Friday, June 16, 2006

Precambrian Blogging

(in which a decade-old short story of mine gains unexpected new life out here on the Interwebs.)

I found a box of my old Atari ST floppies the other day, and after a bit of finagling, I was able to read files off of most of them. Which is surprising, considering that some of the disks are close to (gulp) 20 years old. And by "finagling", I mean using Hatari, an ST emulator that runs under OSX, and firing up trusty old 1st Word. It wasn't Emacs or anything, but it did the job at the time.

Anyway, I was browsing around my old documents and came across one that read remarkably like a blog post, dating back to some time around '96 or '97 ( I used to keep computers a long, long time, you understand ). Of course there was no such thing as a blog posting back in that primitive era, when wild 486 DX4s roamed the earth, and laptops were a luxury item, reserved for millionaire CEOs and marketing VPs. And even then, these laptops ran MS-DOS. A blogger today would be sitting in the coffee shop, typing things up as they happened. But back in my day we had to remember stuff, and wait until we got home to type it in to the computer. Also, every day we walked to school through the snow, uphill, both ways. And we were grateful. Kids these days, they never believe you when you try to tell 'em.

So instead of a blog entry, I viewed this piece as a "slice of life" short story. I really can't say at this point how much of this is strictly accurate, and how much is artistic license, but it's based on a visit to the coffee bar at a big-box chain bookstore in Augusta, GA, about ten years ago. I'd like to apologize in advance for the missing capital letters. I thought that was ultra-sophisticated at the time. But then, I recently altered this blog's title from a capital 'C' to a lowercase one, so maybe some things just never change.

I've cleaned the post up a little and fixed a couple of ungrammatical bits, but otherwise this piece is unchanged from when I wrote it all those long years ago. I figured, hell, it's not like I'm ever going to make a cent off this thing, so I may as well just post it here.

If you prefer to wallow in present-day computing trendiness instead of going all retro, you might enjoy my imported OPML full of RSS feeds, courtesy of SYO.

Anyway, here's our story, which I originally titled simply Capuccino. Ok, the file was actually called "CAPUCINO.DOC", since you were limited to 8.3 filenames back in the day.

so i'm in the bookstore and i decide i need coffee. i first
hunt down a book to read. this takes a while. i think there's an
art to having coffee properly, and part of it involves having a
book on hand. first, so you don't drink too quickly. a bad habit
of mine. second, for something to do instead of stare into the
middle distance trying to look thoughtful. third, so people can
see how intelligent and literate you are, supposing they care to
look at what you're reading. this is both difficult and a sign of
being insecure, maybe. or just pretentious. so is dropping
capital letters, maybe.

so i've tracked down an overview of surrealist art and i'm
standing in line for coffee. it's memorial day and there's a
line. the woman ahead of me is making trouble, and it's not even
her turn yet. at the corner table, a clean-cut mid-twentyish
black guy asks if anybody's got a watch. i don't. hardly anyone
does. finally somebody has the time. fifteen something hours. this is
an army base town. black guy says this is what he gets for not
wearing a watch. the accent says educated, middle class. the
body language says outgoing. you know, like on tv. maybe gay, also, it's hard to say.

so the woman ahead of me is ordering now. it's taking a
while. she's whining about the coffee not being fresh enough.
it's like if it's been in a thermos it turns to bat guano, she
wants it fresh. and gripes about the grounds, too. look, i
know coffee, this place has good coffee, i don't see what her
problem is. plus, i want it to be my turn soon. she's talking
like she knows the staff here. i wonder if she's an employee off
duty, or a regular, or what. it's not clear. the barista's
making quite a show of humoring her caprices and not getting
sucked into an argument. i admire that. i've done that job. i
know how it can get sometimes. she says hello or something to
the black guy without a watch, i can't hear exactly because
there's a bunch of noisy middle-aged men behind me. so she
knows the guy in the corner. are they together? i wonder.
and then one of the guys behind me talks to her. i just make out
a few words and they're greek to me, seems they know each other
too and have the sort of conversation people who know each other
have. you can't very well listen in because you had to be there
and see what happened in person to get it, and i hadn't done so.
somehow she manages to also heckle the barista some more. oh, and
the barista says a few words to the black guy in the corner. i
have a sudden feeling of being tied to a balloon and launched
skyward, floating, moored to nothing solid. everybody seems to
know everyone else, in ways i seem destined never to discover.
all this time i'm clutching the book about surrealist art, trying
to look nonchalant, and trying to avoid eye contact. with anyone.

