Coffee Shop Therapy
Early this past summer, I was reading an academic text about charity and the wealthy and taking notes at Dunkin’ Donuts, an establishment that reveals its humble roots in its name. An upscale free-trade, micro-roasting, espresso shot-selling coffee bar simply would not entertain the idea of offering its customers a donut, donuts being a product engineered for the lower class working stiff who can wipe his sugary hands on his clothes and not consider the dry cleaning implications. In contemporary America, coffee is as good as any measure to distinguish the classes. If Thorsten Veblen were writing today about conspicuous consumption, he would start at coffee and work his way up to bigger markers, like cars, watches, and vacations. I like to come to Dunkin’ Donuts. The servers here are not baristas; they are not biding their time making coffee before their big break on Broadway and they are not scratching out a novel during their breaks, they way the staff at Starbucks do. They are the salt of the earth brewing coffee and doing their best to offer a full menu of breakfast, lunch and snacks with a five-foot square kitchen. I admire them.
As I was biding my time before a meeting at a local college, I enjoyed a cup of decaffeinated regular roast, no flavor added, no whipped topping, no anything. Just one noun (coffee) and one adjective (decaffeinated.) A seemingly dysfunctional family is seated nearby. We throw around the title “dysfunctional” a good deal these days to describe even our own perfectly average families that are blessed with a few eccentricities, like mothers who count out the number of Cheezits each child will consume in an evening. But this family was, in my semi-professional opinion, a bit disturbed. Maybe not dysfunctional, but more like undomesticated. They are speaking loudly and seem eager to share their “issues” with the rest of the customers. The woman who dominates the conversation, whom I will name Cheryl for this report, is joined in this demonstration of family dynamics with her tenth grade daughter, Stacy, her older daughter, a young adult named Paula, and an older woman, Auntie Dee, who joins the unit a bit later in our story. Rounding out the group is a middle aged skinny man with oiled up slicked-back hair, who I will christen Ratso, just to keep all the parties straight and easy to recognize.
When I joined the unwilling audience at the shop, this group was in the middle of talking about vaccinations.
“No kid of mine is going to be vaccinated unless and until I say so. I told that loser teacher of yours, ‘We ain’t just a bunch of dumb sheep, you know.’”
She addressed this statement to the youngest girl who’d just finished 9th grade and needed to get some shots renewed before the start of the next school year. According to Cheryl, she spent half the year in the principal’s office, straightening out the way they conduct their business–exhausting work for sincere parents interested in their children’s education. This led to a long story about Cheryl’s own childhood and the misery that was visited upon her by a series of stupid, fat and miserable teachers. These teachers were so ugly that she had to drop out of school in the ninth grade.
She launched into a story of a vaccination that she received when she was in the first grade that “hurt like a f***ng b**st*ard.” That wasn’t the worst of it. Then the injection site filled up with pus and scabs and all the kids had to wear a little plastic cup over the shot so no one would get infected with the terrible disease.
Paula looked dubious, shaking her head. “Yeah, right, Ma. Sure you did. And what AWFUL disease was this shot for? The plague?”
Auntie Dee added her own two cents, “I don’t remember anything like that happening when you went to school. Maybe, you’re just confused, honey.”
“Crap,” responded Cheryl. ”You people don’t know nothin’. That definitely happened and I remember the teachers saying to us, ‘If you a**holes knock that cap off, you will get very, very sick and die.’ So, we tried to be careful, and not ram into each other.”
“Uh, huh. Very interesting, Ma,” Tracy added in that undercutting tone that only early teenagers really know how to employ.
“You jerks don’t believe me, do you?” Cheryl confronted them head on, making eye contact with each of the doubting family members.
All through the conversation so far, Ratso didn’t add a word except to mutter under his breath, “Fat stinking lousy slobs, the whole bunch of ‘em.” Every time Cheryl opened her mouth, he added, “Especially you, you big bag of sh*t.”
Cheryl ignored this. Auntie Dee seemed to hear what Ratso said and smiled sweetly at him, nodding her head. As if to say, “Well, now that you put it that way, I think I understand what you mean.”
Cheryl wouldn’t let the vaccine thing go so easily. She looked around the donut shop, maybe expecting that there would be an encyclopedia Britannica or maybe the lady from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire would be here with a Life Line.
Lacking that, she called out, “Excuse me, Miss. You look very intelligent. Could you settle an argument for us?”
