I still think cafes and coffee shops house the best conversations. I know that most of them have become tech hubs—people hunched over big, small, and mid-sized screens, the white umbilical chord of ear buds connecting them to their idevice of choice, everyone siloed in their supposedly borderless virtual worlds. Guilty. At least once a week I haul my laptop to a nearby café to write (proud of that living cliché) to insinuate myself among the traffic of people circulating through in the course of their day and, to be honest, creep on conversations. I might have been a great spy if, that is, my gig was eavesdropping and not careening down a road in the Swiss alps while taking fire from mysterious people in long, black sedans. Spoiler alert: the mysterious people are Russian, they’re always Russian.
You don’t have to try too hard to listen lurk on someone. Our social barriers are melting faster than the ice swaddling the Artic circle; we talk more freely and openly in public places about things that would make our parents fall down dead on the spot. It might be the new normal to feel vaguely shocked and somewhat disappointed to think that no one might have overheard us. This isn’t a nosey, gossipy thing for me (well, maybe a pinch), it’s more genuine fascination in the lives of other people. Every conversation is a story.
I’ve listened to nervous, sweaty-palmed interviews both in person and on the phone. Make no mistake: a floopy stomach is as easy to hear as any anxious stutter. I’ve listened to people conduct straight up “order me more this, tell Steve to order more that, what do the monthly numbers say about being able to greenlight the project” business. I’ve sympathized mightily with the chirpy rise and fall of a teenager selling herself as the perfect prospective student to the fatigued college recruiter. I’ve been a silent witness to many exchanges between girlfriends about THE BOY and his angering stupidity or mounting personal failures or heartbreaking choices that got his ass tossed. But it’s hard and she misses him and maybe he just needs to grow up and things will be different.
Space age thinkers toiling in a lab just built a teeny computer you can strap onto your wrist, but we still want and crave the most fundamental things—connection, to show up in meaningful ways, to be seen and received, to tell our stories.
Doug slid into the space next to me on the long bench running along the back wall of the café. Minutes before, a very serious, very organized bride-to-be and her wedding planner vacated the spot. Country chic is out, girls, stop gluing glitter to your antique washtubs. Metro-retro is in. I don’t know what that means exactly, only that it involves passing the phrase “on trend” back and forth, a lot.
Doug settled his venti-cino on the table, spun The Wall Street Journal around to face him, and unearthed what looked like a toffee-scotched brownie bar dusted with nuts from the pink pastry bag.
“How’s your day?” he asked as if we were two old friends falling into our Sunday ritual, the one where we meet up at our favorite coffee place to dish about the week, the world, the shitty exchange rate of the Euro.
“Good! How’s yours?” I said without thinking. I may be a buttoned up New Englander, but I’m not made of cement.
We waded into casual talk—the weather, but too depressing to devote much time to, movies, jobs–but it felt like we were running through café-stranger etiquette, getting the polite investigations out of the way in an effort to suss out the potential threat level: “Would you possibly conk me on the head, drag me back to your basement, and make me act out the entire LOST series? Are you mentally booking an Alaskan cruise with my stolen credit card number?” There are some conversations you’re happy to leave on the surface, the potential for disastrous over-share beating like a pulse behind every third word. And then there are those that you want to pry open, to scatter around you the way ashes stick and settle in the wind.
Doug was a retired investment banker. Doug owned land in northern Vermont, a place that captured his heart easily. He talked about its rural beauty and simple charm the way others talk about the bruising romanticism of cities like New York and Paris. When he chuckled and said, “I made a lot of money sitting on that porch,” I believed him and could picture him in his own self-made tech hub where industry roiled against the backdrop of amber leaves and grazing deer.
Doug had spent some of the winter traveling to Arizona. We talked about Sedona and its majesty, mystery, and powerful energy. I pulled up a few of my photos on my laptop. He nodded.
“For so long it was about paying the bills, now it feels like it’s about paying attention.”
I nodded. It took every once of strength not to flip open my journal and write down what he said on the spot. I kept repeating it in my head like a mantra, mentally massaging it like worry beads or the smooth beach stone I used to carry in my pocket as a kid.
Maybe this and “try not to be an asshole” are the only two isms that matter in the bigger scheme of things. I am guilty as anybody of not “getting it,” of not pulling the blinders away from my eyes long enough to see what’s important or meaningful, of nurturing distractions instead of leaning into the now. I’m imperfect on the best of days.
But this is why we should never stop having conversations in cafes and coffee shops. This is why we can’t afford not to listen, not to hear, not to be open to the story meant to find you.