookstore.  Right now, I want one particular book.  I’ll go tease myself and see if the paperback is out yet.  The vanilla loaf taste is still hanging on my tongue anyway.

Tongue.  Teeth.  Fangs.  Vampire fangs.  Vlad the vampire.

I’m into Young Adult books, but I don’t like hardbacks.  Hardbacks are heavy to carry and you can’t fold the covers back to make it comfortable in your hands.  I got sucked into this vampire series by…oh, I don’t recall how or who introduced me to it.  The first book was in paperback, I know that, and maybe the smiley vampire face on the cover caught my eye.  I’ve read eighth grade through eleventh grade, but Vlad’s senior year is still a mystery.  It hasn’t been a year yet–the standard time between hardback release and paperbacks–but a girl can hope and think, dream and wonder.

I walk instinctively to the right side of the store and look under “B” for Brewer.  My eyes jump from bookend to bookend, shelf by shelf.  Hardback–hardback–hardback–paperback.  There it is!  Paperback!  Tucked at the edge of the shelf, hidden in the shadows of overhead lights, is The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod: Twelfth Grade Kills.

I grab it and drop it on the floor.  I’m so excited I can’t even hold it!  I dash over to my husband who wanders the CD racks, of course.

“Oh, this trip was so worth it!” I say.  I have waited so long.  I smile, I gleam, I may even be glowing.

How many more times will I feel like this?

How many more times will I be this excited about a book series–so excited!–so excited for a paperback because it’s cheaper and lighter and more flexible than a hardback?  How many more times will I be able to walk into a bookstore, pick up a book made of paper and walk out with my treasure?

A purchase.

The glisten of a glossy cover.  The ruffle of pages flipping through them.  The smudgy fingerprints in margins from cheap ink.  The triumph of finding what you want.  To leave with the treasure.

There’s joy of being able to flip through a book for a sample; through the entire book, not just some random chapter.  In fact, by doing this now, I find another YA novel to buy.  That book is here but more expensive at $9.99.  I’ll wait for another coupon.

An actual purchase.  Even the smell.  I pull it up to my nose, to make sure.  There’s that musty, raw dusty smell.  Yes.  The delicious anticipation.  Page One awaits.

With the dying brick-n-mortar stores going the way of the Dodo, I will probably not have many more moments like this.

I walk by the shelves one more time to relive the glorious moment.  It’s the only paperback there.  Or it was.  It’s mine now.

Vlad is $8.99.  I use the coupon, but I would have bought it without one.

Even the receipt is a bookmark.


Coffee Shop Chronicles: Playing with Toys


Bear, DE

April 2006

I expected one thing from this morning’s workshop hosted by the University of DE, entitled, “Reconnect with Your Creativity”, but took away something completely different.

I want toys, now!

That’s what the first workshop session was: toys. Slinky, Lego, twisty ties, magnetic 3D designs, balls, stretchy toys, flip frogs…all that stuff that we played with as kids. We were each given a secret task. It turned out that everyone had the same secret task: draw a flower. I thought of my college Roomie and her flowers and drew as she always did: one stem, two leaves, five petals and a cloud in the background.

There were only pink and green highlighters on the table. No other colors? I wondered. Well, these will do.

The instructor watched us a bit. “Why didn’t you ask for other colors?” she commented. “Why did everyone draw the stem green?”

“How often do we not ask for help at work? How often do we do things because ‘that’s the way they’ve always been done’?”

Woah. Deep thoughts. Why didn’t I ask? I thought about it, almost did. But didn’t. I was already being chatty. I want to be that energetic “Wow” person. What held me back?

That’s a rhetorical question. I think.

Ashley made me a thick, yummy Mocha Light Frappuccino just now. She gave me the leftovers in a separate cup. That’s on my left and a half-eaten slice of reduced-fat coffee cake is in front of me. I’m at the corner table with the sun full on my back. I’m so warm, so comfy.

I wonder as I look around how many people would benefit from this type of this. The playing, I mean, not the food. Or maybe both, the indulgence of it all.

“Why didn’t you play with the toys?” she asked us. “What held you back? Why are you or why are you not creative?”

How am I creative? I write. I journal. They’re the same things and yet they’re separate. I draw or sketch on my journal pages. I scrapbook, a little bit.

How can you coax creativity out of others? That’s a really good question. I write letters, so maybe my friends will write me letters back. There’s something personal and imaginative putting pen to paper, even if you just write about the weather like Dad always did. Playing board games, perhaps? I don’t have many local friends, but I do have my coworkers.

Everything relates back to my job. Do those same reasons hold you back at work? Why don’t you ask questions?

We explored office atmosphere. Imagine the office you want. How do you get there? Provide toys at staff meetings. Create “our” traditions or ways of doing things, not “mine” or “yours.”

I shared this with my boss. I was so hyped up over this!  He seemed to get it, some of what he has been saying all along. Think new aspects for what he has said in the past.

When is a good time to reinvent myself? Do I need to? I will be that bubbly person I see myself as, the same one my friend, Tina, sees in me. The chatty person Dad taught me to be. In my mind’s eye, I see me chatting at new scrapbook stores. I see mentioning at a crop, “Who wants to do lunch with me?”  I can invite other Penn State alums over the house for company. I see me being the fun person in the room. Maybe I’m not ‘The One’ everyone flocks to at a party, but still.

Do these people here see that? The baristas do. Natalie and I have a chat. “Give us your email,” she says, “so we can stay in touch.”  Yes!  They do emails with previous employees when they leave.

Liz beside him says, “Well, you’re like an employee.”

So…I imagine what I want to be and be it.

Could it be that simple?