Coffee and the Art of Inattentiveness


December 28, 2014

5:15am, the morning after Christmas, and I am standing outside a McDonalds. Waking this morning in a home away from home, I negotiated pass bodies scattered on the couches and floor finding my way to the kitchen. I figured I would have a cup of coffee and write for a while. Looking at the coffee grinder though and glancing into the family room, I thought some of those scattered bodies might not think too highly of my grinding a pot of coffee at this hour. Then it came to me, I’m in the city! I’m not thirty or forty minutes from a coffee shop. I should be able to jump in the truck and have a cup of coffee in less than five minutes! I sneak out of the house, stepping on remarkably few bodies, start the truck, and head down a Christmas light lite road.

The off-the-beaten-track local bakery is only two minutes away, but it is closed. As they well should be—after all, should anyone really be out this morning away from family…can’t coffee be given up until a bit later, just once? The question comes and goes from my coffee deprived noggin; I’m not to be deterred. Two choices remain, Starbucks and McDonalds. I don’t like the thought of either, but my high minded virtues slipped away when I slipped out of the house. With sorry justification, I choose the closer of the two and turn into the McDonalds parking lot.

Some guy stands just outside and to the right of the entrance doors. Near him is the only car in the parking lot and I assume it is his. Shutting the truck door behind me, I quickly judge the scene. Showing the age of decades, the car’s long ago faded blue paint is chipped and worn. Like the car, his clothes are well worn but clean enough—certainly not from under the day before Christmas tree. Assessment in hand, I do my level best not to make eye contact as I walk up. All I want is a cup of coffee and a chance to write.

I did well not making eye contact. I grab the door handle and pull. Then came that sinew-stretching feeling that comes when your whole body is moving in one direction and for no apparent reason all movement suddenly stops—the door is locked!. Damn. A day after Christmas list is developing in my head: no coffee, a stretched something or another runs up the neck just behind my right ear, and I’m looking like an idiot for avoiding eye contact.

I turn, smile, with a hope of redeeming a bit of stature. He doesn’t smile but then he does not not smile. “I guess they haven’t read their sign or they forgot to take it down,” he said. A handwritten sign is on the double door to the right of the one that just sucked up my allotted days’ worth of dignity.

We are not open until 8am on Christmas and not open until 5am on December 26.

I glance at the massive banner saying “Open 24 Hours” hanging in the window next to the door as I lean my head the left and try to relax stretched neck sinew and remember what time and day this is.

Dammit. I really didn’t want to talk. “Yep,” I said as I looked in, saw employees acting busy, but avoiding eye contact—they know it is the 26th and after 5am. One looks in my direction but quickly looks away as I beg telepathically, “please open the door.” Not a chance. “Well, I guess,” I said, “they don’t know the sign is up.” Yeah, it sounded lame, but it was all I had.

“You must be from California,” he said. Where in the world did he come up with that? Fifteen years in Washington, here’s a guy I do not know, and off the top of his head he comes up with my birth sate. “No,” I said, trying to affect neighborliness while getting back to the pickup as soon as possible, “I live in Washington.” He doesn’t miss a beat and says, “You live here, and you’re from Washington.” Goddammit! What the hell is going on this morning? “You live where you are at,” he goes on.

5:20am, I haven’t had my coffee and I have a damn philosopher standing on a rain soaked sidewalk outside a locked McDonalds. I give up and finally look him in the eye, and say, “you’ve got a point.” “I’m not from here either,” He said, “I’m from the east…Well, most folk would say Midwest, but it’s all east of here.” What is going on? First, he talks about paying attention to life, right here right now, in this place—how often have I said to others we need to be present and mindful of the landscape in which we find ourselves? Then he speaks about the Midwest being the East—having grown up in the west, for as long as I remember, I think of land east of the Rockies as the East.”

I begin paying a little more attention and we talk about place, landscape, where we live, and where we’re from. Turns out, he isn’t from here, the place of this McDonalds, but twenty minutes south. Also turns out, he is very comfortable having this conversation outside a locked McDonalds in the misty dark, while I am not.

5:30am a car pulls into the parking lot. A guy gets out and hurries to the door. Not to go through another awkward sinew popping episode I say, “They’re not open yet.” He avoids eye contact and comments under his breath something about being a computer guy. He knocks on the door, the door is unlocked and opened just enough for him to slip through and relocked. My buddy says, “He must be in a hurry. His shoes aren’t tied.” I look and sure enough, his shoelaces are flopping all about as he hurries across the shiny McDonalds’ floor. Wow, am I off. How did I not notice the laces as he walked up to the door? I look at him and shrug. That’s all I got.

He talks a bit more. I’m no longer paying attention. The computer guy got me off track and I didn’t get back on. I’m thinking that since I’m heading home this morning and there’s a Safeway grocery store with gas pumps across the parking lot, I’ll head on over and fill up the truck. Without looking in his direction I say I’m going to get gas while they work on opening the doors and started walking toward the truck. “Well, if you don’t make it back, enjoy the day,” comes from behind me.

Damn. What am I doing? It isn’t that hard to be more present and more relational than “I’m going to get gas,” without a glance. I turn, try to recover and say, “Well, I won’t be long. If they’re open when I’m done getting gas I’ll be back.” I’m fairly certain I don’t mean it and I’m guessing his read is the same.

I drive across the parking lot and get gas. Pulling out, I looked to the McDonald parking lot. He’s no longer standing on the sidewalk and the chipped paint blue car is gone. I drive to Starbucks. 5:45am.

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