For over a year I’ve been corresponding with a friend from Germany, as in writing, like, actual, like, letters. Together we are on a mission to save the post office! The following is part of a letter I wrote recently.
My dear friend!
It’s a balmy 27 degrees in Boston today. My crocuses are huddling together for warmth and I have fled to the humid enclave of the Kickstand Café, one of my favorite spots to perch. My mug of chai steams seductively and your previous letter has my attention, but there is something else that I need to write to you about. It’s quite a tale—theft, dramatic pronouncements, moral conundrums, and baked goods. Intrigued? We begin.
The Kickstand is a mid-sized café located in Arlington Massachusetts, one of the many respectably historic New England towns circling Boston. The café occupies prime real estate along a busy stretch of Mass Ave, which is a mighty boulevard running through a bunch of outlying towns—Lexington, Concord, and Arlington—eventually passing through Cambridge and into Boston. The café itself squats on a lot that intersects with a biking/walking trail called The Minute Man trail. The trail charts out a 10-mile route traveled by the Revolutionary War soldiers. As you know, New England is very big on waving its history around in everyone’s faces—“Look at me! Look at me! We made democracy a thing! We did the Tea Party! We needlessly tried people for being witches!” Okay, so not all of our historical accomplishments were positive. Noted.
Inside, the café is a warm mixture of exposed brick walls, twinkle lights strung up over the doorways, tables made of all different kinds of roughly-hewn wood, and mismatched chairs. It’s homey, inviting. It’s always busy. Always.
The location draws a tidal ebb and flow of people—bikers stopping in to refuel on their ride; runners and walkers; the semi-retired who meet weekly to hash over the trials of the world (and neatly suture all its wounds before their cups of coffee cool), and lots and lots of moms. Some have ducked in to briefly hang out with other moms, temporarily free from sticky hands and the relentless litigator-style of interrogation that only a 3-year-old can deliver (But, why, Mommy? Why? Why? WHY?). Other moms gather with one another and their broods. Their children sitting on their little knees, coloring, sipping smoothies. Their babies lashed to their chests like adorable bundles of plutonium or strapped into high-tech strollers, little WIFI enabled buggies so that precious Cynnamon can learn Farsi AND colors!
The slightly rambunctious nature of Kickstand is one of the things I enjoy about it. As you know, the work I do is mostly solitary. Wedging myself against other humans makes me feel like I’m one of them. The rowdier the better! I may start dragging my laptop to raves and political protests.
The raucous café disco (sidenote: trademark “café disco” immediately!) requires one to be especially mindful of their café etiquette. What now? You ask. Café etiquette is something similar to the loose social contracts we practice every day—holding the door open for someone, giving up your airplane armrest to the other person, letting the person clutching a bag of potatoes and a package of razors (no judgment) cut in front of you and grocery cart full of chips, cookies, and ice cream (no judgment) in the supermarket. They’re mostly inconsequential niceties, really (unless you also have to go to the bathroom really, really, really badly, which is why you could only manage to grab the potatoes and the razors); they’re small gestures that separate us from the robots (you do know there are robots among us, yes? Ok, topic for the next letter).
Café etiquette is very similar and, in my opinion, full of really obvious moves. If you are a singular person, don’t hog the giant six or four-person table with your latte and latest Nicholas Sparks tear gusher on your Kindle. Hey Dan, Elaine? Maybe you can take your sales meeting to a corner of the room instead of fist-bumping about those quarterlies next to the med student hoping to get some studying done? Cool. And let’s not forget about the Outlet Warriors.
Real thing. I know because I am one. The Outlet Warrior enters the café. Her laptop bag slung across her shoulder like a quiver of arrows. She stands in the doorway for a moment, her head swiveling, surveying the room. She stops. Her breathing slows. There! A table by the far wall, snugged against an old timey antique Victrola: an outlet! She takes another quick scan and begins to move quickly, but not too quickly lest she tip off the three other Outlet Warriors who entered behind her. She reaches the table. Success! She drapes her coat on the back of the chair. She takes out a notebook, a pen, maybe an eyeglass case for good measure, one can never be too hasty marking territory in these places. Flush with victory, she moves to stand in the ordering line. She will now be able to “work” unencumbered by her battery life, pouring over spreadsheets, prepping briefs, sharing GIFs of baby hippos and supercuts of people hurting themselves on Japanese game shows.
I try to be a good citizen of the café. I only hope for the same in kind.
So it was that I found myself on this bracing March Sunday at Kickstand. I had left my Outlet Warrior self at home. Today was not for being the living cliché of the “writer writing at the café.” I was armed only with my book, my journal, this notepad, and your previous letter. I walked in and began sussing out the ideal place to perch for a few hours.
At the front o the café there are two, long sections of wooden counter. They run the length of the building and are set against the windows that face out onto the small parking lot. One one side, the counter turns to form a short “L” type nook, also set against another length of windows, before it ends to make room for a large, community-type table. I usually bee-line for the counter because that’s where most of the outlets are (Outlet Warrior!!) and because of the windows. And on this particularly cold day, I definitely wanted to be in the path of the great, buttery reams of Vitamin D were streaming.
