Sometimes Starbucks can be bad for you. No, not the stuff they serve. I actually like their coffee. And they treat me well. If I order my favorite – a watered-down version of an Americano – at other coffee shops, the barrista will very likely give me that raised eyebrow, half-amused, half horrified look of someone who’s just been asked to commit a crime. But at Starbucks, they repeat my order without missing a beat, without so much as a blink. They make me feel as hip as the guy who’s just ordered a triple shot of battery acid, no whip.
No, it’s not the coffee. It’s the inadvertent proximity to certain patrons. These people rub me so wrong I‘m left with carpet burns. And in certain shops, where the tables are arranged in such a way that if you and your neighbor get up at the same time, you WILL do the rump-bump, you just can’t help but overhear random bits of conversation. Ugly, awful words that get louder despite your best efforts to tune them out.
So it was yesterday, when I ducked into a shop in a rather well to do part of town. Less than a foot away, a woman sat across from a snub-nosed, red-faced man whose tie seemed to cut off his air supply and whose bloated ankles bulged out of his penny loafers like overfilled muffins.
“You suburban housewives,” he said, his voice louder and more grating than the hum and spit of the cappuccino machine, “you’re the ones that get hurt. They’re jealous of your mansions, your big cars. They want to take these things away from you.”
Bristling with anger, the woman sat up, puffed out her chest and made angry clucking noises. In her black outfit, she reminded me of a wild turkey seconds before the hapless bird realizes that it’s about to be shot.
The man smiled and nodded as the woman spat out phrases like, “It’s my money,” and “I’ve never been this angry.” She sounded as if someone were indeed aiming a gun at her, or as if a great and horrible danger were looming just around the corner. And all because of the so-called “Public Option.” This woman truly believed that the government was scheming to take her hard-earned money just so it could pay for some alcoholic’s detox, a welfare mom’s baby formula or an old man’s hip replacement.
“We were perfectly fine before Medicare,” the woman said. How could she know this, I wondered. She didn’t look old enough to have been around all that much before Medicare.
Fueled by the women’s heated responses, the man continued to spew rhetoric about the sins of the government, most notably about the selfish ways and malicious intent of “that socialist president.” And, as if she’d been parched for months, the woman drank his Kool-Aid.
Feeling like someone had dumped a pail of sewer water on my head, I packed up my laptop, threw on my coat and hurried out of the shop. My next stop was an unassuming little nursing home located smack in the middle of a run-down, sometimes intimidating part of the city. Soon, I found myself sitting across from a wheelchair-bound woman whose hard life had culminated in a crippling injury. She pointed to the scratched armoire in the corner.
“All my stuff fits in there,” she said. “Would you believe it?”
With the exception of a vase with plastic flowers, a box of tissues and a large Styrofoam cup filled with water on her nightstand, a pair of fuzzy slippers tucked beneath her bed, and several pieces of chocolate neatly displayed in a plastic dish atop a small side table, her room was threadbare.
“Would you like a chocolate?” she asked, smiling as she struggled to reach for the dish.
This simple act of kindness rendered me speechless. It seemed the very antithesis of my experience in the coffee shop. Before me sat a woman who had so little, yet she was eager to share with me, a total stranger. She offered what she could, just because.
On my way home, I confess, I fantasized. In my mind’s eye, the woman in the coffee shop suddenly came upon circumstances that left her utterly helpless, that forced her to rely on the good will and selflessness of others. I imagined her receiving the kindness of strangers, and hanging her head in shame.