Out for Coffee
I’m sitting here at a patio table, at the coffee bistro on the corner, just done with my second strong cup, and so I am seeing little bursts of light, and I’m a bit excited, like on the threshold of hallucination. There are low planters dashed along the sidewalk, creating a mutually agreed upon but permeable barrier between those of us inside, and all the rest, and I’m watching, well, I’m watching whatever comes along and just now that is the man crossing the street with his customized shopping cart.
Ordinarily I find them... intimidating. There are moments when it seems inevitable I will become such a person one day. Or more truly, that I am already such a person, and only one or two events, minor catastrophes in my minor life, are yet needed. And then I might become the thing I fear, that worries others for their own safety. A person who was getting by before, but no more. The loss of material existence combined with mystical inner hardship. Oneself, fallen down.
Solipsistic existentialism belongs to the young. It is unbecoming after forty. It sounds like you’re bluffing, or making excuses, or just feeling sorry for yourself. Theoretically, you were supposed to become and if you have become not very much, if for instance you are driving a shopping cart, and dressed in castoffs, wearing a pair of aging high-top lace-up sneakers, unlaced, and holding a cell phone to your ear, well, that is proof of sorts that becoming has not worked out for you quite as you imagined it might.
He looks like he is talking to someone, talking and listening. I assume he is talking to someone in his head. A dead phone would be consistent with his circumstances. If it was street theater, it would be brilliant and moving satire... KNOWING THYSELF meets the SEVEN DEADLY SINS. When he gets up on the sidewalk he stops pushing his cart and begins gesturing with his hand and generally getting more body language into his conversation, though it does not seem to be helping his cause. Finally he holds the phone at arm’s length, looks at it in puzzled frustration, snaps it closed.
He wheels up to my table, looks at me, looks at his phone again.
“What’s the news?” I ask amicably, nodding at his phone. The bonhomie in my voice is partially false of course, and I am patronizing him, but is that wrong of me? I had wanted to carry off my part with just the right tone of transcendent morality, to communicate the rules of our encounter which were, that we were going to behave ourselves, because we were in public. It is a large and busy corner, there are escape routes all around. But I am a mediocre actor at best and did not manage to entirely eliminate the dubious smugness from my performance.
“She just won’t listen,” he says.
“What are you gonna do?” I say, rhetorically you understand.
But he looks at me seriously and asks, “Do you have any money?”
A pretty big question. Could be the opening line to all manner of lengthy disjointed stories. And let me say now I am not one who believes a beggar should be required to have a good story, and that I am even distrusting of those who do, because we are supposedly talking about poor people and mystical inner hardships here and it is unfair to reward some but deny others simply because they cannot skillfully edit their history or make up a suitable lie, or properly size you up beforehand regarding the type of tale or amount of cash signified by your own costuming. All the same, everyone, whether they are fallen or not, wants to have something to trade.
“Yes,” I say. I only say it because it is true, and the easiest, and in my near-hallucinatory state, I feel it is a confidently noncommittal response, coming from a strong position. I had just been thinking of having a pastry and another cup of coffee.
“I don’t have enough,” he says.
“For what?” I say.
He looks at my coffee cup.
“It makes me feel young,” he says.
He has just condensed my end of the conversation, which I had been planning since I saw him crossing the street. I had been savoring the moment, after two strong coffees, the flowers in the planters, the subtly electrified sunlight and motion. One could almost see the bow waves of people walking through air and the intricate turbulent wakes behind them. I wanted to share this moment with him. This moment of becoming, where the world seemed vibrant with things about to happen, and all I had to do was sit there, and I was enough for a moment, and I had enough for a pastry and coffee and to buy him one too.
Let’s see. I’ve had two and that’s about $8, and if I have another and a pastry that will be about $15 or $16 and maybe about $20 if he has coffee, and if he wants a pastry too that might come to $25 approaching $30 with a tip. I’m not sure I have that much. I have to look. I don’t want to do this. Look, I mean.
“What does?” I say. I’m stalling for time as I try to think of some alternative to looking in my wallet. And maybe I should be buying him breakfast, but that is not what I intended, and it would be expensive here, and when did I last know what I was worth? That last question brings back my sense of noble philosophic remove.
I appreciate, briefly and from a safe distance, the tragicomic absurdity of my predicament, and yet do not feel dishonored by it. If only such moments would last.
But after all, that was why I was here myself, to try to make them last and what, in my drug enhanced innocence, I first wanted to share with him. Respite from the closing in, as your allotted space fills up with the years gone by and the memories of things that did or didn’t happen. A few moments now, that are as good as any moments, even if they are made up.
Apparently, I was making the usual mistake of confusing the man with his Platonic Form, the spiritual template of a shopping cart pushing man with cell phone, which was detectable only in my imagination. It is nice to think those who are mad are, at least to some extent, divinely mad. And I suppose it must be true, for surely if any one thing can be divine, and the boundaries between things are illusions, then all things are divine. Quod erat demonstrandum. Then again, that logic works for madness too.
What do I know of darkness? Never so far as to lose the light altogether, or some sense of its direction, even if it was made up.
I am looking at him while I’m thinking all this. Everything about him is dirty. He’s looking at his phone again.
“I don’t have enough,” he says.
He pushes off into the slight breeze and moves up the sidewalk. I can smell him now.
I admit I am relieved he left. I am only a little cleaner and less crazy than he is. Possibly, I have nothing he wants either. The smell drifts back, pungent smoldering graffiti.
I recover my buzzed tranquility. I wonder if it is possible to be more alone than this. I wonder why it hurts. I read somewhere, in a book about pendulums, that aesthetics are harmonically related to pain, and so each resounds with the other.
There is too much mid-range in the sound around me. Not enough bass belly laugh or inspiring soprano. It reminds me of speakers the size of quarters on AM radios in cars decades ago, and the blurred staticky music and important announcements that issued from them. It sounds distant. Frozen tension moving sluggishly. White noise. Concrete shuddering under the weight of passing machines. Electrified sunlight and motion, enough for a moment. I like the apricot tart they have here.
Bio: Dean Kisling is a high school dropout who learned to type when he was 47. He currently lives in America and writes full time. What else he does or has done is none of your business. If he wants you to know, he'll write a story about it and you really won't know whether to believe him or not. That's life.