People watching, as it turns out, is one of my favorite hobbies. Just this morning alone, I watched a couple awkwardly engage in a first date; a pair of college students agonize over the precise details of a PowerPoint presentation; and exactly three dogs get scolded by their owners for misbehaving in the coffee line. I would rather observe others than engage with them, like some sort of armchair sociologist with a fascination for how others react to life’s most ordinary experiences. And this last week, as a semi-permanent resident of a local coffee shop, I’ve noticed the most curious phenomenon during writing breaks.
The “coffee test,” I’ll call it, is my manner of evaluating the hustle and bustle of the average person in the morning. The last few days, I’ve people watched from my car; a coffee shop; a restaurant; on my evening walk. I’ve observed the force with which others slam their car door, check their watch, and barrel into a storefront for their mobile-ordered dose of caffeine. I’ve watched people get irritated, frustrated, borderline enraged by a misplaced order, a lukewarm muffin, or the incorrect amount of milk. I’ve watched customers make demands of servers that would make you believe they were raised in a barn. And I’ve seen strangers nearly cross busy intersections and get hit by cars while being glued to their telephones.
The “coffee test” speaks to more than simply the business of being busy: it showcases what happens to a society when the future is valued more than the present moment. Next time you enter a coffee shop for a few moments, take notice of how many people are in a rush – tapping their feet, checking their clocks, and simmering to a boil while they impatiently wait. And then…look for the exceptions. The ones who still smile amid the morning chaos. The ones who are polite despite the daily grind. Look for the exceptions to the rule…and mimic them. Emulate their demeanor. Copy their posture. Observe their capacity to stay cool while everyone around them runs hot.
Because at the end of the day, most of us are on someone else’s clock. We are all biding our time. We are all trying to fit a laundry list of responsibilities into the same twenty-four-hour day. And while the grass may appear greener on the other side of your daily demands…it isn’t the barista to blame. Nor is it the customer in front of you. Or the person backing out of the parking space you waited want. Or the server who is doing their best to make a buck during trying times. Stop for a moment and ask yourself: would it be so bad if I slowed down for even just a moment? Is it truly that difficult for me to take a second to breathe?
We in the United States are programmed to exist in a rat race, and the reward to the victor is more work in return for a job well done. We are trained to believe that being a good parent means soccer practice at 3:00pm, swim team at 6:00pm, and piano lessons at 9:00pm. We are wired to pencil in our shrinking list of minor indulgences weeks or months in advance and plot out vacation time a year before it comes. And then, in order to maintain a semblance of sanity, must assume that we will even make it that far. We are thrilled with one week off every few months at best, unless you’re a stay-at-home parent who literally never gets a break. We are glued to the pages of a planner, in paper and digital and dry-erase form. And since we are inundated by the societal demands placed upon us to “forever hustle” – often more by necessity than by choice – we take it out on the path of least resistance. The barista. The bartender. The teacher. The nurse. The receptionist. Almost always, one another.
I think back to my first time in Italy. I ordered a coffee to go, and the server stared blankly for a moment. He told me, “Sit down…no takeaway here,” and presented me with a porcelain cup and saucer of a freshly made cappuccino. Despite being on vacation, I was incapable of turning off that internal trigger that demanded I exist on a literal timeline. So, I sat. And I drank. And I enjoyed…slowly; deliberately…the way a cup of coffee was intended. Hot. Fresh. In a cup that permits you to smell the aroma of freshly ground cinnamon, and a setting that allows you to observe time stand still.
In many ways, I carry these lessons with me today. Even though I know the crack of dawn mobile order hustle to the hospital routine all-too well …I have learned to do so with a smile. I am conscious of the energy I project to others. I am aware of how I treat those around me. And I am observant of how others respond in return. Next time you grab your cup of coffee, think about what a difference it would make if you asked your server for their name. If you held the door for the customer behind you. If you left your cell phone in your pocket. Through quiet observance, one can exist in this moment. And maybe – just maybe – if you’re lucky enough someday, you can sit down for a moment and sip on your coffee while it’s still warm.
** Pick up your copy of "Coffee with My Dead Mother: Lessons on Loss, Hope, & Navigating a New Normal" for more of my thoughts on life, love, and coffee! **