no. 18 : In a Coffee Shop on a Wednesday

You can sit for hours at a table two feet away from a person and never talk to them.
Earbuds in. Eyes on the screen. Typing away on your keyboard.
You are invisible. They are invisible. Every corner, chair, bench, a pod of doing. "Do not disturb."

Into this walks a man.

Cane in his hand. His arms and limbs truncated. Born this way. (Dwarf, is that a word we say?) Slow. Impossibly slow. This is how he walks.

I've seen him before. Sitting in my pod. A couple of times I have seen him.
Today he sits across the table from me. His name written on the label of his cup. His cane hanging on the edge of the table. His hands shaking with tremors.

Eyes on keyboard. My earbuds in. "Doing." Working, because that's why I am here.
A few times he gets up. Again so slow. Refills his cup. Returns to his seat. Grips the table. Climbs up on the chair. Sits. Drinking from a straw. He looks at his watch a few times.

Finally, my day is over and I close my laptop. I wrap up my earbuds. I tuck it all away into my briefcase. Zip. Snap. Click. Ready to go.

"I've seen you," I say. "You come here often."
"Yes," he says.
The first few sentences I say to him he only responds, quietly, "Yes."
I'm not sure how much he can speak, how much he is able, and then he says, "I come here for breaks. To get away."
"Do you live nearby?"
"Yes," he says, "A couple of blocks away."
"This is a good place to get away to," I say.
"Yes," he says.

An accent colors his words.
"Where are you from?" I say.
"Iran. I came here when I was a child. I have lived two places in the United States. Los Angeles and Austin."
"Which do you like better?"
"Oh," he smiles. "Austin."
I laugh. "Me too. I had family in Los Angeles for a while."
We chat. He tells me his job. I tell him mine. He's semi retired. Working because he would be bored otherwise.

And then I have to be somewhere and so I say goodbye.
We shake hands.

I have this strange mix of emotions. Compassion. I see loneliness around him, especially in that coffee shop. I assume this because, what do I know about him? Nothing. Perhaps he's escaping a house full of people. Barking dogs. Chattering children. That idea makes me smile.

But also, I think a man at a table with a coffee isn't there to be by himself. Surrounded by people working and he's not. He's there for the reason coffee shops were originally created—to be with people. What they were before the invaders. The workers. He talked to me so easily. And I think eagerly, but again, perhaps I read into it.

Not pity. I don't want to feel that for him. I said he was slow and everything took effort. That was hard for me to watch. This is how he's always lived, probably. Normal for him. And so I won't pity him. That feels condescending.

I think about how we are invisible. How we have chosen—especially in that scenario—to be so. That's the thing. We have chosen it. It's invading our culture. Earbuds in. Staring at our phones. Elsewhere. Our choice.

And, I think to myself, this man has been invisible his entire life. We don't know what to say to someone so different and so often we say nothing. To be honest, I was not sure how to begin when I found the courage to speak to him.

The threads that attach us to each other, we can chose to grab them and tug, or leave them where they are. What is the cost of a smile? Of a small conversation? In doing so, what sacrifice do I make? What is taken from me?

Among these questions I think the better one is, What do I have that I can give?

As I leave a man who'd sat at my table too stands by the door.
He and I talked when I sat down. I wanted to be sure I wasn't taking up his space.
"Goodbye," he says.
"See you next time," I say.
I think he fought with what to say to him too.
I think he also saw that in the midst our theater of self imposed public exile there are those we cannot ignore.

I hope I see the man again.
I really do.
I'll find out what, or whom, he's taking a break from.


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