I’m sitting in the back of this coffee shop I like to work in. The place used to be a bank or a school house or something back in the olden days where the shape isn’t quite right for the shop so it has this one brick annex that kind of juts out from the rest of it. It’s an island, just two booths and table that most people don’t know exists, or if they do know, they avoid it since it doesn’t get heat from the continental portion of the shop. That’s why I like to work there, because I can be by myself, not because I don’t get any heat.
So I’m sitting here with my coat on reading for class when this middle-aged schlub, sloshing his soup and coffee around on his tray sits down at the table right across from me. Can you imagine the nerve? Like we’re just supposed to sit here and acknowledge each other’s existences or something? Pff!
Then he starts talking to me.
“Is that literature you’re reading?” he asks like we’re people who talk to one another. Like this is a movie. Like this is some fantasy world where perfect strangers (ah, what a great show) strike up conversations like we’re suburban housewives from the ‘50’s—“Hello, Mabel, love your petunias”, “Oh thanks Gladys, now have you heard, just what Ethel put in her garden?!” This is a coffee shop and like when riding the bus or standing in line at the grocery store, it’s eyes straight ahead and mouths shut.
|Me! but with less books and coffee.|
I’m reading a chapter in A.O.J Cockshut’s (no, that’s really his name) book about Charles Dickens’ autobiographical references in A Christmas Carol (no, I’m actually writing a paper on A Christmas Carol in December). I don’t feel like debating him on the oh-too-frequent liberal use of literature so I humor this guy believing that doing so will allow me to get back to my icebox reading.
“Yeah,” I say. Good humoring.
“Uh huh, see it’s a crock that you have to do that. I mean what is it even?”
“Just some critique on Victorian lit.”
He takes his coat off and swivels his chair around to me. Oh God, is this going to be a thing? Like an actual thing we’re going to do?
“See that’s just the problem with college nowadays, I mean, when are you going to use that? Why are you going to need that uh, critique?”
Oh great, a practician is trying to talk to an English grad student—a creative writing grad student—on the lunch-pale merits of studying lit. Why don’t you and the rest of the world get a table, why don’t you?
Sigh. This is going to be a thing that we’re going to do.
“Sir, I am a graduate student of English and Creative Writing, and how dare you—how dare you, sir, I say! Literature and writing are important components to understanding the very civilization which we enjoy today and doing well in it, regardless of profession. It is the heart and soul of society, sir, its heart and soul, I say!” I tell him, or something to that effect.
“Oh yeah, I agree,” the soup-slosher says. “I just mean you got to be reading the right stuff, you know, like—you ever read [insert name of some author I have never heard of, ever]?”
“What? You got to be kidding me.”
“I’m not kidding you.”
“What? And you say you’re a grad student here?”
“Yeah? I graduated here in ’78.”
Yeah? If I had been drinking at that moment I would have done a prolonged spit-take all over his face. What does this guy mean he “graduated here”? Like he graduated from using Velcro to shoe laces? He graduated from this coffee shop when it used to be a school? Could he have actually received the same degree that I will and then, what? Now just rambles around town picking fights with coffee shop patrons?
Wait, suck the spit back in. Maybe he’s a professor at one of the other colleges in town, or maybe even at mine. It’s a big department and I’ve skipped out on most of the socializing opportunities. Academic folk can be pretty eccentric.
“So are you a professor around here?”
He takes a long, sorry slurp of his coffee smacks his lips.
“Me? No. I thought about it sure, but naw, not me.”
Oh God. I feel like Scrooge asking the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come about the name on the tombstone now.
“So you teach high school then?”
“I’m night manager at Walmart, three nights a week.”
I think I need to take a drink because this certainly warrants a spit-take. It warrants like three or seven spit-takes, right in Professor Walmart Nights face. I knew the job market was tough, but what the hell? Is this to be my fate? Drifting through the streets where my dream died, degree in hand, trying warn current grad students from repeating the mistakes of my past? Was I wearing the chains of my past bad decisions and just didn’t know it?
= soup slosher
This Jacob Marley son-of-a-bitch starts going on about [what’s-his-name who wrote what’s-his-book] and I’m just staring at him in horror, slowly positioning myself into the fetal position at my booth. I’m not even really listening to him anymore as I call out.
“Oh Ghost of Jeremy Yet to Come, are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only? Say it is thus with what you show me!”
“Well, kid, I’m not exactly your future, see I didn’t actually get a grad degree.”
“No, I didn’t. I just got my BA in English from here.”
“Well uh, gee, spirit, that seems like it would have been some useful information.”
“Yeah, I know, but I like people to think I’m more impressive than I really am.”
“I know the feeling, continue.”
“See, I did get my undergrad here—an English major, but that’s about where things stopped for me. I mean, there’s not a lot you can do with a BA in Englsih—well hey, look who I’m talking to!”
A forced chuckle. “Uh yes, I’ve heard But see my case is just a little bit different than--.”
“--Well, I got to get going, floors to wax, puke to clean up.”
“In that order?”
“Ooh, you’re good. You’re good. You should work at Walmart. I bet you could become a full manager in no time.”
“I’m good, thanks.”
“No see, I’m getting my MA in English and Creative Writing, maybe even a PhD in it!”
“Right, well if you ever need a job, you know where to find me. You could join our book club! Right now it’s just me, Kirby from home appliances, and a cardboard cut-out of Jeff Gordon. We could use another keen academic mind like yours.”
“Wait, things can still change! You’re a shadow of what may be only! Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead, but if the courses be departed from, the ends will change, yeah?
“You know where to find me.”
I have been reading way too much Dickens.