They haven’t kicked me out yet, from this house of casual addiction, with its whooshes of steam venting out from chrome machines and its perpetually inconvenienced clientele floating in predictable patterns through the zig zags that lead to their daily fix.
Last time I tried to drink the stuff, my thumb developed an uncontrollable rhythmic twitch that lasted three days and kept me from sleeping. The caffeine poisons my peace, so I refrain. I love the smell though, the bitter chocolatey air feels as if it washes over me in a bath of nostalgic comfort.
This place is heaven for people-watchers like myself. I like to write about what I see from my corner spot. In this nook, the character studies of strangers fill my pages and satisfy my curiosities. I give them fake names and come up with their illusory life stories. They live on in my journal like brief fairy tales of the mundane. It’s busy enough in here that I blend in, as the quiet old man who keeps to himself, head buried in his notebook.
This fella Tom is who I really want to tell you about, but we’ll get to that later.
Rachel, the corporate worm. Earlier this morning after rushing her way in, she checked her phone twenty seven times within a span of four minutes while she stood waiting for her order. She comes in twice a week, treating herself to a massively caloric whipped cream topped concoction that would strike fear into the stomachs of those without iron guts. Each time she checks her phone, she pulls it out quickly then rams it back into her purse forcefully, usually with a barely audible sigh. She’s in her forties now and just got promoted at work, after having embellished her previous qualifications she now finds her daily life a living hell of pretending to know what she’s doing in her new role. The younger graduates that report to her have already caught on to her grift and have started calling her out in meetings, not overtly, but in subtle ways that leave breadcrumbs towards the path of her ultimate incompetence. Her managers are destined to find out sooner or later, so now she’s in a race against this alternate version of herself, resume-Rachel who only exists within the confines of the house of cards she’s built. She needs to prove her worth and live up to the lies she thought would be free of consequences. Her jerky movements and quick pace sometimes sync up with the pop music being piped in overhead. It’s as if she’s glitching in and out of awareness, her autonomy constantly betrayed by the vibratory alerts hitting her work phone like unexpected jolts of electricity. A persistent stress radiates from her skin and floats into my corner, infecting my mind with horrific memories of my own corporate past. I hope she figures it all out one day, not just for her good but for my own. I dare not think of how much her misery must expand once she settles into her cubicle each morning, the gray pilly walls strewn with photos that remind her of better days, suffocating her like a weighted blanket. I’m rooting for Rachel, but I fear she’s stuck.
Tom is in the far corner opposite of me, staring directly at me. I keep catching him looking at me with intense eyes. I try not to let it bother me.
Tony, the fake stock trader. He’s in here almost as much as I am, but he’s never said a word to me. He wears the same cheap looking suit every day and the stench of his amber cologne sometimes wafts into my corner and makes me sneeze. Tony is a clear fraud and has the aura of a greasy used car salesman who hasn’t made a sale in months. He’s not actually trading stocks despite the fancy charts pulled up on his overpriced laptop, he’s here to pick up women. I’ve yet to see him get so much as a second glance though, even from the chatty older divorcees who dress provocatively just to come in for their morning coffee. Tony doesn’t have a job, he’s one of those guys who peaked in his small town high school and can’t accept the size of the pond he now finds himself swimming in. As a small fish, he meekly tries to project a sense of bravado that his lack of confidence collides with, resulting in a confusing mess of brash timidity that exudes desperation. The sugar and cream counter is his hunting ground, the place where he tries to pounce on unsuspecting women. The carafe of whole milk is a complex contraption with a hard-to-locate button that must be pressed firmly to open the spout. He uses this as his icebreaker and tries to help unsuspecting targets, but the women see right through it. He’ll be kicked out at some point, I suspect the only reason he hasn’t been is because the workers here feel sorry for him. I bet the employees have a betting pool where they wager tip money on if Tony will ever succeed. I wager that he won’t.
Tom has been staring at me off and on all day as I wrote about Rachel and Tony.
Tom, the mystery man. I’ve only seen him one other time, he’s not a regular but he’s made himself quite comfortable in the corner opposite of me. He scribbles on his tablet while hunched over in such a way that makes my neck tense up in empathetic pain. His blatant disregard for ergonomics makes me think he’s younger, but it’s hard to tell with his excessive facial hair and loose fitting beanie. I look up from my notebook and I catch him staring at me again, he tries to play it off but it’s becoming quite obvious. I don’t usually speak with the people I watch, but I decide Tom will be the exception. I need to know why he’s staring at me, so I decide to walk over.
“Hello sir, I couldn’t help but notice you looking in my direction, do I know you from somewhere my friend?” I say in a relaxed tone. After all, I look at people too, so I’m sure there’s been times others have seen me in a similar light.
“My apologies, people don’t usually approach me like this. Sorry about that, just looking out the window behind you waiting for a friend.” I don’t believe him. He doesn’t make eye contact and he cowers ever so slightly away from me, as if my confrontation is harsher than I’ve intended.
“I don’t think you are looking out the window, I’ve caught you multiple times looking directly at me. Look, I don’t mind, I’m just curious as to why.”
I sense Tom’s discomfort growing, he keeps adjusting himself in his seat and he’s being very careful to angle the screen of his tablet from me.
He works up a little courage and with a more stern tone says “Well, I could ask you the same. I caught you looking at me! Multiple times, you looked directly at me in between whatever you’re furiously writing in that notebook of yours. Why don’t you tell me first!”
I’m taken back by this. I don’t enjoy confrontation and my intent was not to harass this young man, but we soon found ourselves in a very odd argument. The two of us, me standing there suddenly aware of the awkward situation I’d pushed us both head deep into, and him, cowering in the makeshift booth like a frightened puppy.
“Let’s start over, I meant no disrespect. See, I come here to write about the people I see in this coffee shop. I have a notebook and I jot down made up stories for fun. I know it’s weird, but it’s free entertainment. That’s the truth, that’s why you might have caught me looking your way.”
I see Tom’s chest slowly deflate, as if his soul is breathing a sigh of relief. He lets out a meek chuckle and says “Well, I guess we’re both observers.”
He then loosens his vice grip on the tablet and slowly turns it in my direction.
I’m looking at a drawing. It’s in black and white like a sketch, but it’s remarkably detailed. It’s the coffee shop, but some alternate version of it…it looks abandoned. There are ripped out pages of paper flying through the air, hundreds of them haphazardly strewn all around the place. In the far corner, an old man sits with his notebook, the source of all the flying paper. His drooping eyes pierce through the digital screen and seem to pop out of the otherwise flat drawing. His pen is a blade that acts as judge and jury. He appears to be lying in wait for his next victim.
I glance down at the bottom of the drawing, in cursive letters I see “Ed, the old man with the notebook. 9.22.23.”