I don’t spend a lot of time sitting in coffee shops or bars, but what’s wonderful about both is that you can blatantly eavesdrop in either. You buy your mug or glass, and that is the ticket that reserves you a seat at a corner table. You place your ticket on the table and take one sip and magically your seat is reserved. No one can budge you. Then you hold your notebook at an oblique angle so no one can see inside, and you write in your most illegible scrawl, just in case, and you begin to record the intimate, embarrassing words of perfect strangers. No one seems to mind or even notice. It’s the same whether you are in a bar, a coffee shop, or a McDonalds. The only difference between venues that I have been able to discover is the acceptable vocabulary for the male reproductive organ and how it may be used in context.
“I’m teaching a class about the history of the white, artistic, penis-dominated culture that existed in Paris between the world wars.”
Not something you often hear in bars.
I’m in a coffee shop this morning. The difficulty with these university people is that you can never tell from age, dress, habit, or language, who is a teacher and who is a student. I had three of them sitting at the table next to me, and one man was holding forth. Someone had asked him whether it was possible to be part of an artistic movement.
“Well, certainly not in Fort Wayne. Fort Wayne is a corpse. That’s why artists went to places like Paris.”
“To be with other artists?”
“Certainly to be with other artists. But also, to be in Paris. I mean, nothing ever happens here. People hole up and there’s no life. Christ, I was in Cairo and I walked out of my apartment one day, and there was a dead donkey, lying right there in the gutter. I mean, Christ, I walk out of my home and nearly step onto a … Dead … Donkey! Nothing like that ever happens here. You can’t have an artistic movement in Fort Wayne.”
The wonderful thing about eavesdropping in coffee shops is you sit there totally open to everything until your mind fixates on something and starts to become judgmental. You plant a seed and it grows and you water it with thoughts, impressions, and prejudices. And you wait. Will it be a weed, a flower, a nourishing vegetable?
This morning I planted the question of whether the pedant was right about Fort Wayne. There was certainly Truth in what he said. One does not generally find dead donkeys outside One’s apartment here, even if One is the second coming of Our Savior. And there is a certain bland normality that doesn’t change day to day. People definitely hole up. At least in the winter they do.
I thought about this while I walked the half mile home from the coffee shop, rubbing my burnt tongue gingerly on the roof of my mouth. Too old to learn from mistakes, I always order something very hot, and drink it too quickly. My way home was slowed by the crusting mounds of last weeks snow heaved off the roads by the snow plows and covering the sidewalks two feet deep. Someone before had walked this path, and someone else had followed their footsteps, and so on, so that by the time I came along, each footprint was size fifteen and my leg dropped through the crust to the knee.
I thought about Cairo, home of the dead donkey, and the thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square. I have never been to Cairo, though, technically, I have spent some time in Egypt. It was a trip to Israel, and we visited the mountain which is thought to be Mount Sinai. This was back when the peace treaty with Egypt had been signed and much of the Sinai desert, including this mountain, had been returned to Egypt. It was there I saw my first working camel and glass bottles with “Coca-Cola” written on the outside in Arabic. We were invited into the tent of Bedouins where we drank their bitter, unfiltered coffee followed by a glass of sugar with a little tea added for wetness. It was Rather Different from Fort Wayne.
And then the seed erupted and bloomed. An image came to me, a very strong image. An Egyptian woman visiting Fort Wayne. She finds she can walk about without a burqa and no one stares at her. Or more likely, she keeps her head covered like everyone else here because its friggin’ five degrees today, but no one cares whether she does or she doesn’t. She can speak her mind, and not only don’t they throw stones at her, but people stop to listen, and maybe even encourage her thinking, and to them, it’s no big deal. Then one day, she walks outside her apartment and there is no dead donkey. It smells nice. She sees a towering, ancient, leaf-less oak with a pile of oak leaves stuffed in a fork of the branches and out pops a bristle brush tail of a squirrel. But that’s nothing compared to the paved and curbed road – it seems everyone’s road is paved and curbed here. Today the entire road is covered in a white powder up to her calves.
She pulls off a glove and, without thinking, reaches down to touch it, because after months in this country, she is shedding her fears daily. She sticks her trembling, bare fingers in the powder and it is so cold, it burns. She brings it up to her face, surprised at how light and cottony it is. She inhales it and then prods a tongue into it. It begins to melt in her fingers like her first pistachio ice cream when she was six years old, but it isn’t sticky, and it tastes of fresh coldness without any sweetness, like eating winter air.
And she thinks to herself, Cairo was a corpse, everyone afraid to speak their minds and working like dogs from sun up to sun down. Here, I walk out of my apartment and (she probably would not say “Christ”) the world is covered in snow!