I edit a financial newsletter every morning, whether I’m on vacation in California, reporting a story in Toronto, or as this morning, taking a small holiday in Boston. Since the hotel charges for internet service, which I need for my job, I woke up this morning at 6 a.m. and walked over to a nearby Starbuck’s because internet service there is free.
I’d done the same thing yesterday morning and was able to get the nice table in the corner. It was a nook surrounded by windows, set back so it was protected from the drafty front door, and it had a little space to accommodate a stroller for when my husband, Bruce, would meet me here later with our baby, Eddie.
But this morning, that seat was taken so I put my knapsack and laptop on a seat two tables over. I might have sat at the table adjacent to the window seat, but it had no chairs because the man who had taken the window seat had moved them. The tables in the café are usually lined up along the wall like soldiers as they are in most restaurants, but the man sitting in the window seat had pulled the chairs out, pushed the table flush against the wall, and lined up the chairs next to his own table, creating a barrier between him and the rest of the café. As soon as I saw this, I thought, “Ahhh, this guy.” I remembered him from the last time I was in this Starbuck’s two years ago. He’s a wing nut, and a mean one at that.
I got up from my seat and was tempted to pull the table away from the wall and put the chairs back in their proper places but thought better of it. I’m a bit of a fixer like that. I pick up litter, stand up construction cones that have been knocked over by cars, I even wipe the countertop at Starbuck’s if someone’s spilled coffee. At my copy-editing job, I consider myself the fixer or keeper of the newspapers because I make sure to look up every publication we cite to determine whether the word, “The” is part of the publication’s title and should be capitalized, as in “The Boston Globe,” or whether it’s simply being used as a definite article, as in “the Boston Herald.” I think it was my attempt to fix an errant chair situation the last time I was in this Starbuck’s that got me into an altercation with this guy.
I went to the counter to get my coffee, and as I walked back to my seat, I got a better look at the guy. He was a black man dressed in a black turtle neck and black pants, and he had a tuft of hair that stuck up on top of his head like freshly pulled soft ice cream. The only thing that separated his outfit from a uniform was a little zipper he had on his turtleneck. I think he had on the same outfit last time I saw him. As I sat down, I looked over at the barrier he had created with the table and chair and thought, “Wing nut.”
I started copy editing a story when out of the corner of my eye, I saw a woman walk in the door and give the man a big hello and sit down with him. They talked about an office party and money. I couldn’t really hear the details, but I was disappointed to see he had friends and a job, like a normal person. That means the person with whom I’d had an altercation and dismissed as a wing nut might actually be normal, and that if there was a nut in the altercation, it may actually have been me.
I tried to remember what we argued about. I think he’d lined up two chairs next to him as a blockade and had placed a newspaper on the chair farthest away from him, and when I attempted to move the newspaper, he snapped, “Don’t move that!”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it was yours,” I said. “It’s so far away from you.”
“Well, it’s mine,” he said. “Don’t touch it.”
A wiser man might have assessed the situation and given him a wide berth.
“Are you saving this seat for someone, or you need a seat for your newspaper?” I asked.
I don’t remember exactly what was said next, but it ended with him saying something like, “Who do you think you are coming in here and…” And me saying, “You don’t own this café.”
I think the man had a friend join him that day, too. Perhaps the same woman. But that day, he wasn’t talking to her about a holiday party. He was talking to her about me. There were a lot of “Sh,” and “S” sounds, and the two of them kept looking over at me and snickering.
I remember after the argument, I walked up to the counter to get my coffee and looked at the young girl working there and rolled my eyes as if to say, “Get a load of this guy,” and she just looked at me flatly and said, “Can I help you?”
There’s a scene in the movie “Annie Hall” that sums up a part of my personality. Woody Allen has gone out to California to try to bring Annie Hall back to New York, and as he’s driving, he’s stopped by a police officer who asks him for his license. Woody Allen takes it out of his wallet, and as he tells the officer he has a problem with authority, he’s ripping his license into tiny little pieces that flutter to the ground at the officer’s feet. I, too, have a healthy fear of authority or people telling me what to do and an unhealthy desire to provoke them.
When I went to bed that night, I set my alarm a couple of minutes earlier with the hope of getting to the café before wing nut so I could get the seat by the window. The following morning, I arrived at the café, and the man was already sitting in the window seat, with a different woman. The table next to him was once again pushed up against the wall, only this time, he didn’t have one empty chair next to him. He had two. As I came in, I took the table next to his barricade, but he had pushed the empty table next to him so far away from his own table that all the remaining tables in the cafe were now crowded close together. As I sat down, I pushed the empty table that the man had pushed against the wall a few inches over, to give myself a little breathing room.
“The furniture needs to stay where it is. I’m serious,” he said looking straight ahead. He wouldn’t even look at me.
I contemplated responding, but I thought I’ve got work to do, and a heated argument would be a distraction. I let it go. But as I reached down to plug in my computer, I nudged the table a bit closer to him in order to reach the outlet. I waited for a response, but he said nothing. He was now engrossed in conversation.
I got my coffee and sat down to begin work, but because he had pushed the empty table so far away from himself, it was now nearly touching my table, making me feel hemmed in. When the man on the other side of me got up to leave a few minutes later, I took his seat.
As I did my work, I could see the man talking to his friend out of the corner of my eye. The line at the counter began to grow as more and more people on their way to work stopped in to get a coffee. A young, dark haired man walked in and got onto the line.
“Hi, Gino,” the man in the window seat called out. “You keep that up, and you’re not going to be able to wear pointy shoes.”
After a couple of minutes, the man got up to go to the bathroom, and on the way back to his seat, he stopped by the counter to talk to a young woman working behind it. He chatted with this one. He called out to that one. He was holding court.
He went back to his seat, and a few minutes later, his companion left. Soon, a man with a sparse beard walked in, sat in one of the seats the man was using as a barricade and pulled the chair up to the empty table that had been pushed against the wall. Not only had he disturbed the barricade, but he was actually inside of it. I looked over at the man in the window seat to see what he would say, but he said nothing. The man with the beard sat there, his back to the man in the window, and ate an egg sandwich. I was annoyed the man in the window thought he could push me around, and yet he was afraid to say something to the man with the beard. But I felt a mild satisfaction knowing the man in the window must have felt very uncomfortable.
Soon, the man with the beard left, and a few minutes later, the man in the window left. As I sat there, I saw that the man’s barricade, or what was left of it, was keeping people from sitting next to me. I leaned back, spread my elbows a bit and enjoyed the space.