IMPOSSIBLY AWKWARD NO MORE (everybody is somewhere else) By John Watts

crowded coffee

“Ever serenely balanced, I am neither free nor bound—consciousness and joy am I, and bliss is where I’m found.”  Walt Whitman

There I was at a crowded coffee shop.  All around me, to my left and right, were people of all stripes and pedigrees moving in for their own desired beverage needs.  College slackers.  Business commuters.  Construction company crews.

It all made me feel like I was walking in to a 7-11 at rush hour—so democratic, so unscripted!

It was early in the morning and it took visible effort for me to speak audibly enough to even be heard saying “excuse me” beyond a grunt, as I reached over for creamer and stir sticks for my coffee.  And then as I turned to sit down I noticed an alarming fact.  All of the tables and chairs were half filled up and the territories were not so easy to mark in terms of enjoying ones solitude.  Not even the least coveted table in the back next to the restrooms was totally vacant.

I felt like the shy man at the bathroom urinal who shuts his eyes well enough so as to only see below his chin and blocks out either side.  One thing was for sure.  My well healed comfort level needs were not going to be met this time in this place.  There was no getting around that.

After shifting back and forth on my feet a minute or so, I kind of staggered forward in false start mode while returning my feet back to their original starting position.

Due to this glitch, I ending up delaying the staking out of my own territory at the table by returning to the coffee prep/condiment area–which in turn bought me more time while I searched to regain some kind of rhythm.

I added more creamer and grabbed a few more napkins.  I surveyed the room.  Again no solo tables.  Only pockets of seats available with humanity all around.

I continued to hover a bit longer until it seemed to me that the whole place was terribly aware of my lack of belonging and I was too conspicuous.  So I finally sat down and committed.

It was a corner chair on a 4 sided table that I finally threw my fate in with.  The table was meant for 8 chairs, but now—due to the ridiculously high volume going on, it was accommodating 10 chairs.

Right away I was sure that I was being stared at.  A man was looking right through me from the other side of the table.

The whole experience was mortifying!

Wait.  On second thought.  Scratch that.  Turns out that once I dared to look closer I soon realized that the man that had unnerved me was in fact glued to the CNN news on the overhead flat screen TV, highlighting the sports and weather updates.  It had nothing to do with me.

But it certainly was a close call.

So I returned to my coffee.  It was all I had to use as a prop to stay busy with.  I had no croissant.  I had no journal to write in.

It was all happening LIVE without a safety net, and without the proper buffer space in which to enjoy my personal space.

All I had to escape with was my drink.  A half Columbian brew mixed with a Parisian blend.  So I focused and projected as best I could so that I could FEEL as smooth and sophisticated as my beverage.

And as I took a deep sip I was jarred by 2 teenagers suddenly standing very close to my chair.  This was not their fault of course.  The place was quite crowded as I said before.

But teenagers are a different kind of animal.  So I braced myself with the expectation of hearing tribally disrespectful things said in my midst that would either expose my ignorance or make me blush.  Either way I would be uncomfortable.

But I had other developments on my radar to contend with.  Like the 2 Professional Mover company guys getting up to go from the seats on my side of the table.

The brief relief I felt in having my buffer zone expanded once again, was short lived.

Because it was at this juncture that I noticed a young woman come over to claim the just vacated seat closest to me.  She smiled and briefly made eye contact with me which felt very normal to me at first but then caused great guilt seconds later.  “Was I wrong to have smiled at this woman?” I thought to myself.  ‘Should I look back for a second glance?”  “Would this convict me as being too obvious of a cad?”

And joining her was a woman who appeared to be her sister at the other chair.  I deduced this because their expressions contained seamless subtle similarities impossible to explain and that only siblings could share.  The second lady carried a toddler on her lap.

So picture me now.  I had 2 adult sisters on my side of the table—one with a bouncing toddler.  Across from me, and also within cologne smelling range, was 2 young entrepreneurs straight out of college.  They wore ties and urgently looked over facts and figures on an IPAD.  They were actively trying to grow their business as they sat.

Next to them were 2 professionals from the nearby government building.  One was a mentor and the other was a fresh faced protégé.  The mentor was doing all the talking while the protégé took down notes and retrieved sugar and cream to meet the mentors needs.

For the last available seat, a trendy looking college age student with ear rings and tattoos came sauntering over with a very fancy drink and a biscotti.  He cooled his drink down by pulling out his IPhone so as to disappear even more into his own little world.

And not forgetting the 2 loud teenagers standing right behind me—I felt entombed in a sardine can that was definitely not of my own choosing.

And at that very moment when the table was at full capacity, I felt the same pressure I experienced from past overnight stays at B&B’s; the need to extend myself socially to people that I had no past history with whatsoever.

I felt the need to clear my throat and address my new compatriots.  This of course was ridiculous.  I knew that.  This was just a crowded coffee shop.

I was under no obligation to mingle or impress any of these people arrayed around me.

It was at this point that I stared at my rich, sophisticated blend of coffee and made a vow to myself–I was going to gaze pointedly at everyone and make a definitive bid for acceptance.  And I would try and look relaxed and like I belonged too, despite the caffeine edge I was starting to feel.

As the general hum of coffee shop voices coalesced into one indistinguishable collective with the sound of moving furniture, I looked up from my half Columbian brew mixed with a Parisian blend drink and straightened my posture for full effect.

What I saw was NOT what I expected.  Instead of locking in on my lack of confidence and completeness on this given day, all the cast of characters around me where completely oblivious.  The 2 sisters were lost on their kindles—reading away on virtual books as they electronically turned pages at an invisibly mad clip.   As for the 2 young entrepreneurs straight out of college they kept checking their figures on their spread sheets.  In fact I think they were on a conference call.

For all intents and purposes; they were NOT in the room with me either.

Next to them, the 2 professionals from the nearby government building, the mentor and the protégé, were also consumed in busy ADULT matters.  The mentor nervously tried to lead and the protégé nervously tried to follow.  One was reading text while the other was busy trying to look up hotel bookings for a future business trip.

The trendy looking college age student with ear rings and tattoos kept both his thumbs madly whirling around on his IPhone, which looked like some kind of elaborate video game.

Even the baby at the table was playing with a Sesame Street mock phone that played animal sounds.

So the coast really WAS clear at this crowded coffee shop.  It was a defining moment for me in this new century as a matter of fact.

Because I was finally able, for the first time in public, to calmly survey the entire café—and look every type of person without flinching.

I waved my arms around.  I tried gimmicks just to get my table neighbor’s attention.  I barked like a dog.  I gargled my coffee.

To no avail.

It was liberating!

And I have returned every week to that same crowded coffee shop.  And now, instead of being a wall flower, I stride in with an acoustic guitar, in full state of self-possession, and play off the cuff tunes that I never played to anyone but myself before.

And the patrons continue to stick to their own devices and distractions.  Even the workers are anywhere but there.

And I can dance or hiccup or play the guitar to a filled to capacity venue.  And no one judges.  No one has barely any clue I am there.  My stage fright is cured.

Because I can safely say that no one is truly THERE except ME.

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About John Watts

I like to write transcendental community based essays and stories along with photo journalism pieces.
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