If I’m Addicted to Anything, It’s Fair Trade Distraction

When I walked in, there were no open tables, just a brown leather chair facing away from the windows worn down by transient patrons. Not my usual choice, but my only choice. I sank too far in, trying to push back feelings of disgust. How many warm, how many unclean bodies have occupied this very same seat? You may think I’m exaggerating, but hugs from strange chairs make me nauseous.

I know of exactly two homeless people that frequent the place. They come to escape the heat or the cold, but mostly for the free Wi-Fi. Who doesn’t desire the opportunity to burn some time on Google or YouTube?

The first time I saw them, I snapped a picture. One of them wore a worn-out army coat hunched over tired shoulders. It was framing a perfectly rugged beard staring into the glossy screen of a MacBook.

I knew they were homeless because I saw their tent mounted on a makeshift trailer attached to a bicycle in the parking lot out front, dog tethered to it all. It was an odd sight to see the sum of their lives stuffed inside dingy beadrolls and Wal-Mart shopping bags just a side-glance away from their computer screen. First-world poverty, I guess.

I sat in my envelope of leather recalling all of the times I’ve seen the employees wipe down the wooden furniture, also recalling how I’ve never seen them wipe down these massive leather chairs. Unable to decide if the faint smell flooding my nose was urine or just general musk, I made it a point to try and ignore it.

While waiting for my drink, I pulled out my new sketchbook, my journal, a handful of pens, and two different books. I would decide what to work on after I had my first sip.

It’s really a wonder to me why these shops decide to waste space on oversized “comfy” chairs. I’ve heard that each chair in a coffee shop can bring in over $15,000 a year. Where a table and two chairs can occupy the same space, why bother? Maybe it’s for the illusion of ambiance, but those that frequent coffee shops like me have come to despise their existence. We’ve gotten used to “working” at our little square tables.

We all know that people go to coffee shops for different reasons. I’ve found that those that don’t understand the habit find it important to tell me:

“It’s more expensive than smoking.”

“Why not save that five dollars a day?”

“McDonalds sells coffee, too, you know.”

I never argue with them. Instead, I laugh at myself and feed them with enough fuel to bash me thoroughly so they can move on with the conversation. Sometimes, I even point out that, on certain days, I’ll spend three to four times more than the usual five bucks, and “yes, I tip.” They often seem baffled by this.

The funny thing is, I’ve never gone to a coffee shop for the coffee. I’m not addicted to the substance. And, really, the price of the coffee is nothing more than a service charge or a ticket to a movie; it’s a couple hours of idle distraction. But coffee shops are better than movies. At movies, you can’t make notes or read a book. You can’t talk on your phone. You can’t do two things at once or switch from one task to the other on a whim. Movies are dark; you can’t study the faces or responses of the people around you. You are forced to sit idly by and stare at a screen, watching a predictable and rigid story unfold.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t go to coffee shops to turn everyday people’s lives into a juicy dramedy; I don’t go there to eavesdrop on conversations (although, I have done both). Just understand that I don’t go there for the bean water, either.

After my first sip, I stared intently at the traffic in the sky, cars sliding down the new overhead freeway bridge. I was also thumbing the pages of my sketchbook. The embrace of the leather stranger made it next to impossible to draw, and I was sitting too low to annotate while reading. This left me uncomfortably stuck reviewing my mental to-do list.

∙Homework: How useful will another degree be?

∙Housework: Spend $7,000 in landscaping or on finishing the bathrooms? There’s also the electricity in the garage.

∙Studio Work: Three paintings started—nothing finished since Christmas. The table of unfinished, unglazed pottery . . . . What’s the use? I have no one to sell to anyway.

∙Money Matters: Payday yesterday, bills today… Spending $350 on more clothes wasn’t the best choice.

∙Search for the preverbal dream job: What can I do that won’t be the same ol’ shit? I could suck it up and start my own business, but I know nothing about marketing or finance.

∙Maximize my time: I’m so extremely sleepy lately.

∙Solve my space issues: A whole house to myself, it turns out, isn’t enough.

∙Become more responsible: Damn.

∙Fix my broken relationship: Damn.

∙Patch up my old friendship: She probably doesn’t care.

Covered in all of this mental mud, I didn’t realize that I had seen him earlier. Broad shoulders. Pressed shirt. Clean face. I had stolen a couple of unconscious glances his direction, but I never expected him to speak.

“Doing your homework?”

“Yeah.” The half glance up concealed a thought: If I wasn’t so self-conscious, we could be doing each other . . . .

I heard the familiar grinding of the machine and the whistle of the steamer, but the strongest sense I had was the radiation of the very elixir of distraction refracting off the double-paned, metal-framed, commercial windows. The distraction I lived for, the “movie ticket” I had purchased, did nothing to repress the feeling of being . . .

“Trapped. Trapped. Trapped.”

Before I could catch it, the words left my lips and I sat in my embarrassment. He stared at me quizzically.

I stayed less than twenty minutes, but it was enough time to be the main character of someone else’s distraction. I was the semi-attractive Schiz off of his meds, the random subject of someone else’s candid camera.

February 2014

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