Sep 06

the curious incident at the coffee shop

For as long as Meebo’s been on Castro Street, visiting Red Rock Coffee has been a daily ritual. I know to avoid Wednesday morning’s children story hour if I’m meeting someone, to wait at least half an hour after the first morning Caltrain arrival for a shorter line, and I recognize the half a dozen regulars who spend the majority of their daytime hours working at Red Rock from their laptops. Up until last Friday, there’s been one Red Rock regular that I’ve avoided at all costs after an incident many years ago.

Three years ago, I headed to Red Rock for an afternoon latte and lined up behind a tall man placing his order that I’d seen a few times before. I was debating between a small and medium latte when I heard the man in front of me raise his voice, “Don’t you hate it when people line up on the wrong side of the counter?”

I was taken off guard. He was facing the barista but his tone and volume could have reached anyone within ten feet of the counter. It was evident that though he was shouting to the barista in front of him, his message was really intended for the person standing behind him, me.

The Red Rock register is positioned at the intersection of two perpendicular counters and there is no sign or clear indication of which counter you should line up against. After you’ve been there a time or two, you realize that the right counter is longer, doesn’t conflict with the serving counter, and is presumably better. However, I was standing on the left side, apparently the wrong side.

I was more than a little annoyed but tried to diffuse the situation. I inserted myself into the conversation, “Sorry, would you prefer I stand along the other counter?”

The man, turned 90 degrees and eyed me from his periphery, “Why yes, yes I would.”

I moved to the right and mentally focused on letting the situation just roll away by studying the ambiguous counter situation. The baked goods and bottled drinks were lined up against the left side. I could see how I’d been trained to line up against these impulse foods. However, now safely in the right section, the crisis was averted, and my lesson was learned.

The few seconds of peace were shattered when I heard a new female voice shouting from behind me, “You are such a jerk. She didn’t know which line to stand in and you just yelled at her for practically no reason!” Both the man and I turned around to see a woman running and yelling towards us, presumably someone the man knew was coming to fight in my defense. The man stood his ground and quickly returned fire, “If you come here more than once, you should know how to line up against this counter.”

The exchange continued, voices escalated, gestures flew everywhere.

I honestly don’t remember the rest of the conversation because I was frozen in shock. I wondered what unlucky alternative reality I had just landed in. They continued to gesture and shout, still referring to me in the third person, while the entire cafe went silent to watch the confrontation unfold.

I looked to the barista for help only to see his exasperated, “Oh no, not again” look. You’ve got to be kidding – this had happened more than once? Eventually, the barista and I made eye contact. He mouthed, “Medium latte?” to which I nodded and shrunk to the waiting area while the couple continued to duke it out, not realizing that I was no longer there.

For the last three years, I’ll admit to mentally referring to that Red Rock man as just, “crazy guy” in my head. When I am forced to walk within his line of sight, I look straight ahead and make no sudden movements. If he is directly ahead of me in line, I will feign indecisiveness to let someone else pass in front of me. Our UX team does occasional ad hoc recruiting from Red Rock and in a whispered voice, I’ve instructed them, “See that guy? Under absolutely no circumstances should you ask that guy if he has fifteen minutes to look at the Meebo bar or an advertisement – he is off limits.”

Last Friday, the weather turned warm and Red Rock was exceptionally busy. I was craving an iced drink before my next meeting. The two girls behind me in line were talking about how unfair it was that their friend’s boyfriend wouldn’t allow their friend to join them that night. An elderly man at the register was debating what flavors work best in an Italian soda. The barista recommended mango and vanilla.

“Elaine, when was the last time someone bought you a drink?” a voice from the past asked.

No, no. It couldn’t be.

I turned around slowly and sure enough, there was crazy guy standing behind the two young girls. He was looking straight at me. He even knew my name. I snapped into polite defense mode, “Oh, it happens, no worries. It might not happen at Red Rock, but I’ve had my share of bought drinks.” I smiled and hoped that would be the end of our conversation.

“Well, I want to buy you a drink. You come down here a lot and I’ve never seen anyone buy you a drink.”

The two girls stopped talking. No good. This was absolutely no good.

“Oh gosh, you don’t need to do that. Really, it’s okay. I’ve got a meeting in just a few minutes.”

“No, no, I want to. I try to do at least one good deed a week and this is it. I am going to buy you a drink.”

My eyes opened wide in fear. I begged, “Oh no, please don’t squander your good deed on me.”

He continued to insist. And when I got to the counter, he was already asking the two girls if he could cut between them so he could be first to put his money on the counter. He had an iced coffee. I had already calculated the easiest, quickest drink the baristas could prepare in hopes of increasing my odds of personal safety – iced tea. He paid.

So there we were – both waiting for our drink orders. My grandmother’s Midwest charm school lessons kicked in and I realized that, even in these circumstances, I should know the name of my iced tea benefactor. I extended my hand and initiated the formalities, “I’m Elaine.” He replied, “I’m Michael.” I stood there for a second registering that crazy guy had a name. I thanked Michael, the crazy guy, for the drink.

He started, “I’ve been watching you come down here for three years and watched you and Meebo grow. You seem more at ease and confident, like you’ve really grown into your role. And from what I’ve seen, Meebo’s doing well too.” Yes, it was a little awkward and I’m horrible at taking compliments. But at that moment, I was just thankful that he was speaking, not shouting. My social skills are by no means fantastic, but I thankfully spotted the easy deflection in front of me, “That’s kind of you to say. So what do you do?”

“I work in computer hardware.” I asked him for more details about his profession, maintaining the conversation until our drinks arrived. He talked about his company, his role in the company, and how appreciative he was to have stability in the midst of an unsteady economy.

And then from out of nowhere, he inserted, “When I returned from Afghanistan, my company thankfully saw the recession coming.”

We finished the professional train of thought and I returned to the odd insertion, asking carefully, “What were you doing in Afghanistan?” He confirmed my suspicion, “I was a soldier in Afghanistan…”

I expected him to end there but he took a breath and his tenor softened, “And when I came to California, I was a little gruff and I had a lot of tension. I probably didn’t behave as well as I should have. But, thankfully, I’ve worked at it and I’m a lot better now.” And in his own way, he had just apologized.

I didn’t know how to respond, shocked, as I had been three years ago. I’d never held a grudge, I’d never expected, or even hoped for any closure from that long ago incident. I’d just accepted his presence as part of my everyday scenery. And now, I realized to what great lengths he had gone to make this apology.

Our iced drinks arrived.

“Thank you for that” I said clumsily, half referring to the drink and half referring to his brave gesture. I motioned that I should head back and said good-bye, still internalizing what had just happened.

Back at Meebo, I snapped this picture of Michael’s iced tea to remember the moment and then headed into the next meeting.

michael's iced tea