The chairs are humped pretty close together in this space. You typically have maybe 5 inches between you and your neighbor. It’s why I always try and minimize my café footprint when I’m there in order to give the other person breathing room. I picked a chair next to a middle-aged woman. A newspaper lay in front of her, a super large glass of cocoa-colored iced liquid shimmered a little in the sun. A plate with a half-eaten scone sat next to her eye-glasses. “Morning,” I said, gently arranging my chair to give her whatever inches of room I could spare. I performed the requisite machinations to claim my café real estate: jacket on the back of the chair, notebook and pen placed neatly on the counter in front of the chair.
I walked to the ordering counter, stood in line, placed my order, and then moved to the end of the bar to wait alongside of other people. I’ve been trying to resist the urge to pull out my phone to fill any 6 or 7-minute gap in my attention and, instead, let my mind meander, let my gaze roam, put myself in a place from the not-too-distant past where unless you stood around waiting with a book or magazine, you were forced to be with yourself.
This was going well, I thought. I was noticing the artful black and white photographs hung on the wall. I was eavesdropping like a boss on the table just behind me (Kevin should have his CPA license by the end of the month, here’s hoping, just so you know). The café had filled up significantly in the 15 minutes since I had entered. Watching a group of bike riders come in, marveling at their red faces, chapped with the kind of endurance it takes to ride on such a savagely cold day, I happened to glance back at my chair. Except, it wasn’t my chair, exactly. There was a man sitting in my chair. I saw my coat on the chair to the right of him.
I blinked. I kept looking. Had I originally put my coat further down than I thought? No, I was careful to give the woman next to me some room. I was aggrieved, my friend, AGGRIEVED by this development. Who was this person? How dare he? Does he not understand what jacket-on-chair-and-notebook-placed-neatly-in-front means? Is he one of the robots?
Waiting for my drink order I had nothing but minutes to think and angst. What now? What was my move here? I was reminded again of my reticence to speak up in these kinds of situations and my palms itched from the shame of it. It’s something that I think a lot of women struggle with and younger girls are lapping us at every turn: being nice, being liked, being polite versus being heard, being recognized, being taken seriously. I can tell you that since these terrible, demoralizing months since the election, I have become painfully conscious of the price for staying silent. My brother who is a middle-school music teacher (candidate for sainthood right there) lays a great ‘ism on his students: if not you, who? Admittedly, he probably stole that from Ghandi or Martin Luther King, but still, it counts. I think of it more often than not these days as I deposit my two Twitter cents into the bank of outrage or wade into the fray of a Facebook “discussion.” Feministing is not a day at the spa, my friend, don’t let the slogans on energy drinks fool you.
Still not knowing what I would do, I picked up my drink and walked back to my NEW seat. I carefully set my mug down and climbed up onto the chair.
“I hope you don’t mind I moved your things,” came a soft voice to my left. The man, the seat stealer, the café etiquette perpetrator was an Indian man in his early-30s. Kind eyes peered out behind thin, wire-rimmed glasses. He had placed a compact, 11-inch laptop (might as well be an iPad, buddy) in front of him, and it wasn’t even plugged in (Bastard, my Outlet Warrior heart whispered).
“It’s okay,” I said, my tone flat because, duh, no, nope, not okay pal. A beat went by.
“And why did you move my stuff exactly?” I asked. He sort of shrugged a little and replied “Because I needed the room.” I looked at the surface area—5 inches give or take, just like everyone else sitting at the counter had—and wondered in what Universe he lived in that bought him a luxurious foot or more of space at this counter. I shook my head and remained silent.
Just then I noticed that the person who was sitting at the end of the counter, the small ledge that juts out into an “L” was packing up their stuff to leave. When they had turned to go, I neatly slid my mug and notebook over to claim this new, vastly improved piece of real estate that did provide me with the elusive foot or so of space. Ha! Ha! Seat Snatcher, I chided him smugly in my head, I’m actually getting way more room over here! YOUR PLAN HAS FAILED! (cue maniacal, evil scientist laugh)
And so here we are my friend. I took out my notepad and began this letter/tale of intrigue to you because it has, as you can see, made quite an impression on me. I could wrap this up by saying something about how in the end, I did get the more preferred spot, adding in something about karma and cosmic justice and how you have to pick your battles blah blah blah.
I remain bothered. This more ideal seat doesn’t feel like a prize, it feels like retreat.
If not you, who?
You have to pick your battles, but not picking any battles seems worse than picking the wrong ones.
As I’m sitting here writing you this letter, sitting uncomfortably with this situation and my role in it, I hear the sound of a chair scrape against the floor. I turn my head to see that he’s packing up to leave. His back is toward me as he puts his impossibly small (it might as well be an iWatch, dude) laptop in his messenger bag. I’m speaking before I even know what I’m doing.
“Excuse me,” I say. He turns, smiling.
“I just want to say that it was rude of you to move my things.” He continues smiling, blinking a little. I hope I’m not blushing, but my face feels hot.
“I see,” he says. “I understand.”
“It’s close quarters here, I get it, but, it was rude to do, okay?” My voice is so polite and steady that I sound like I’m asking him to fill out paperwork for his rental car. He continues smiling. “Just so you know,” I add. He holds up his hand, palm out in that universal gesture of “message received” and nods.
“Yes, I see, okay, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I say, but this time I mean it.
“Have a good day,” he says.
“You too,” I reply.
And I meant that, too.