Yesterday I went to my local coffee shop to get away from the Internet and read a book. Since I’m too poor to have a cell-phone, leaving the house without my laptop means going back to the world of the 1980s. My brain slows down. I regain the ability to think in complete sentences. I can lose myself in the world of the world of the United States Civil War or the French Revolution. I can talk to strangers. I went inside, ordered a coffee, nodded to an old women who smiled at me, then quickly grabbed one of the comfortable chairs near the window.
Ever since I cycled through New England, I have been unable to turn down a stranger who asks for directions. How many times had I been lost somewhere in Western Massachusetts only to be saved from going ten miles out of my way by some helpful stranger who took five minutes out of his time to help me find the road that Google Maps helped me lose. So when I heard a woman ask a man in broken English if he knew the way to a drugstore, I jumped at the chance, not only to pay back the man who helped me escape the twilight zone that is Worcester, Massachusetts, but to show off my laboriously acquired Spanish.
Gira a la izquierda. Sigue. Walgreens es cerca de tres cuadras a la derecha.
We talked for a few minutes. Between her broken English and my broken Spanish, I think I managed to get her to the right place. After she left, I looked around, almost hoping that some Trump voter would tell me that “this is America. We speak English.” Then I could practice my “performative white ally” skills and ask him to step outside and settle it like bros. It didn’t happen. The coffee shop, which is in that part of northern New Jersey the New York Times has dubbed “Brooklyn West,” probably had as many Gary Johnson and Jill Stein supporters as it did Trump supporters. If you say anything as dumb as “this is America, we speak English” in my part of the world, people will probably just laugh at you.
As I looked around at my fellow coffee shop patrons, mostly twentysomething and thirtysomething New York City commuters – the coffee shop is part of a mixed use condo building right across the street from a New Jersey Transit station — I was suddenly reminded of how poor I am and how old I am. Just then, as if on cue, the old woman I had nodded to on my way in, changed her seat to sit closer to mine. She asked me if I lived in town. I told her I lived in the town next door and knew my way around. She asked me if I knew the location of a good bar. I told her to walk through the tunnel in the New Jersey Transit station, make a right, and she would find a very good one a few blocks down the road. I looked back down at my book, but she kept talking. She was from Philadelphia, she told me, and had spent a few days in Elizabeth, which she liked. Who in their right mind likes Elizabeth? She was planning to visit Plainfield or Somerville. Who the hell visits Plainfield or Somerville? My eye wandered to the large, cheap knapsack she had on the chair opposite her table. It was full of clothes.
I continued to read my book, not because I have anything against talking to strangers, but because the woman was older, and poorer than I was, perhaps even homeless. She had moved her chair next to mine because not because she had wanted to ask directions, but because she was lonely and wanted to talk. How many times have I been in a similar position? I should have talked to her as long as she wanted. Instead, I tried not to hear what she was saying, burying my head in Bruce Catton’s Glory Road, marveling at the way ordinary young Americans had once been willing to die for their ideals, or at least trying. In reality, I was ashamed at how approachable I must have been, that I lacked the quintessentially upper-middle-class American skill of of being private in public. This woman had noticed how eagerly I had given the Spanish speaking woman directions to Walgreens, and had marked me off as a fellow misfit in need of company, which, of course, I was. Eventually she got frustrated and moved on.
How many of us live lives of quiet desperation, unwilling to acknowledge our own reflection?