She swung her eyes unobtrusively around the shop. The only other occupant was an elderly man who had taken his hearing aid out as soon as Cheryl began talking about vaccinations. He was spinning it like a top and it was whistling. He was eyeing this group as if he had never seen the Jerry Springer Show.
Knowing I was fingered as the “intelligent” party in question, I turned her way and gave her a smile.
“Well, I am not so sure how intelligent I am but I would be happy to try to help,” I offered. What cardinal work of mercy this was, I couldn’t say. It wasn’t visiting the sick or feeding the hungry but there was definitely an element of charity addressing the essence of despair here.
“So, tell these bozos about the vaccination. I know that someone as smart as you knows what the f*** I am talking about.” She sounded so exasperated, I couldn’t refuse the assignment. I had to deliver here and fortunately I had the goods. And unfortunately, I sounded very much like a know-it-all-smarty-pants-geek when I shared the information.
“Actually, I think you referring to the smallpox vaccine protocol as it was administered in the 1950s and early 60s. You indeed couldn’t disturb the shot because there would be some oozing at the injection site and it had to be covered until it healed.”
“F****ing Exactimundo!” she exclaimed. “Damn it, I knew you were smart. I knew it as soon as I looked at you. I said to myself, ‘Now that lady right there reading that big boring book is very smart.’ That makes me a f***king genius. What kind of job do you have? You must be a teacher or a doctor or something else.”
I thought about this carefully, not that I had to recall what I did for a living. I just couldn’t imagine what would be gained by telling her that I was actually an actress who played smart people on TV but wasn’t really intelligent at all. So, I went ahead and confessed.
“I actually am a college professor,” I smiled like you do when your mother says in front of your new boyfriend, “Even as a child, she had very regular in her bowel habits.”
Cheryl slapped her knee like they do on Hee-Haw. She looked around the coffee shop to alert the rest of the customers to her discovery.
“Ah, ha! What you think of that, Auntie? A college professor right here! Sitting having coffee with the rest of us.”
With the exception of Ratso, everyone paid proper homage. She asked about what college I taught at and what subjects I taught and asked me how many years of study it took to be a college professor. Cheryl repeated every bit of this to her 10th grader, point by point. I would say, “Well first, you graduate from high school” and she would repeat it, as if she was the only one who could understand what this college professor was saying. And, I, still playing super geek took them through the masters, comprehensive exams, the dissertation and its defense. At the conclusion where I graduate with my doctorate, she grinned at her teenager and said sincerely, “See, honey, if you study real hard, you can be anything you want, even a college professor.”
Stacy objected to her mother’s interjection of this plan for her.
“For cripes sakes, Mom, I was thinking more like studying to be a nail technician and if that doesn’t work out maybe a child shrink or something like that.”
For this young woman, career choice was a simple matter. What sort of outfit do the people who have all these jobs wear? She took notice of my sensible brown suit, set off by my collarless loose fitting black top, and topped off with shoes that are featured in catalogues to outfit senior citizen outings. A small gold pin. No earrings. Nothing at all dangled from me.
Bunny, a cute little beautician, known by the Dunkin’ Donuts clerks, had just come in for take out coffee. She wore a tiny faux leopard skin skirt, high heels, and an off the shoulder red blouse. She had beautiful long fingernails with selected images of the Stations of the Cross on each hand. In the eyes of a fourteen year old, here is someone one can relate to. Here is a role model to which to aspire! I saw Stacy’s eyes follow the girl as she left the restaurant, full of dreams, and hopes for a promising tomorrow—opening her own little shop Stacys’ Nails and whatever.
I had satisfied all the questions they had at the moment and I was thanked several times and excused to go back to my reading. I must admit I was growing tense and could hardly concentrate on the author’s main thesis. Suppose, the next question Cheryl posed was about the history of Persia or the sequencing of DNA and the role of pseudogenes in evolution? My cover would be blown.
Ratso was reading the newspaper but he continued to mumble. Every ten minutes or so, he would stride over to the center of the shop, pull up his jeans, bend his chin down to his chest, and then comb his hair back in a two handed sweep. Then, he squared his shoulders and strutted back to his seat. Once in a while, he would find his way outside, looking authoritatively and importantly up and down the street, like he was this New England town’s appointed tornado watcher. When he returned, he resumed his litany of miserable observations about his family members.
“Fat ugly sluts. They never get what they deserve. And you’re the biggest one.”
He tilted his head toward Cheryl. “You big bloated bag of wind. Why the f***don’t you shut up?”
