A young man ponders the "residents" of a coffee house
|The folk singer sat on a stool, which took up most of the tiny stage. He was trying to tell a story about the first time he heard the song he was getting ready to play, some obscure nugget about love on the road and traveling down life's highway. Half the crowd were paying attention, another 25 percent were completely ignoring him, and another quarter, mostly high school kids, had listened for a few seconds as he rambled off his story but then went back to their conversations, all of them with looks on their faces that seemed to say “Bag it, Old Man". If I want to hear that shit I’ll find my Mom’s old 8-tracks.”
I felt bad for the guy. I’d seen him before. He was in his 50's, maybe his late 40's but he had a gray beard, bushier then average but not in a Jerry Garcia-ish way, that made him look older. He usually alternated between original songs he had written, some well-known folk and blues songs, and some random “lost songs”, as he called them, pulled out of nowhere. His guitar case was always open for tips but I’d never seen him accumulate more then maybe 10 or 20 dollars on a given night, which left me to assume he must have a day job and just be doing music for fun. He had a self-made CD for sale but I rarely saw anyone buy it. Still, his music was pleasant enough, a descent backdrop for coffee, tea, espressos, and such.
I watched the old guy singing from where I was sitting, on the side of the room by the window. Out on the deck, in the blossoming cold of Autumn I watched a couple talking. The guy was doing most of the talking but the girl didn’t seem to mind. She nodded and laughed whenever he said something I can only assume was amusing. In between she took drags off her cigarette and sips from her mug. I wondered how well they knew each other. Were they old friends, a new couple, or something else? I looked away quickly from the orange tip of her cigarette when her eyes seemed to catch me looking. The only downside to people watching is when you get caught by the people you’re watching.
The shop, “The Second Cup”, tried to distinguish itself by looking retro while still trying to accommodate to the modern politics of coffee. They had added pastries and more desserts in the last few years, and offered a free refill on regular coffees in efforts to compete with chain-coffee stories. If you wanted organic coffee and vegan snacks, they had it. If you wanted beans from developing nations, priced as not to exploit the growers or bean pickers, you could have it. Personally, I never felt like paying a dollar extra for coffee that didn’t taste as good as the cheaper variety. Still, after a while, every sip started to feel like another exploitation. I was thankful that, inside the confines of a mug, almost all coffee looks the same unless you decorate with cream, sugar, or what have you. Just the same, I could see a day when my mug or cup would be labeled by where the beans came from and some girl with too many piercings and/or issues with her father would come up to me and let me know that, with each sip of my choice of java, another worker and his family in some far off place would continue to wallow in poverty, just so I could have a free refill. That day had not come yet, but I felt it was near.
I saw a pretty girl sitting at a table in the middle of the room. Her hair was tied back in a rather severe ponytail but a strand or two of her auburn hair had freed itself far enough to fall over her forehead. She turned her lips enough to blow the strands up each time she took a deep breath. She was writing something with a pencil, frantically, and each time she looked up it was like she had come up for air. I wondered what she was drowning in. What was she writing? What kind of emotion was draining itself on to that paper? I could only assume it was a poem or a letter. It was just an assumption, but somehow I got the impression that if there was ever a recipient of that note or letter it would serve as the starting point of a very difficult dialogue. I had to fill in the holes for the things I thought they would say: “You don’t understand me”, “I need to know how you feel about me”, “Where are we going here?”, “I need to feel like I mean something to you.” It was all wild guessing but it seemed to me that people, especially people writing in coffee houses, didn’t write like this girl was writing unless they were angry, hurt, frustrated, or tired.
