An Awkward Encounter

The early morning rush had ended.  The line-up for coffee had extended out the door for about 25 minutes.  It was just before 10am and the coffee shop had settled into a quiet hum of activity behind the counter and the faint sound of an oldies program was playing on a tinny sounding radio.  At the table behind me sat a tall, classically handsome, well-dressed young man; clean shaven and crisp.  His choice in tie was well paired with the colour of his shirt.  He was busy with his phone, head down and stern faced, oblivious to the physical world.  The young man had arrived just before the coffee rush, which was fortunate as his credit card had been declined for his small dark roast drip coffee.  I thought of how agonizing it is to wait behind someone who has to go through their entire collection of plastic debt to make a $2 purchase.  It’s even worse when you’re the person scrambling to make the payment.

The shop door opened and a gust of winter whirled through the coffee shop.  A young woman in active wear entered and headed straight to the counter.  She made a complicated order and was very specific about the temperature of her pseudo coffee, whip cream extravaganza and where and how thick the low fat cream cheese needed to be spread on her slightly toasted multi-grain bagel.  I paid her little mind, returned to my coffee and continued to people watch through the foggy window.  The young lady glanced over at the young man behind me as she made her way to the table at the other corner of the shop, where they had an old plush, overstuffed couch; in front, a small coffee table much too low for the couch.  Her order was brought to her and fortunately it was to her satisfaction.  I really didn’t want to see what might happen if they messed it up.

Behind me I could hear the young man fidgeting.  His leg was pumping vigorously with quick small movements, shaking his coins and keys and wobbling the table.  He was focused on an employment paper.  His fidgety leg a blur of crisp charcoal pleats as he checked his phone every minute or so; an expression of disappointment wrinkling his forehead each time.

The windows had completely fogged up at this point, except for the trickles of condensation that were jerkily racing towards the bottom.  I’d given up on people watching at this point.  The radio show host was in the middle of telling an amusing anecdote about the song that had just finished.  He ended the anecdote with what sounded like a catch phrase “…and now you know the rest of the story”, but I had missed the first part.

Again the coffee shop door swung open, but this time it wasn’t a fleeting, cold draft.  The shop temperature quickly cooled as we waited for the new customer to finish stomping his boots endlessly on the saturated door mat.  Why he needed to keep the door open was beyond me.  We were all paying attention to him.  The young man at the table behind me seemed to recognize him, but quickly put his paper down and turned his full attention to his phone.

It was too late; the new customer (a painter it appeared) had noticed the young man too.  He nodded, and the young man returned the gesture.  While the Painter was making his order, the young man tucked the paper he had been reading into his square black leather messenger bag.

Coffee in hand, the Painter made his way over to the young man.  This should be interesting, I thought.  The Painter was a big man.  Mature and weathered.  He wore white painter’s coveralls.  Multi-coloured paint splatter all up the front of them.  He had forgotten the young man’s name; the young man had not forgotten his.  The last time they had seen each other was at a mutual friends wedding five or six years back.  Neither of them had spoken with their mutual friend since.  The Painter explained how he had started up his own painting company.  Four employees and steady business, considering the time of year; always a struggle to get good pricing on paint, he grumbled.

The young man listened as the Painter carried on.  Like many men in their late thirties, the Painter explained his career choice and how it was probably for the best, or if only this or that hadn’t happened. The Painter started on about his plans for the upcoming summer season.  He planned to hire two more staff; train them himself.  Unsurprisingly, the young man’s attention slowly (and carefully) returned to his phone.

The Painter turned the conversation to the young man and asked what he was doing now.  The young man cleared his throat and said he was in insurance; an independent agent. The Painter looked impressed and said that he didn’t know much about that ‘kind of stuff’.  The young man smiled.  The young man mentioned that he had recently finished writing an exam for his insurance licence when his phone vibrated.  This time when the young man looked up from his phone; his brow softened and his smile widened.  He apologized to the Painter and said he’d been waiting for that email and had to leave.  They exchanged pleasantries and made (empty) promises to meet up for drinks.

As the young man left and the door slowly closed, I finished the last of my coffee and with my sleeve I wiped the foggy window and watched him walk towards the subway station.  I wondered; was the young man happy to receive that email because it was an excuse to leave an awkward situation, or had it validated his story about his work?

An Awkward Encounter