katzpawz - 7/25/2011 4:10 PM ET
Perfect! I loved this!
|Coffee in suburban America is either served black without comment or dressed up in complicated phrases . The places to acquire this beverage range from the stop-and-squawk gas station on the corner to the tiny shop with the big name nestled in a strip mall. The people who drink it are running from one place to another, trading gossip, or carrying the clearly labeled paper cup like it’s the tag on Minnie Pearl’s hat—the price is the point. I wonder about the latter group, and in doing so I watch them; I am the Jane Goodall of the caffeinated.
Is it complete confidence that allows a person to sit and eat with his back to the room, or a desire to hide? An older white male with graying hair, loafers and dark socks to go with the tailored pants and summer-weight shirt is reading a newspaper, studiously ignoring everyone that walks through the door. Could be that he’s ashamed for anyone to see him eat. Could be that it’s the largest table in the room—which happens to be the one designed for use with a wheelchair. He probably uses the wheelchair access buttons on automatic doors and the big stalls in the restroom, too. I’ll bet he cusses handicapped drivers on the road and refuses to hold doors for people. I wonder if he eats alone in a coffee shop because it looks less pathetic than eating alone in a restaurant.
Now there are two older gentlemen in Harley-Davidson tee shirts, sandals, and shorts, bearded, sun-shaded, and driving a Camry. They talk like old buddies, equally tan with neatly trimmed beards. They’re trying hard to not accidentally touch each other as arms swing for balance with their stride. A mom is pulling a young daughter out of a brand new Jeep Wrangler—oh, how cute! She has pigtails; so does her daughter. Mr. Eats Alone is leaving now. He has a slight gimp to the left side, which I suppose qualifies him for the table. I doubt his Jaguar has a chair lift.
Most of the people here have more money than they can spend, or have such convoluted lines of credit it might as well be the same thing. I saw a guy wearing cargo shorts that cost more than my entire outfit, walking out to an SUV that cost nearly as much as my last house. Soccer moms stop here for fuel, shoulder to shoulder with middle management on the way to work and computer programmers trying to use shabby-casual as cover for the price tag on the Prius they drive. The soccer moms are the worst—the drinks they order sound like chemistry experiments. The businessmen want it fast, and the computer geeks want it flashy…yet they slink out like they’re embarrassed to have been caught dead in a non-indie establishment.
My kid goes to school in this town. She lives in the last remaining neighborhood that doesn’t require a person to mortgage his soul. The squat little houses are the exact opposite of pretentious, and are in varying stages of repair. The one she shares with her grandparents is one of those in the worst condition, despite the fact that her father lives there ostensibly to act as the maintenance man. This is a neighborhood where the biggest caveat is the cooperation between neighbors—nobody has enough cash to cover every eventuality, but everyone can pitch in when the situation becomes critical. There are trash burning and dead cars in the driveway and an entire pride of feral cats and a gunshot doesn’t necessarily mean someone’s been hurt. Everybody really *does* know your name, and your family history, and the last five cars you’ve driven, and whether or not you run out in your underwear to pick up the morning newspaper.
She goes to school with kids that have never had to share a bedroom, who have never been on Medicaid, who have never had to wear a piece of hand-me-down clothing that wasn’t labeled “vintage”. The funniest thing is that they’re at opposite ends of the same social class, both considered “middle class”. My daughter learns that no money means you don’t get what you want right away; you save up for it, or buy used. The other kids learn that no money means you take out a line of credit and get whatever you want, when you want, and in copious amounts. My daughter wants to join softball and volleyball and band and theater, so that she can hang out with her friends. She’s learning that in order to participate in these things, she’s got to have at least one parent with either time or money, and that’s the one requirement she can’t meet. She’s in band and Tae Kwon Do.
I grew up similarly a few towns over, at the bottom of the pond, wearing shoes by Kmart and clothes by Mom, surrounded by designer labels and tropical vacations and Stepford neighborhoods that hid abuse and drug problems and secrets that only differed from those found in the City by the higher mark-up on the drugs and the ability of the victims to finance counseling. I did not escape unscathed. Truth be told, I didn’t escape at all—I still live here, a few streets away from the house in which I grew up, hanging around as my parents age, waiting for the time at which I will perform my expected duties as Elder Daughter Doing Elder Care. In the meantime I sidestep the Stepfords and teach my daughter how to laugh at them and herself, and choose those friends she wishes, and ignore the labels.
So far, she has. She enjoys this expensive coffee as a treat, knows her pawn-shop clarinet is of a better quality than those of her band-mates, talks softball with her best buddy, and looks forward to high school, where she can join the theater company. She calls her clothing choices “vintage”, and chuckles instead of explaining. She pats my beat-up old truck on the dashboard and calls her an old friend. She crushes on the boys with the quirky senses of humor, and chooses her friends by diversity and intellectual compatibility. One friend is growing up in a $750,000 house and never sees her working parents, while another is being raised by a single mom living cramped in a two bedroom apartment with a younger brother. One friend has recently converted to Catholicism, while another is staunchly agnostic, and yet another has her hands full gently saving souls for the Baptist church. One is punk-rock, another is preppy, a third is turning jock. My kid has never been in a clique in her life—we see no reason why she should start now.
I sit and watch the other coffee drinkers sip and savor, enjoying the company or lack of it, watching everyone or no one, running out the door, gulping on the run, in a hurry to make an appearance at another suburban scene. I don’t know why I insist on drinking this coffee in this place with these people, but I do know that I have to work for half an hour to earn the price of a cup of joe I can knock back in less than five minutes. The perspective is staggering—yet I sip and savor, watch everyone and no one before I run out the door. I don’t sit with my back to the room because everything here is a show, every customer a star in his own play, using clothing and cars and coffee to demonstrate how grand it is to have…everything. I feel as though I belong because with my truck, and the roof over my head, a job and a fantastic kid I get to call my daughter, I really do have everything. And I celebrate with fancy coffee. I think mine just might taste better.
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