Scenes from a coffee shop

I do some work, maybe once a week if I’m lucky and can get out, from a coffee shop. I say coffee shop because it sounds a little exotic; some dark and cozy spot with hipsters reading books and surfing their phones, the smell of rich java in the air, some gluten-free muffins in the case in front of the waitress with the nose ring.

Well, it’s not like that at all. It’s Panera. It’s desperate young people with their heads in their laptops looking for jobs and riding on free wi-fi, housewives wolfing down sandwiches while wrangling their kids, independent insurance salesmen, without an office, making their pitches to stone-faced would-be customers. It’s slightly exotic iced teas and soups, all served up in a too-antiseptic chain restaurant that looks the same in Alpharetta as it does in Orlando.

But, you know, it works for work. It works for me.

This is a part of real life in all its utter un-coolness. Much like my regular dives into fast-food restaurants, I like it. I like the scenes …

Two old guys, one of them with a thick baritone that would play well on radio, just got up after their weekly (I’m imagining) meet-up where they discussed their sugar levels, cigar consumption, latest trips to the doctors and, of course, Trump …

A few weeks ago, a kid, maybe 3 or 4, was throwing one of those public tantrums that you just thank the good lord that your kid never had. (Ours, by the grace of that lord and the deft skill of his parents — maybe that’s just a skill at being opportunistically deaf — never did.) Dad snared Dennis the Ungodly Menace, took him out to the family SUV, strapped him into his car seat, closed the door (Is it time to call the police?) … then leaned against the car to check his email on his phone.

After a couple minutes, Dad unhooked Dennis and brought him back in for an early dinner. After a few more minutes, the Menace reappeared. This time, Mom hauled the little bastard out and went through the same routine. Strapped him in. Closed the door. Hung around. Then brought Damien back in.

A few minutes and more stomping and screaming later, I looked up. They were gone. Remnants of a soup bowl and a sandwich. Napkins on the floor. Chairs pushed hastily away from the table. A booster seat. I imagine Mom and Pop sold the hellion to some gypsies …

brewed-iced-tea-medium.desktopTwo young women behind me at lunch. Co-workers, clearly, talking about someone in the office. Except one of them is doing, like, 90 percent of the talking. And using, like, the word “like” like a million times.

Who so dominates a conversation? What narcissistic nitwit thinks that his or her life is so much better, more interesting or more worthy that it deserves to be the overbearing subject of a lunch out? This woman was so annoying. I was forced to get up to check her out as I went for the 25th refill on my slightly exotic iced tea and lemonade. But it was the look on the other woman’s face that said it all: “Oh. My. God. I am bringing my lunch and eating it in my cube from now on.”

(My friend Jack had what he would call the “wallet gambit” while in a restaurant, designed specifically to surreptitiously check out something, or someone, behind you. It goes like this: Stand up, reach in your back pocket for your wallet, open it up and peer at it while still standing and slowly, casually, so non-chalantly no one would ever notice, turn your body as if you’re stretching while you’re standing. Take in a quick scan of the scene. Don’t look directly at what you want to see. A quick survey should do. Put your wallet back in your pocket. Then sit back down. Alternately, go for a 26th refill …)

I’ve seen this same young dude a few times, sitting at a table for two, headphones plugged into his phone, volume up loud enough that I can almost hear what he’s listening to word for word. Just watching different videos. And laughing.

Note to young dude: You know, when you have ear buds in, you can’t quite appreciate how loud that laugh of yours is …

White slacks, loafers, no socks. In a booth, leaning back against the wall, leg slung over the cushioned seat, one-handing his laptop on the table. Clearly nothing to do, this guy. Waiting, I guess, for the customer who is standing him up …

Older woman, young kid, books between them, conversation kept to a minimum. He’s doing most of the listening. A tutor and a high schooler just trying to get through this summer school Hell. He’s hoping none of his friends happens to come into Panera. (He probably doesn’t have to worry about that.) She’s wondering if she asked for enough money.  (Probably not.) …

Unlike Burger King or Wendy’s or, I assume, McDonald’s, what you don’t see in Panera are the painters, the landscape guys, the plumbers, the everyday workers that keep those places humming. Still, it’s a little bit of America here in Panera, albeit a sanitized suburban slice.

Also, I’ve learned this: I might need to wear some noise-canceling headphones.

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