Conversations are good; you can even learn stuff. Of course I guess it matters who you talk to and where you are. You don’t learn much in a men’s washroom, for example -but then again you don’t tend to talk much in there either. It’s a guy thing, I suspect. So, you have to pick your spot if you want to commune.
And now that I am retired, I am trying to experiment with spots. Having been largely asocial for most of my life, however, I find myself at somewhat of a disadvantage in this regard. A superficial analysis might suggest that colloquy varies in direct proportion to numbers –the more people there are, the more they are likely to engage. But I have since found that this is frequently mistaken. You have to be standing in front to speak in church, for example –and even there, if a question is asked, everybody seems to answer at the same time. Otherwise they’re pretty silent.
Another seemingly obvious intuition that I have since proven unreliable, is the group rule: if a whole bunch of people are talking together, you are welcome to join the conversation. No, you are not. That’s all I’m going to say about that.
But, over time, I have managed to whittle down the situations where an outsider will not be savaged for attempting an innocent and unprovoked exchange of words -‘Outercourse’ I like to call it. Even so, I think you have to be very careful carrying unusual words near strangers lest they misunderstand your intentions and move away, however. I am still perfecting the technique.
One of my first experiments was in a Starbuck’s coffee shop. Coffee has always made me unduly chatty and I should have known better than to have attempted it without a more detailed preparation. Normally, I peek in the door first and see if there is likely to be a table free by the time I’ve made it through the line. And I generally avoid tables that are sandwiched in the middle of a row largely because of my apparently frowned-upon habit of opening my sausage and egg sandwich to let it cool. I can’t tell you the number of opprobrial stares that seems to draw in a crowded place. People will actually lower their iPhones and glare at me. The message is obvious: This is not MacDonald’s, old man.
So, although I prefer to sit apart –in the window if possible- I came to realize that the very practice that had served me well for many years was an impediment to any meaningful conversational opportunities. In fact, so was my breakfast choice. I decided to change: if distance was the problem, I would sit in a middle table; if the sausage-and-egg sandwich was a barrier, I would eat it hot –or at least let it sit in the little serving bag until it was safe to lick … I mean touch.
I rehearsed the initial stages of my plan in my head as I walked into the Starbuck’s. It was almost empty that morning –no line, most of the tables were free, and although the empty window seat beckoned me like a drug, I was resolved and my determination to engage in tentative Outercourse unshakable. There were only two tables occupied along the entire wall and I chose the empty one between them. Yes, there were stares and eyes that flitted like arrows pointing to the plethora of empty tables at a more respectful distance, but certain of my purpose and determined to sit beneath the sword of Damocles hanging above the table, I positioned myself conspicuously between two women.
One –a middle aged blond (I think)- was bedecked in bling and wearing what looked to be an expensive yellow shirt with a truly unique brown pattern on it –very Rorschach. I quietly compared it to the Walmart apparel I had chosen for the day. She was busy riveting her eyes to her phone and despite my accidental spill of salt onto her table from one of those little packages you can never tear, her fingers continued to tap at the phone like an urban woodpecker.
The woman on the other side of me seemed more approachable. She was older, bandannaed, and wearing what seemed to be running apparel that was clearly several sizes too small for her. But she eventually smiled at her phone and I took that as a good sign.
I left the sandwich bagged, and sipped noisily at my even hotter coffee. Suddenly I was a blank. Apart from the coffee, there was nothing on my table but the bag –no phone, no book, no computer –nothing to say that I belonged here. I had no excuse for my presence except consumption; I felt naked.
Suddenly the bandanna looked up at me, scowled, and then disappeared into her phone once again. But it was an opportunity of sorts –I figured she must have been between apps, so I leaned over towards her and pointed to my wrist.
“Do you have the time?” I asked, wondering if my watch had been visible when I lifted my arm.
She mumbled something irritably that I couldn’t hear, but it sounded like a question. Then she stood up, clasping her phone like a bible, and waddled away, followed almost immediately by the bling woman.
The two baristas stared at them as they left, and then smiled at me.
“Did I do something?” I said as one of them came over to clear the mess on the tables which the women had left.
The barista laughed. “You came in when it was all over…”
I sensed gossip and my ears perked up immediately. “What do you mean?”
The barista glanced around quickly to make sure nobody could hear her. “They were both sitting together at your table at first. And the woman in the running gear had ordered the sausage and egg breakfast sandwich like you.” Another furtive inspection of the room.
“But then, the runner opened up her sandwich to let it cool off, if you can imagine,” she said in a semi-whisper and shaking her head at the obvious Starbucian faux pas. She noticed mine still in its bag, politely cooling off on its own and smiled her approval. “Her friend got angry; said it was a disgusting habit and covered it with the bag. Then one of their coffees accidentally spilled…”
I’ve decided there are a lot more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in my Starbuck’s heretofore. Maybe they should post some rules at the door, though…