“I’m just going to tell you right now. That’s not a real thing.”
My first thought, in that uncharitable vein humanity is sometimes cursed with, was thank God that isn’t me!
I am a sensitive creature and I’m pretty sure if a disgruntled coffee gremlin had sighed that at me, with such unctuous disdain, my face would have melted off.
As it is I have a front row seat to someone else’s humiliation. I felt bad for the guy for about a split second before New York reminded me that this was New York and the customers can give as good as they get.
“Just make the closest thing to what I said.” If this man had actually added “you serve caffeinated beverages to people with more important lives than you could even dream of, remember your place” he couldn’t have sounded more superior. True story.
Oh, and in case you haven’t guessed already. We were in Starbucks. It was not quite my first trip into a real life American Starbucks, but I hadn’t quite managed to shake the intimidation factor. I was learning more generally that New York has less than no patience with lollygaggers. (How could it. I’m fairly sure “lollygagging” isn’t part of America’s lexicon.) The form seems to be 1) Ask for what you want clearly and concisely. 2) Omit any and all superfluous syllables. Gratingly for a Brit this includes please and thank you. 3) Get the hell out of the way as soon as you’ve got what you asked for.
I’m aware that I have a flair for the dramatic, but I promise you this time there is no hyperbole. I have another example. More evidence. Picture the scene.
Dad and I are in a restaurant. It’s moodily lit: electricity’s approximation of candle light. There are antique wine jugs stacked in dark green waves on filigreed iron racks. Woodwork stained almost black strikes the senses against the pale tiling of the floor. It’s achingly hip in an ancient sort of way and we punters happily hand over fistfuls of dollars for the ambience. Not to mention a chicken pot pie the size of your torso and the best crispy squid since… well yesterday actually: my Dad and I are fans of squid. But the setting is not really what distracts me from my truffle butter. The real draw is the duo on the table to our left.
My first, joyfully judgmental, impression is an older man with his younger “bit on the side.” Oh my dear reader, it was so much better than that. The woman is dressed in black. Wild dark hair matches her wildly reeling voice too shrill for the tightly packed restaurant. Even above the chitter of 100 other conversations she’s more than audible. She’s sucking down oysters between cackles, chunks of gossip and sharp comments on fellow diners in her eye-line. The man isn’t listening. Nor is he hoovering his share of the oysters. The man has grey hair, a little thin on top. He looks weirdly familiar and my mind gropes for a celebrity name to match to his face but comes up stumped. I’m not completely ignoring my Dad so I don’t catch all of the conversation as it meanders through catty observations about people she knows. I do catch a comment on how the breakup of a friend’s marriage had better not take up too much of the woman’s attention, she has a busy week at work coming.
Suddenly I am thrown into discomfort. The warmth of empathetic embarrassment clenches at my heart, careening up my neck to heat my face. Under the table my toes curl up in borrowed shame. The waiter has come over and gestured at the lady’s bloody mary. “May I get you another?” The woman doesn’t even look up. “Not now.” I flinch. This is so rude! I glance reflexively at the waiter, trying not to be too obvious. I’m expecting anger, a sneer at the very least. Nothing. A bland, pleasant smile. He retreats and is at the service of another table before I can fully register his total lack of offense. The lesson seems pretty obvious I suppose: don’t beat around the bush. Save time. Say what you want and nothing more. Manners are a time suck. Leave your British civilities in customs with your confiscated jam and tea bags.
Here is where the duo becomes irrelevant to the beginning of this post, but the rest of their evening was too good to pass up. Still recovering from the rudeness, I tune out for a while. By the time they wrest my attention back the oysters have been cleared and replaced with a salad and a hamburger. I have to swiftly turn away for a moment as the man starts eating, for fear of seeing my own dinner again. I hope for the sake of the next reference that my dear reader has also read The Odyssey.
Odysseus’ crew, exhausted by sea voyaging, starving and filthy, flock to Circe’s table. Greedy for comfort and warmth as well as food they forget themselves. Bringing forth their true natures, Circe transforms them into pigs. Now imagine the middle stage of this transformation. The men haven’t realised what is happening to them. Perhaps they still have human heads and mouths. Their human jaws still work, grinding away, but their limbs are changing. Fingers fuse together, the bones liquefy, reforming into the four basic metatarsals of a cloven hoof. The flesh melts, flowing sluggishly into itself until it covers completely the newly formed trotters. The men feast on unaware. They shovel the food into their mouths. It’s a repetitive scooping motion; in under the greasy shards of meat and quickly up again, to faces hovering just inches from loaded plates.
That’s how this man ate.
At some point he must have paused because he voice broke through the hum of the restaurant.
“There’s something I must talk to you about.”
Just at that second the impeccably patient waiter returned. He gestured once more to the drained bloody mary. “May I get you another.” The woman didn’t look up. “Yes. I’m gonna need a drink for this.” She cackled through a mouthful of crouton. The waiter retrieved her glass and sped away. Around about this point I realised that my basic assumption had been wrong. These were not a pair of age-blind lovers. These were semi-estranged father and daughter. He was spoiling her with a fancy dinner in order to talk about something sensitive. She had known what was coming. She relaxed back into her seat, her arms rested on either side of her plate, cutlery raised combatively in his direction. When she asked what the woman wanted him to ask her, I didn’t catch the name of the woman in question, but it seemed to be a stepmother figure, a current girlfriend of her father’s at least. “She just wanted me to ask you, once and for all. Did you take it?”
“No! How could you- No! Of course not. No!”
“Of course, of course I believe you. I believe you. She just wanted me to ask. Once and for all.”
The conversation moved tetchily forward, they touched on rifled purses, cupboard doors left open, the last time she had been at the house. The Stepmom’s hurt feelings, betrayal, disappointment. The daughter’s more stridently wounded feelings, more stridently expressed at least. I couldn’t quite grasp what had been taken stolen but since hoofbeats usually mean horses I’ll go with money. We paid and left before they reached dessert.
Out on the street I asked Dad if he had heard any of the conversation. We recapped what we had gleaned. We walked in silence for a while, absorbed in our own thoughts.
“She definitely took it.” I said.