In the back of the room, sitting alone at a table, I spied a man that I didn’t for a second worry would catch me looking at him. He seemed lost in his own space. His hair was long and his beard even bushier then the singer on stage, wilder than Jerry Garcia’s. In my notebook I scrawled down, “The bastard miracle freak son of Charles Manson and John Denver”. I waited to see him blink, which only seemed to happen about once a minute. Occasionally he looked down but mostly he kept his eyes out straight, while jamming his arm with a mechanical pencil. I could see where the lead was accumulating, a dark splotch that could probably pass for a bruise. One part of me wondered what the hell he was doing that for and what, if anything, anyone in the room could do to make him stop. Another part of wondered if the Pencil was a No. 2 and, if it was, if this man had ever taken the SAT. I doubted it. John Charlie Denver, as I had mentally dubbed him, didn’t seem the college type. Then again, perhaps he had been a math wizard who lost his mind in a sea of numbers. His lips were moving but not in sync to the song coming from the stage. The singer had moved away from his obscure little number into Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, which gathered a little more attention from the crowd. And I had to agree: Only love can break your heart but, and I was only guessing, I imagined it took something deeper than love to make heartbreak evolve into sitting in the back of a coffee house while stabbing one’s self with $1.25 pencil. Or maybe it wasn’t heartbreak. Maybe it was a mental break. I found myself curious for the answer but too scared to walk up and ask. I figured the answer would not be worth the pencil being jabbed into my arm or any other part of my anatomy. So I watched his lips move and tried to read what he was saying. It was harder then it looked on TV and movie spy shows. All I could decipher was “Some of the fires will burn us and we are that fire. I am burning, I am burning. I am burning.” I don’t think that was really what he was saying though.
My cup of Chamomile tea had grown cold. I sipped down the last of it and bussed my own table, as the signs by the garbage cans requested. The singer had said “Thank you and goodnight” and was beginning to put his things away. I walked up to his guitar case and put a dollar in it just as he was about to close it.
“Thank you,” he said, smiling.
“Good set,” I told him.
I eyed his stack of CDs on the table next to him. I picked one up and looked at the track listing, Like his live sets, it was a mix of titles I knew, stuff like Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and Joni Mitchell’s “The River”. Out of curiosity I fished 10 dollars out of my wallet and handed it to him and took a CD.
“Thank you again,” he said. “I hope you enjoy it.”
From the corner of my eye I saw two friends entering from the other side of the room. I headed out the other door before they could spot me. I liked them but conversation was not what I had come looking for.
As I walked down the steps onto the outside deck I saw the girl with the cigarette remove it from her mouth long enough to kiss the boy she had been talking to. I cracked half a smile to myself, happy with the knowledge I’d found an answer to an earlier question. I looked back inside for just a moment. The pretty girl with the ponytail was still at it and a few more hairs had come loose.
I walked home, about a mile away from The Second Cup. The nights were growing colder and I suspected snow would come within a month. My apartment would be too cold again, with the wood floors stinging my feet first thing in the morning, begging a question of why I don’t sleep with socks on or invest in a pair of slippers.
I was tired as I put my bag down inside by the front door. I turned off everything but a lamp next to the futon couch and put the folk singer’s CD into the stereo. I looked at the jewel case and liner: “Gary Martins – Songs from Here to There”. I liked his album title and felt good about buying it as the first song began to play. I had never heard the song, which led me to think it must have been one of his own.
I laid on the futon, letting each song come at me like tiny waves to the shore. The music was better then I thought it would be. It was just him, this Gary Martins fellow, with his voice and his guitar. No lush arrangement, no cheesy synthesizers or second-rate studio musicians. I liked it. It sounded real, as though he’s done it in his garage or rented out a studio for a day and just rolled tape.
I was half-asleep when she sat down next to me. I hadn’t even heard her come in.
“What are we listening to?” she asked.
“Gary Martins,” I said quietly. “He’s that guy that plays at The Second Cup a lot.”
“Really?” she asked. “The older guy with the beard?”
“Wow! He’s been playing there since forever. He was there when I worked there,” she said.
She laid down next to me on the edge of the futon, with her arms around my chest. She kissed my lips softly.
“How long were you down there for?” she asked.
“Long enough,” I said.
She knew exactly what I meant and I didn’t need to explain it to her.
“I haven’t been there in months,” she said. “Too noisy. Too many high school kids. Too many caffeinated freaks.”
She giggled and added, “Present company excluded.”
“Well, what can I say?” I asked. “I’m the sentimental one here.”
“And I love you for that,” she said, kissing me again.
For a few seconds, I thought about the night I met her in college at the counter of The Second Cup. It seemed like so long ago when really it was just a couple of years.
I placed my hand on her stomach.
“No kicking?” I asked.
“Not since lunch,” she said.
She fell asleep beside me. I could tell by the way she was breathing that she was out. She was getting more and more tired as the months passed. I touched her hair and closed my eyes.
Gary Martins sang something about love and peace and calmness and nature, and the part of me that once would have laughed at that found itself buried and smothered by something much grander.
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