Last Tuesday, I wandered into a coffee shop that was smaller than I expected it to be. Before I go any further, I should clarify, because I'm concerned that when I say "coffee shop," the image in your mind is that of a midtown Starbuck's in the middle of an afternoon rush, or maybe even something more charming - a community space with board games and bulletin boards spilling over with notices for bands needing drummers, roommates seeking sublets, pet owners hoping for reunions with their missing companions. that's what I expected too, when, on the outskirts of Williamsburg, I saw a sandwich board on the sidewalk that read only COFFEE. I thought of a friendly place to hide away. I thought of a place where I could escape the cold with a cup of coffee and scroll through my tweets for a while.
What I found would more fairly be described not so much as a coffee shop but more of a coffee kiosk.. in area, it was about half the size of my freshman-year dorm room (not very big). It was so small that when I walked in - before I'd even had time to prepare myself for any human interaction - I was face to face with an exceedingly outgoing barista. Before I had even had time to prepare, she had asked me what I'd like to order. I panicked. In the nanosecond that she'd given me to skim the menu, I hadn't seen my regular order, so I sputtered, "A latte? Is that ok?" If course she happily obliged, as most places that advertise the sale of coffee - whether large or microscopically small - can manage a latte. As she began to make the drink, she caught me off-guard again. "So how's your day been?" she asked. In retrospect, I can't fault her for her affability. working in such close quarters, I imagine it would become unbearably awkward to pretend as though your patrons don't even exist. As a rule, I don't like talking to people about the weather. As small talk goes, I think it's a clichŽ and that generally we should make more of a real effort to get to know one another, even in moments so fleeting as to only be able to fit in conversations that can be categorized as "small." But, as I mentioned, I was unprepared. So, in absence of conscious thought, I seem to recall that I said, "It's so cold out! I can't believe how cold it's been." and the barista seemed crestfallen. I'm sure that at no point, in the history of retail coffee sales, has "amateur meteorology" been required as a job skill for baristas, and yet I'm sure she must spend hours a day yammering on about the weather. I could have told her that I had successfully haggled for the first time that day - and gotten a vinyl record for half price. I could have told her that I had been given that day off work and was taking the opportunity to pamper myself. Instead, I chose to discuss the lowest common denominator of human experience, and hadn't even had anything nice to say about it. After one or two more awkward exchanges, I walked out of the coffee shop, accepting the blustery weather as a fitting punishment for my faux pas.
The next evening, with the incident in the coffee kiosk completely behind me, I found myself again in another cramped situation. This time, leaving work and boarding an M train in rush hour, I was lucky enough to find a space between commuters wide enough to accommodate my narrow behind and not much else. I squeezed my shoulders in, leaned forward, and slid my phone out of my pocket. then, I turned up some music and began to scroll through my Twitter feed. After some time, I felt a tap on my shoulder. For the second time in as many days, I panicked at the idea of an interaction with a stranger that I was unprepared for. Was my music too loud? Was I encroaching on personal space? Reluctantly, I removed one headphone and turned to face the person sitting next to me. They appeared to be around the same age as me, and featured thick, horn-rimmed glasses, and hot-pink, glittery lipstick. "Excuse me," they said, "I couldn't help but notice your Twitter - do you like PWR BTTM?" I replied that PWR BTTM are one of my favorite bands and excitedly related the story of their performance at Fordham University from just last April (see photo attached). We swapped a few more stories of having seen PWR BTTM live, as well as our preferred gender pronouns, and our anxiety and enthusiasm for our own artistic passions (mine - writing plays and poems, theirs - photography.) Before I knew it, the train arrived at their stop, and by the time the doors closed, I added them on Facebook. We chatted idly online for a while longer, and in the same space of time that it had taken me to struggle through an awkward interaction with one stranger, I had turned another stranger into a friend.
The reason these stories are important to me - especially now - is because they have taught me, in a very personal way, the problems with relying on convention and clichŽ to make it through seemingly mundane interactions. Perhaps an even more important corollary is the value they taught me in approaching these interactions with curiosity, creativity, and care. It is so easy for us to do the common thing and to remain indifferent to the world around us, but it is more rewarding to make an effort to discover the things that connect us with each other.