Do you ever feel like a charlatan? A fake? I still struggle with the issue as I creep warily into the terra incognita of Retirement. I wonder what to call myself now that I’ve climbed over the fence. Is it still me who speaks? Was it ever? I find myself consumed by memories of who I thought I was and the nagging suspicion that I may have massaged them into their current shape. I want to believe them. They have become my myth –not in the pejorative sense of deception, but rather in the more sacred tradition of Metaphor: we are all metaphors in our own stories. We are all poems.
And yet one can get used to wearing camouflage. My worry is that I had begun to believe my clothes. Retirement is a test –or at least a mirror of what others may have seen all along. There are no titles in an image; no power in a reflection. It is, in effect, a tabula rasa –or, as a former obstetrician would see it, an accouchement.
But I digress. I had come to regard my pilgrim’s progress in the new life as measurable in cups of coffee for some reason. I suppose we all need une idée fixe and mine was recreational coffee. Communal coffee. I had to get the locals used to seeing me at that restaurant in the Cove by the ferry lineup. I didn’t want them to stop talking whenever I walked in, or anything, and I certainly didn’t want them to stare at me to see if I was going to make some egregious social gaffe either. No, acceptance was what I craved, not analysis.
But I realized it was going to be tricky; I am not by nature a joiner. I don’t mingle well and I have always migrated to the corners of rooms. Statistically discoverable to be sure but socially invisible. Anthropologically mute.
And today is the day; I can feel it. Rain drums on the roof as I walk towards the shower and I smile in anticipation. Last night, I made a list of all of the things I needed to remember in the restaurant. Nothing special, I guess, but I wanted to be sure I didn’t gaffe out or anything. Words tend to collect in my mouth when I’m embarrassed, and somehow climb through closed lips when I’m not watching.
After the shower, I review the list one last time and then put it in my pocket -just in case. But by the time I arrive in the cove, steal a parking spot and run, sodden, through the rain, I’ve forgotten everything. It doesn’t matter, though –I’m here. Squashed and elbowed in the crowd, I try to smile as if I’m enjoying myself. I try a little eye-contact… well, lip contact anyway –apparently the contacted can’t tell and it still seems friendly. The head nods, but I can’t tell if it’s in response to me or the one it’s are talking to. I’m not discouraged, though; I see it as a start. And anyway, he walks away. Maybe he’s just gone to refill his coffee, I think, but there’s still steam coming from his cup, so I reconsider my hypothesis.
I try saying hello to a man standing by himself near the far wall of the room, but just as he seems about to say something, a door opens right beside him and he excuses himself and hurries through it to the washroom. I try not to get discouraged and regard it as a learning experience: don’t expect a meaningful conversation at the waiting-wall.
Suddenly, as if on some invisible cue, a drain opens, and the room empties like a sink. I see the table I covet by the window and sit down at it, still coffeeless. Still conversationless. I find myself staring at the rivulets of water running down the other side of the glass and wondering if I forgot something on my list. A chair scrapes on the floor nearby and I see the owner sitting at my table with a mug of coffee for me. There is a smile on his face, but he looks exasperated. Worried.
“I noticed you trying to navigate the room, Gary…” –(another person who knows my name?)- “and I’m sorry you couldn’t make it to the counter.”
I smile in return. “I just got here, so I thought I’d mingle with the crowd until it thinned out,” I lie.
His face acknowledges the lie and he shrugs. “Well, as you can see, it’s bedlam in here until the ferry leaves, and then it starts all over again before the next one comes.”
I nod sympathetically. “You need more staff to handle the crowd, maybe.” I don’t know how I come up with these platitudes but I can’t think of anything else to say.
Another shrug. “I do have more staff, but this is an island, eh?”
I tilt my head to one side to indicate that I don’t follow his argument. “What do you mean?” Now I feel stupid for not understanding. He’s obviously talking Island; it’s a local dialect, I think.
“Island time,” he explains. “You show up at whatever time –or don’t. It’s almost like throwing dice in the morning.” He scowls, and then to show he has no hard feelings, sighs. “The staff are all great people, but things sometimes change for them unexpectedly and they have to quit, or take a leave for a while. I understand, but sometimes it’s hard…” A group of men in business suits come through the door laughing and talking loudly so he gets up to serve them. “What I need is somebody I could call in a pinch to fill in for a server who’s sick or away… Just for the morning rush, anyway…”
The men head for the coffee urn and crowd around it still laughing at something. The owner makes it half way across the room towards the counter, stops, and then turns slowly towards me with a wicked smile on his face. “You’re retired now, aren’t you Gary…?”
How do people know this? Do I look retired? I nod politely as he turns, walks to the counter and jokes with the men. I take a sip of the coffee and smile to myself as something Hamlet said suddenly comes to mind: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. My philosophy, I correct myself, and chuckle at the thought.