so the woman ahead of me seems to be wrapping up her order.
she's changed her mind a few times now, and the barista's trying
to placate her. she's scored a couple free samples with promises
that she'll enjoy them. now, i'd be quite satisfied with a few
free samples. but does anyone offer any to me? no. this is her
reward for making trouble. so finally she decides to get coffee
out of a thermos. you'd think the guy was trying to sell her a
syringe full of rat poison the way she's carrying on. he rings
her up, and then she needs a cookie, too. he gets her a cookie
and rings her up. and quickly leans around her and loudly asks
what he can get for me. i tell him i need an iced capuccino and
she tells him she needs something else too, when he gets a chance.

the barista seems like an ok guy. asks me if i want ice in
it. huh? my surprise means yes, i do, and he explains that some
people like it without ice. i'm a coffee snob, and bantering with
the guy i try to get the fact across. so i ask him if it's
unusual for people to order iced capuccinos, hoping it is. he
says people often change their orders in the midst of him making
the thing - seems they also have this coffee drink that comes in a
mix that people in these parts seem to like. probably full of
sugar. i think i'm detecting that he's glad somebody knows what
they want, and that it's something worth wanting. i think that's
what it is. but i can't explore this. the way he says it all
seems like an apology for asking if i wanted ice. this is how you
get when you're harried. i know how it is. plus, those noisy
guys are still behind me in line. so i get my drink and go find a

the only table open is next to the one that woman is at.
seems she's got a son, eight or nine years old, and she's fussing
over him. oh, and she's unhappy about something and goes to
discuss this with the barista. meanwhile the guys behind me want
to know what i'm having. the barista is trying to explain what
the different items on the coffee menu are. one of the men has
gone to claim a table, maybe twenty feet from the counter.
without deciding what he wants first. so we've got this forest-
father-granola looking guy at the table and this swarthy fat guy
in line shouting a confused dialogue on what the guy at the table
wants, in his heart of hearts, to drink. it goes something like

"how about a 'caffe latte' ?"

"What's that?"

the swarthy guy confers with the barista for a moment.

"espresso and steamed milk"


"espresso and steamed milk"

"i thought that's what a capuccino is"

the swarthy guy confers with the barista for a moment.

"it's the same thing with more foam and less milk"

"what else they got?"

this goes on for a while. finally the swarthy guy decides
to prove he's a take-charge, bottom-line, take-no-guff type by
making an executive decision. the woman is impatiently waiting
for another go at the barista.

"what's fast around here?" says the guy.

"excuse me?"

"to make. what's fast to make. you got just plain coffee?"

"yes, sir."

"okay. four of those."

the barista starts pumping four coffees from the thermos.
the woman interrupts. she's brandishing the half-eaten cookie
like a district attorney with crucial evidence.

"are you sure this doesn't have peanut butter in it?"

"pretty sure, yes"

"pretty sure?"

"i'm sure there isn't any peanut butter in it"

"absolutely sure?"

"yes, ma'am."

"my son is very allergic to peanut butter"

"does it taste like peanuts?"

"i don't know. maybe."

she comes back to the table and sits down. looks very
frustrated. i don't think she asked about peanuts when she bought
the cookie. and while she was asking, the kid was happily
munching part of the cookie. during all this i'd been sitting
there at my table failing to get into the book but turning pages
anyway by force of habit, sneaking peeks at the commotion.

the men walk by loudly. the footsteps aren't loud, they
aren't talking noisily, there's just something loud about them.
as they pass by, the woman (who had just sat down) turns to

"hey, have you been to that new church?"


the feeling of tumbling through space returns. i don't
know what the hell is going on here. i like watching people.
it's like putting a puzzle together. you pick out bits and pieces
of information from how they act, and a picture of who they are
starts to emerge. not this time. it's like a puzzle, but none
of the pieces fit together, and if they did i wouldn't recognize
the picture.

the woman takes a sip of her coffee, gets up, and interrupts
another customer. it seems she likes her coffee. not too strong
like it usually is. chatters about this for a while. the barista
ignores her. she comes back and fusses with her son. she gets up
again and interrupts someone else. her son needs chocolate
sprinkles for the whipped cream on his drink. the barista
measures some out for her in a little cup. she sits down
muttering about not being trusted with the jar of sprinkles. she
gets up again to fetch sugar for her coffee. this doesn't involve
even going near the barista, but she still returns angry and
frustrated. there's just no pleasing some people.

