It’s a rainy Sunday night and Hannah and I have readings to finish. We sit in a corner at a near empty Caribou coffee shop and decide to stay there until it closes. I am reading the first three chapters of my “Ethics of Public Policy” book. Later when I arrive home, I will reach for the class syllabus and find that I was actually supposed to read chapters five and six of this book, but I don’t know this yet. Having read the wrong chapters; I will have to work on my class presentation tomorrow afternoon, while babysitting for a one year and a three year old, but right now I believe I am being productive.
Hannah is spread on the couch taking notes, my hair is still wet from the rain, I have no socks on, the two skinny male employees are chatting behind the register, and a man walks in talking on his cell phone. His jeans look dirty; his dark eyes poke out from over the bulges of his cheeks. He has some facial hair that makes him look recklessly unkempt, a jean jacket over his old shirt. Five minutes after he orders his coffee, he begins yelling at the employees. I can hear everything he says and Hannah already looks annoyed. The man mentions how the espresso shot is too expensive, how he is being overcharged. He accuses the employees of wanting to keep one dollar in their pockets, and threatens to call the corporate office. He keeps getting louder and louder the nicer the employees treat him. Yes sir, no problem, we will make your coffee again. Here is the receipt; this was the price of your espresso. The little power this man gets from these young children of corporate America, the more he enjoys it. He makes an employee get him a mug, and then he decides that he wants a paper cup. He asks for creamer, pours it carelessly, leaving traces of white liquid all over the coffee counter and writes down the employees names to keep threatening them.
Hannah and I look at each other. We stare at that man who is giving us plenty of reasons to feel uncomfortable. We stare because we think that if we stare at him enough, he might just decide to leave the employees alone. The man does not leave them alone. Instead, he sits at the table in front of the register and threatens them with his gaze, until one of them turns around facing the wall to rub out the frustration from his eyes. I begin to wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that both employees are gay.
Hannah wants to get up and tell this man to leave: “OK that’s enough, I’m going to go and say something!” She gets up but I make her sit down again. I don’t trust people who threaten and act angry, and I don’t want to deal with this fear tonight. But Hannah, who is younger, who is less frightful than I am, raises her voice and mentions to this man that we are trying to read, and that he needs to stop making a scene. She is louder than he is, and she is not afraid of him.
The man, who was acting so tough in front of the employees, appears to be slightly embarrassed now, as Hannah keeps staring down at him. I stare at this man too, but only because I don't want him to get any closer to Hannah. Only out of fear because I feel uncomfortable and it’s Sunday night, and the situation makes me feel helpless. And I’ve felt painfully helpless for a long period of time, and now that I have past this stage, I recognize this feeling, and it shames me. I am ashamed of my helplessness. I am ashamed of having felt vulnerable in the past, so I stare back at this man to make up for the times I did not stand up for myself.
I am proud of my friend Hannah who has a kind heart, yet no tolerance for other people's cruelty. It takes me back to a saying my father would always repeat to me, whenever I would go to him for advice “Be gentle as a dove, and sharp as a serpent.” The man finally leaves the store; his face is red, his eyes still poking out of the bulges of his face. One of the employees is still upset, his face still against the wall, but the man is gone.
Hannah smiles at me with triumph, but also with dismay for the behavior of this man. Hannah can now go back to her reading and I do the same. But ten minutes later, something about my hair being still wet and the gaze of that man still fervent in the store makes me cold, and I leave the coffee shop, to go back home and wash away ghosts of Sunday under the hot running water.