Coffee shop humility
I’m not writing this to pat myself on the back, to brag about some high moral standards that I have or anything like that. I’m writing this as a critique of our current state of human thought; because I think the world needs more kindness, and because many of us--myself included--could use a reality check-up more often.
Today didn’t start out great for me. I spent most of the morning moping around my apartment, trying to get myself out of a funk and figure out what I was going to do with my day. I decided that since I didn’t have any coffee or any food for lunch that I would go to Roast & Toast, a cute eclectic place around the corner, and maybe write a little or work on a project.
I walk into the shop and immediately notice the grand prize: the corner booth in the window was empty for once. For those of you who’ve been here, you know this table is prime real estate due to its large windows, its perfect sun-to-shade ratio, the availability of outlets, and its seclusion from the rest of the room. So you can imagine how quickly I snatch it up. I place my backpack at the table to secure my seat, and then go over to wait in line.
I fill my travel mug with their cold brew and order their veggie pita and a cup of soup. As I’m carefully balancing the mug, the soup bowl I overfilled, and a crust of bread back over to my seat, I notice that there’s someone else sitting there.
It’s a girl, more or less my age, and she’s hastily eating her Subway sandwich while trying to plug her laptop into the booth’s outlet. My backpack is still on the opposite side of the table where I had left it, and I am a bit confused: did I know this girl? Did she know me? Is it that crowded in here that we were to share tables?
As I approach she looks over and immediately begins apologizing. “I’m sorry, do you mind if I share this with you? I need to study for this exam on Monday and I needed a plug somewhere, I’m sorry I should have asked you first.”
She looks frazzled, like she hadn’t slept well and possibly hadn’t showered yet. She was wearing a gray and red hockey crew neck and patterned sweatpants. Her words come out exceptionally quick, and you can just tell her brain was going a mile a minute.
I awkwardly smile, setting my soup on the table so I don’t spill any more. “It’s okay. You couldn’t have known who was sitting here.”
My hands are covered in soup, so I run up to the counter again to grab a napkin. While I’m making my way back, one of the baristas behind the counter says, “Sorry about your seat, by the way…”
The comment throws me off a little and makes me think about how the barista would have noticed. Did she just overhear our discussion? Or maybe the staff knows the girl from school or she is a frequent customer, or maybe they are annoyed that she came in with Subway, hadn’t purchased anything, and took another customer’s seat. Regardless, I shrug and say, “It’s alright.”
When I return to the table, the girl rambles on again. “Again I’m so sorry, I hope you don’t mind! Between the wedding this weekend and everything going on with my fiance I completely forgot about the exam on Monday.”
“That’s okay, I know a little of what college life is like. Do you go to college here in town?” I ask, talking about NCMC.
“Yeah I’m studying psychology, and so is my fiance.”
“Wow, psychology is great. I have friends who went into that field.”
And so we talk briefly to break the awkwardness, me standing next to the table and she sitting. I begin to see that’s she’s probably older than me, maybe 28 or so, and that some patterns in her speech make it seem like she might have a learning disability of some kind, or is neurologically atypical. In our short conversation, she explains that she always struggles with grammar and that her current professor is super strict: at one point her grandma died, and he refused to give an extension. I feel like I already know so much about her in just two minutes.
As our conversation wanes, I notice that there is an open bar seat nearby, and decide that instead of 1) sharing this table with her and disturbing both of our concentrations with more awkwardness, or 2) asking her to get another table (ha, like I would ever be so bold), I will simply move my stuff over a few feet and let her have it.
Let me be clear: this action is nothing for me to express pride in. It’s not something that anyone should receive substantial recognition for. “Local girl gives up her seat to someone who sat down at her table without asking,” is not headline-worthy. It's my natural reaction to what has taken place. But once I start eating my lunch, it kind of comes to me that some people I know would be really put-out or even upset by this girl’s action, like the barista. I can almost hear the irritated voices of my relatives and acquaintances going on about how "rude" this girl is.
I find myself spiraling thoughts like spaghetti noodles around a fork, and I can't help to think of why this irks me so.
We are in a society where higher education and professional advancement is pushed on us without much social or economic assistance, if at all; where psychologists and therapists and teachers and human service workers are so incredibly needed but rarely paid what they deserve or recognized for their contributions to our most vulnerable; where each authority figure demands unwavering dedication, critical thinking, and time commitment within our limited 24 hours, while others scold us for not cooking, not eating right, not exercising, not getting enough sleep, and not being happy in our states of perpetual anxiety; where our worth as young adults is determined by memorized tests, ineffective grading systems, and subjective credit scores that are labored for by the lower classes and casually purchased by the upper; where we can’t afford reliable internet service or decent meals but are criminalized for using public restaurant WiFi and community space without making a purchase each time we visit to earn our belonging; where we are expected to uphold unspoken social rules everywhere we go, some that remain ingrained in us from centuries of patriarchal dominance, colonialism, and deep-rooted capitalist ideals; where we are seen as “indecent” if we don’t consciously groom our bodies and compose our garments and emanate lavender or peaches and cream before leaving our private property and being seen in public; where we try to make ends meet any way we can but are looked down upon for our unorthodox strategies to do so; where one human’s needs are overshadowed by another’s personal preferences of proximity, comfort, and aesthetic appeal--even if I didn’t live in a society like this, it would feel audacious to suggest she move out of “my” space, to express discontent in her “rude” behavior, or to think of myself as superior for “allowing her” to “have” this corner of the coffee shop to herself. But thinking about all of these connected systems, and how they have primed us two humans for this brief interchange, makes me all the more aware of my need for more humility.
Half an hour passes. I had finished my lunch and just opened my laptop to start working--and the girl is getting ready to leave.
“Again thank you so much, I’m definitely going to pay it forward with someone. If someone wants my seat, I will definitely give it to them and pay it forward.”
I hadn’t even thought of that, but I tell her it was a good idea. I ask for her name: Rose. She shakes my hand with her left arm, as her right clutches the laptop and bag. I wish her the best of luck on her exam.
Then she leaves...and guess who’s sitting in the corner seat now?
Just a reminder that community is more important than convention, basic needs come before privileged desires, and that it costs you absolutely nothing to check your pride at the door, smile at a stranger, and have empathy.