"can i sit here?"

i look up. the black guy wants the seat across the table
from me. i say sure and go back to my book. somehow he strikes
up a conversation with the woman at the next table. i thought
they knew each other before. now i really couldn't say.

"Don't I know you from somewhere?"

"Could be. I was on TV."

"You were on TV?"

"No, not really."


"Actually, I was. See those Desert Storm books over there?
I was in a foxhole."

"You were in Desert Storm?"

"Yeah, didn't do anything too special but don't let anybody
tell you they didn't use chemicals over there. Here, look at
this. This is a chemical burn" he says, showing off his shoulder.

"I don't see it, but I believe you. What kind of chemicals?"

"I think it was mustard"

"Like in food? I didn't know..."

"No, mustard gas. It's a poison."

"Oh." She marvels at where the scar would be if she could
only see it and then asks: "What was it like over there? I heard
it was really dirty."

"It was really sandy, if that's what you mean"

"You know, like Iran, Iraq, India, that whole place is dirty.
I heard somebody say they were in Israel, and there were
Christians, Jews, and Moslems all in this one neighborhood, and
you could tell where the Moslems lived because they just threw
their garbage out into the street."

"You want to see dirty, you should see the people I have to
deal with through work"

"Where do you work?"

"I reposess things."

"Oh." she says, with a deer-caught-in-the-headlights look.
she's been following along in a dull way, inert except when her
wrath is aroused.

he starts talking about the filthy conditions people live in
here in this very city. none of this surprises me. she's doing
the same "Oh" and nodding. there is nothing behind those eyes
except a bundle of needs that god and all his angels and the
denizens of the nine circles of hell and everybody on mount
olympus couldn't fill. so he talks away unimpeded by serious
questions. more and more this seems like a real advantage for
him. something about the way he's saying all this makes me
wonder. whatever the conversation snakes around to, he's done.
how convenient. he happens to mention in passing he was in haiti
with the army too. i think he says somalia too, but i'm trying
to read a book here.

during all of this the barista fusses over the bright
bronze tubes of his espresso machine. like the average
person here would notice. he could use the same grounds
all day and let the milk sit out every night and people
would think that's how it's supposed to be.

he says his name is marcello. she says hers is leona. i
think it's leona. i'm trying to be inconspicuous here, so i
can't listen too closely. she asks where he's from. california.
makes sense, she says, it didn't seem like he was from
around here. yes, he says, leaning close, people around here
are a bit, you know, he says, whispering, stupid. she agrees. i
agree too. i could jump in to the conversation and say some
very witty things at this point, but i am who i am, so i don't.
accent says she's not from around here either, but he doesn't ask
about it.

seems marcello's from huntington beach. ooh, orange county.
just moved here a month ago, lives in a little rural town just
outside our fair city here. came to be near his mother. hates
it. the town police are always pulling him over. playing rap
too loud, they say. i hate rap, he replies, don't stereotype me.
hey, that would bother me a lot, too. southern police make me
upset, and i'm not even black. inwardly i'm cringing, though:
we're in the south, and the race thing has come up in
conversation. i can't put my finger on what i'm afraid might
happen. maybe a guy at the next table is in the state aryan
militia or something and starts lobbing grenades. i dunno.
but this time it passes. she's too eager to be regaled with
tales of exotic locales:

"what's california like?"

