Copyright 2015, E. John Love
Tremors Cafe welcomed Jack Owen the way a whirlpool welcomes a leaking lifeboat at sea. Jack just couldn’t not go in to get his caffeine fix. In fact, as he walked upstairs from the rapid transit platform, he noticed that the closer he got, the faster his legs moved on their own. He had to get in before the strange man, who was also angling for the one open glass door. In that moment, Jack only had to be faster than the next guy.
Tremors could barely be described as an enclosed space. With floor-to-ceiling glass panels on one side and high windows and skylights on the other, it was always brightly lit, either by sunshine or by halogen ceiling lights up in the ducts of its cavernous ceiling. Jack wondered if coffee shops operated on the opposite design principle used by bars, casinos and strip clubs. Those places had no windows to remind you of your real life or what time it was, or where you were supposed to be instead of gambling or jerking your life away. Nobody could look in and see you while you were doing it. Windowlessness was essentially deniability insurance that worked both ways, protecting you from your own guilt, and protecting the people outside who didn’t want your guilt to inconveniently remind them of their own.
But none of that drama existed in happy coffee drinker land. Coffee shops were always open, accessible and bright. Caffeine addiction was regarded invisibly, as a socially-acceptable and benign aspect of survival for weary parents, stressed students, and unaprobated academics. “Look at us in here”, each shop’s door would ring sunnily, as passers-by watched cafe occupants through floor-to-ceiling glass walls like fleshy, bipedal goldfish in a grotesque human terrarium. There was no guilt to deny, or lost time to lie about in coffee land. Thank god that all time was happy, hyper coffee time.
Tremors was almost taller than it was wide, but then, all that steam, halitosis and post-breakfast farting had to rise up and go somewhere, Jack decided cynically. He sniffed with suspicion, but the air seemed to smell a little better than he’d expected. Jesus, he felt flat and grumpy. He wondered if a crappy mood could affect one’s olfactory sense? He felt the beginnings of too many unformed questions emerging, and tried to shake them out of his throbbing skull.
The line shuffled forward slightly, and a loud “pay attention to me” woman wearing seventeen jangly, clickity plastic bracelets ordered thirty seven hundred low-fat mochas to bring to her office mates. “Suck-up”, Jack thought bitterly. When her credit card was denied, he closed his eyes and thought about his Dad instead. The nurse would have brought Dad his breakfast by now, and the old man would have already started bitching about the too-few pieces of toast on his plate, or about getting tea instead of coffee (when he’d forgotten that he’d actually asked for tea). The jangly plastic bitch ahead of him was now rummaging through her purse, hurriedly pulling out tissues, wads of paper money, and shitloads of clattering coins. The contents of her purse regurgitated out on the counter to the genuine concern of the young Korean girl who’d just started working there the previous week. Jack sighed and rolled his eyes up to the ceiling, looking for some visual escape from the tiny shit-hell of other people’s disorganization.
He rubbed his temples and the tense, buzzing feeling behind his eyes eased for a moment. It was too damned bright for him. He’d barely slept more than a couple of hours the night before, having sat by his Dad’s bedside in the Stroke Unit until about 10:30 in the evening. He could hardly concentrate at his day job for worrying about how his father was doing.
“Jack’s here”, trumpeted a familiar voice. It was Kara, Tremor’s assistant manager, who always greeted regulars with an open smile and bright eyes. Jack made eye contact and mustered a happy, albeit sleepy smile for her and heard himself mumble something that resembled “goo-moaring”.
“Jack’s a regular, a VIP. Medium Americano with an extra shot for Jack,” Kara rattled off.
The Korean girl at the register repeated Kara’s dozen-syllable order, confirming the command in the same fashion that torpedoes are ordered on submarines in war movies. Jack paid and thanked her and shuffled down the bar, anticipating “Stage 2” – the morning small-talk. Kara never appeared grumpy or sullen, and in fact shone with an almost manic brightness. Jack speculated that maybe Kara had shotgunned six triple-shot Americanos before starting her shift today. His energy level never got that high.
Kara was adept at getting Jack to smile whenever he thought he didn’t want to. She seemed to know when he needed to be drawn out, so while his espresso dripped, she took an available twenty seconds to drag a few words out of him.
“S’up, dude? You seem a little down today.”
Jack held back. “Um, no, not really… just tired.”
“Uh huh.” She shot him a confident, all-knowing look while glancing down and adding hot water to his Espresso. “You sure that’s it?”
He looked down at the counter, feeling caught and just a little sheepish. She saw it.
“That’s what I thought,” Kara muttered, shooting Jack a sly smirk. He smiled back, busted but lightening up.
“My Dad’s in the hospital right now. Doctors think he had a small stroke last week. I was up sitting with him till really late last night.” Jack was a little embarrassed to admit it in front of the four other cafe patrons. They glanced at him, but (probably out of courtesy) pretended that they weren’t listening. Sometimes being anonymous to others is a form of protection.
“Oh no. I’m sorry about that.” Kara’s bravado dropped away for just a moment, and her face showed genuine concern. Right then Jack decided that this was one of those other times, when it was fantastic to trust someone with some private personal trauma, or at least give them a little glimpse at it.
“I think he’ll be okay. He’s a pretty tough guy, and we think we caught it early.” He sighed at the effort to get the words out. Every time was just as difficult as the last.
“Oh, that’s good! Well I hope he gets better soon. You hang in there Jack, and make sure you get enough sleep! He’ll need you to be strong for him, right?” It was simple, practical advice that hit home.
Kara’s concern was a fresh, well-played note that added itself to what would become an emotional chord of the rest of his day. Jack’s office colleagues would add their notes of concern too, giving him something rich and meaningful to strum to himself later, when he felt at his most alone and struggled to hold everything inside. If the last week was any indication, everything he was holding back and trying to hide from the world would burst forth on its own tonight, in a torrent of tears to his girlfriend, or as a hole punched in the drywall in his bedroom, or as rambling pages scribbled frantically in his journal, where his did some of his best and worst writing.
Kara’s words are a gift, Jack realized; she’d told him of her previous career in pharmaceutical sales and how when she lost her job, she’d sacrificed her career happiness to take the Barrista job purely to survive. However, it seemed to Jack that she’d found her personal happiness in other people and, while exercising her own tendency to charge her emotional batteries, she was also generating happiness within her customers.
“Medium Americano, extra shot for Jack”, she chirped, and he gratefully took the cup from the counter, and said “thanks” as she wheeled around absorbed in her next order.
“You’re doing the Lord’s work, you bean-busting angel of mercy”, Jack thought, and he smiled and wished Kara a happy day. The smile came from somewhere deep in his gut. It was a tiny moment, but raw, pure, and unfiltered by self-consciousness. He was alive, and so was Dad. Everything else was negotiable, but nothing else mattered more.
As he strode along to the rest of his day, he heard Kara’s boisterous laughter and coffee-order syllables ringing for thirty meters, bouncing through the platform like a lighthouse beacon in the fog.