These comments and others were muttered so that they could be heard easily enough by anyone in the room but quietly enough that his family members could pretend they didn’t hear them and could ignore him while they continued their conversation. This also saved them the trouble of whipping his “sorry a**” which also surfaced as a possibility later on in the exchange.
The conversation continued on without me. Like all human discourse, this was wide ranging, in part intellectual, in part emotional; sometimes the tone was playful, and sometimes close to indictable under the charge of “threatening to do bodily harm with the use of fists, feet or teeth.” They covered the price of gasoline, the love life of a woman friend who’d taken up with an older ex-inmate who was also shacking up with a teenaged prostitute, plans for the weekend and other matters.
Cheryl suddenly made a show of standing up. She cleared her throat to warn her family that she was about to say something of vital importance. She pulled down the front of her jersey pants.
“See this, Auntie. I have a big smiley face scar left over from that f***cked up C-section from you know who.” She shot a look towards her youngest daughter and drew her finger along the scar. Her aunt’s eyebrows arched up and she looked at me for some unaccountable reason.
“So, I been thinking about it and I’m going to use that $1500 from that insurance check to have it removed. Doctor Wahid, the plastic surgeon, said it would be a cinch and then I could wear a bikini again.”
“Oh, my!” they all thought. They all wore the same expression on their faces–horror and anticipatory discomfort. They were thinking, “You must be kidding. No one wants to see you in a bikini. It is not fair to the rest of us.” But they remained silent. It was Ratso who rescued the conversation.
“Never mind plastic surgery, what you really need is a lobotomy!”
Stunned, she pulled up her pants and sat down, looking dejected.
Auntie shook her head and said, “She does not need a lobotomy, mister!”
Cheryl appreciated the support and asked,
“What the hell is a f**cking lobotomy?”
Auntie tried her best to explain. Paula was confused and said politely,
”Auntie, I think maybe you are thinking of a hysterectomy.”
They tossed around Ratso’s idea for several minutes while he smirked with satisfaction.
He grumbled, “F**cking idiots! What the hell am I doing with this bunch of losers?”
Then, it occurred to Cheryl that I—the Oracle of Donuts—was still there, available for questioning.
“Professor, excuse me. I don’t want to bother you again but my a**hole husband says I need a lobotomy. What the hell is a f**cking lobotomy?
It was evident that the family appreciated clear answers. They were rapt, each turning in my direction with mouths agape.
First, I demurred and noted that I wasn’t a doctor or a historian of medical technologies but I would try to do my best. So, I explained the origin of the procedure, its former medical uses, cited a few reputable journals to consult if they wanted to do follow up reading on their and how the practice was no longer used here in the U.S., although some dictators still employed it to quell incipient rebellions.
“So, Professor, are you saying that I don’t need no f**king lobotomy after all?” She was looking more confident, returning to her old self.
“Well, although this is not my area of specialization. I am a sociologist with sub-specialties in organizational theory and post-post-modern deconstructionist philosophy. However, I think it is safe to assume that you don’t need a lobotomy. No one gets lobotomies anymore.” This vindicated her immediate contrary response to nearly any point offered by her husband. Ratso was glowering at me. Actually, I think I saw sharpening the knife that he had stowed in his shoe.
Pointing her index finger in Ratso’s direction, Cheryl asked, “And what about him? He’s the one who needs a lobotomy, right?”
“No,”I advised her, “he probably isn’t a good candidate for that procedure, either.” I actually was about to recommend a vasectomy but she didn’t ask.
I was thanked and excused again and it was almost time for me to leave. I considered for a second that I should leave my business card because I was so helpful to this family. We should really keep in touch. Then, I thought better of it.
I rose to leave but not before a long goodbye where Cheryl remarked on what a remarkable, actually “f***king amazing” day it had been.
”How about that, girls! We have never even met a professor before and here she is drinking coffee with us like a regular normal person. Do you come here often, Professor?”
“No,” I responded. “I am usually at the library behind a pile of old books, studying and studying.”
Cheryl gazed at me with what I understood to be maternal concern, “Well, you shouldn’t work so hard, Professor. You should relax more. My mother once told me that too much reading could ruin your eyes and your figure, if you know what I mean.” She smiled at me and winked conspiratorially. I, of course, didn’t have a clue.
I waved them goodbye, waiting a second for a round of applause. Cheryl continued to remark on her good fortune and reminded everyone that she had spotted me first. She waved to me as I got into my car. I thought to myself, she’s right. This had been f***king amazing.