"it's wonderful. you have to go sometime. you just really
have to go. it's unbelievable."

the adjectives seem to do the trick for her. she nods in
agreement without having learned anything about california. it
might as well be somewhere on the moon of pluto.

leona doesn't have the accent, but she's got the southern
way of being an idiot. it's like if you haven't been somewhere
or seen or done something personally, the place, the action, or
whatever, is just inconceivable. not knowing isn't a character
flaw in my book; not wondering certainly is.

to be fair, there's a northwestern way of being an idiot,
too. instead of having no imagination, the crucial piece missing
is basic common sense. a few years back a bunch of guys were
having a party in the woods and had just polished off a keg of
beer. lacking basic common sense in addition to being drunk, they
got to wondering what would happen if they put the keg in the
campfire. it heated up, exploded, and killed a couple people.
the worst thing with having no common sense is that you'll never
realize it until it's way too late. thus, people think they
can get away with all kinds of weird things. like trying to
outrun cop cars like they do on tv. or hiring some trailer park
tough to break an ice skater's leg so you can be champion.
or robbing banks. oregon has the highest number of bank robberies
in the country, and the crooks almost always get caught. and
every single time the offender is absolutely shocked that they
didn't get away scot-free.

"i think you should be a police officer."

"you know, i tried out for that, but i didn't pass some
psychological test they had.", says marcello, not missing a beat.

"oh, really? how come?", says leona, not missing a beat.
whether it's worse to buy the brooklyn bridge or to sell it is
an open question.

"when they asked me questions i told the truth. i told
them i didn't believe police should have special privileges, and
like, they have to obey the law just like anyone else.", like
those would be actual test questions or something.

"i think you're right about that", she says. if the planet
ever runs low on sympathy so that it's worth money, i want
drilling rights to leona here. she's like an artesian well of
moral support. except if you don't make her coffee right.

"besides, there's more money in reposession work."

"are you going to school?"

"i'm trying to get into the local college, but now i'm
not sure. credits don't transfer to other schools very well.
i think it's because people in this town are stupid and the
courses are designed for them."

"do you have friends here?", she says. my, isn't she

"just tammy and john here", he says and points. seems
john is the barista. and the plot thickens. oh, did i mention
i'm trying to read a book here? really, i am. so maybe morbid
curiosity is getting the best of me, but i'm having a go at a
bit of art history. i have to say that pictures of birdcages
full of marble "sugar cubes" aren't helping my mental state
at all. i look up for a moment and sip my coffee. nobody's
paying any attention to me. fine by me.

they chatter on a bit more. she's starting to act restless.
just about done with her coffee, and i guess that means time to
go. and i notice that would leave empty tables all around this
one, so marcello might decide to talk to me. somehow that holds
zero appeal for me, so i start sipping my coffee faster. i try
to be nonchalant about it, though.

and now the kid's gotten up and he's peering over my
shoulder. i look directly at him figuring that'll shame him
into going away. but no, that only works on adults. i put a
marker in the book and close it, and take a couple gulps of
my coffee. hey, this is the south -- exposing kids to modern art
is probably a felony. he gets bored and starts toward the big
section full of children's books based on violent cartoon shows.

she says she has connections and could probably get him a
job with the city police. that's interesting. marcello seems
to think so too, but begs off, giving the recent pay cut for city
employees as a reason. she nods like this is some kind of small
town and everybody knows the inner workings of city hall. or at
least they both do. and he allegedly just moved here, too. she
says this while getting up and they exchange pleasantries i catch
snippets of in between mouthfuls of iced coffee. she wanders off.

she's walking off, sip, sip, sip, marcello goes back to his
magazine for a bit, and then turns to the barista.

"hey, could i get a glass of ice water?"

there's a woman behind the counter with john. Must be
tammy, his other friend. I think.

"there's a drinking fountain over there, see it?", she says.

"let me rephrase that. i need a glass with cold water and
ice in it."

"do you want ice in that?", he asks. i hope he's not making
fun of me. why would he? maybe i'm paranoid. sip, sip, sip.

"no, and make that warm water."

"okay, sure."

i'm almost done here. sip, sip, gulp, done. cool. i'm
outta here. i stand up quietly and do a studied saunter over to
the trash bin and deposit my cup nonchalantly.

"can i get that with soap?"

"the customer is always right."

"yeah, that's what i need. a cup of hot, soapy water."

yeah, right. a real master of wit there. i wander off and
don't look back. all i want is to find a nice quiet part of the
store so i can immerse myself in magritte.

on my way there, i pass the customer service desk. leona is
there. it seems she's unhappy about something.

1 comment :

Nilina said...

Wait - I don't get why the guy was identified as being black, but the race of all the other people doesn't seem to come up.