I thought about visiting an art museum or strolling in a garden for my artist’s day out*, but what I really wanted to do was sit in a coffee shop, eat pastry, and watch the world go by.
So that’s what I did.
At Bollo’s, a cozy café in Blacksburg, there were a handful of empty tables when I arrived at 11 am – one near the front window, one three steps from the cash register, and three or four in the way back by the wire shelves loaded with flour and napkins. None of these felt right for sitting and watching. I’d be facing other tables head-on, or be bumped by patrons in line, or I’d be stuck with the supplies where I couldn’t see or hear any of the good stuff going on in the coffee shop. If I were planning to do something, to read or write or meet someone, the table wouldn’t matter as much. But for sitting still to watch and listen…
The best of the options was a round table with three chairs by the front window. The plate glass had an 18-inch spider-web shatter mark next to one of the chairs. I set my bag in that seat and then turned to the bakery case to place my order. As I returned with a scone and steaming mug, weaving through the small spaces between laptop-tapping customers, I debated which seat to sit in – did I want to watch the world outside or the one within? I chose the chair that faced the window and immediately regretted it.
My back was to the coffee shop and all of its deep-in-conversation, iPod listening, and keyboard tapping customers. I heard a babble of voices, the hiss of the espresso machine, the ching of the cash register, all behind me where i could not see, while in front of me I watched delivery trucks, dance walkers with earbuds, and students talking with their hands and their mouths, but on the other side of the shattered glass, so that I could not hear. Their world was silent to me was they walked through sunlight, and the coffee shop was obscured to me as it clattered its cacophony behind me. I did not like that my back was to it.
I moved my bags and changed chairs so that my shoulder and back were to the shattered glass, and I faced the environment that I could hear. I watched the cashier take orders from a dreadlocked white woman, from a tall ebony man in tailored pants, from a balding middle aged man in a windbreaker, from a big-bearded man with retro headphones and a WIRED courier bag over his shoulder. I listened to the young man and woman next to me – a couple? I didn’t think so. He was trying to convince her of something, had her read an essay on his phone. She bobbed her head and said, “That’s so cool,” her blonde pony-tail snarling in her purple hood, clinging with static electricity. I think they were only friends, but she might have wanted more.
As I listened, I was conscious of my eavesdropping. I felt very conspicuous, facing the patrons without even a magazine on my table. I pulled out my composition book and a pen to pretend like I was thinking, like I was intending to write, then leaned back in my chair with my hands wrapped around my white mug. I turned my gaze sideways out the window, away from the smooth wooden bench of seats that I really wanted. Those seats backed up against the wall, and if you sat there, you could survey the worlds both inside and out without being pointed directly at either one. I coveted a seat on that polished pew.
I sensed movement from the young man at the small table next to me. He sat in the seat I wanted most. It was at the end of the bench, next to the window, with its back against the wall. It was so close I could touch his table from mine. I could appropriate his cushioned nest with barely a shift of my butt. Yes, he was packing up his laptop. He was bussing his table. I gathered my cup and plate, ready to pounce as soon as he walked away. A man dinged in through the front door in and his eyes went directly to that table. I felt a flush of both guilt and victory when I slid into the seat as the young man slung his pack over his shoulder and walked away. I avoided eye contact with the new customer who had wanted this spot.
I was embarrassed by all the maneuvering that went into acquiring my new seat, but man, the table was perfect. It was everything I had hoped it would be. I could see without feeling obvious, I could recline with a wall, not action, behind my back.
I watched as a brunette woman with a cute bob of curls ordered her coffee and sat down at the table three steps from the cash register. She pulled out her laptop while people stood over her in line. The man who had eyed the cushion I now reclined on set his coffee on my original table, then sat in my original chair, facing the window. He opened a magazine on the round table and drank his coffee. Was it just me, or did he seem uncomfortable? Unsatisfied with his seat perhaps? He left as soon as he drained his final sip.
I sat back, inconspicuous, with a view of everything I wanted to see. The door tinkled open over and over again, the cash register chinged, voices murmered, and crockery clanked as customers bussed their tables into the grey plastic bin by the counter, and I could see it all. I blew on my fresh cup of coffee and opened my notebook.
The man two seats down on the bench – the only other person using pen and paper instead of a laptop – closed his spiral notebook and scooted out from behind his table to leave. The brunette with a head full of cute curls, the one right in front of the cash register, eyed his seat. As soon as he cleared the area, she jumped up and grabbed his table. She set her laptop up, let out a small sigh, and sank into the shiny wooden seat.
*A resolution that came out of my writing workshop was to take an artist’s day out every week. So far I’ve visited an antiques shop that inspired “old rolling pins,” a Barnes & Noble where I tried to read The Woman in Black in a public place, thinking it might not be as scary that way (it was), and this coffee shop. I hadn’t planned on writing about the coffee shop – I had intended only to sit and enjoy – but my notebook and pen, my props, were sitting there on the table and, well…