Coffee is a contradictory beverage. It’s comforting yet bitter, and though the caffeine synthetically awakens the brain, people are somehow calmed by its familiar taste — you can tell by the way their shoulders sag and their breathing grows deeper with each sip. They relax and their stone-faced exterior breaks.
It’s a cold morning. The corners of the window are fogged with condensation, a sign that there is warmth in here. The glass glistens in the early light. If I look close enough, I can see water marks left by the squeegee, staining the glass like flattened dew.
Steam and the smell of espresso swirl in the air, seeping out under the door and then freezing — it’s too cold out there to smell anything. People seem rushed. Through the window, I can see the breath from passers-by trailing behind them like exhaust fumes. Standing alone behind the counter, I realize I’ve been wiping the same spot for three minutes.
I once overheard a man compare people to cars. He had a long beard that caught the bits of cookie falling from his mouth as he spoke. “They fuel their engines with sludge,” he muttered. He seemed disgusted with us. He spoke of people as if he were something else, something better, and sometimes I catch myself in that same trap — looking top-down when I should be looking in the eye.
On slow mornings I observe for a living. I don’t just watch — I craft a life story. I romanticize, exaggerate and over-analyze. I pick out tiny details and weave a narrative. I like to think of myself as a connoisseur of people, of how they act when they think nobody’s looking and of what they give away.
Yesterday there was a woman sitting at the table opposite the counter, writing feverishly into a small notebook, incessantly bouncing her knee. She wore her hair long in a loose braid, and she had an elaborate emerald brooch pinned to the lapel of her jacket. I imagined her writing the last line of a love letter to a former friend, so overwhelmed with emotion she was physically moved. Signing with a heart. Xs and Os.
Finally, she went to use the washroom and I wandered into the row of tables with a rag, sidling up to hers. There were no words on the page, only holes—jagged-edged, black marks where the pen had broken through the page. She hadn’t been writing at all. She’d just been poking holes.
It often goes that way. The telling details, the twitch of a knee or the corner of an eye, tiny quirks that could mean anything. We impose stories on one and other, characterize each other and flesh out a plot with mistaken ambiguity. A plot filled with holes.
We do it to ourselves too, only in reverse. We assume we are well-liked by others, or else despised, but we can’t know what anyone thinks of us; we can only watch and guess. They tell us and we don’t believe them. Love is a tactic to manipulate, and hatred to hurt. More to do with them than with us, their own motives and desires. We can’t learn anything about ourselves from watching other people — no mirrors, only glass — but it hasn’t stopped me yet.
Outside, people keep streaming past, heads in toques, faces stuffed into coat collars and scarves, eyes cast down. They seem sad — all tortured by the same devices, the wind and the cold, but too wrapped up to find solidarity in their suffering. It’s warm in here. Suddenly I long for the chime of the door. I want to throw it open and shout, “Come inside! It’s warm, goddamnit! Isn’t that enough?”
An old woman once told me lonely people are the most observant. Since her husband died, she said, the world had opened up. It was like taking off blinders, she said. You get tunnel vision, in love, but there’s more to life. She seemed happy, and I didn’t know what to make of that. She was right, though — about lonely people, at least.
The best thing about other people is that they’re always doing something, always walking or breathing or scratching their noses with the butt ends of pens. There is nothing happening here. Watching isn’t really an action but the means by which actions are recorded. Observing something gives it space to really happen, but in itself it is nothing. If the people shuffling past the window, if the rare customers only knew the service I was doing them. I look, and suddenly they’re real. For 10 feet past the storefront, for an hour sipping coffee, everything they do has meaning.
So much goes unnoticed but here I am, catching all I can.
Featured image by Allison Baker