by Kelsey Matson, Special to the Torch
The original role of a café was to serve as a hotspot for business communities and as a meeting place for lunch hours and work breaks: a place of convenience, for release, and most importantly to satisfy the hunger for human interaction.
But, in 2012, the scene has become more similar to that of Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” but with people focusing their attention on computer screens and cell phones, too busy texting or updating on social networking sites to notice one another. Has our generation been raised too afraid of strangers, or is it that we simply do not want to expend the effort of approaching another when we can just as easily keep to ourselves?
A young man wearing a heather grey long sleeve, about eighteen or nineteen years old, sits awkwardly hunched over one of the plastic tables next to the south side window. He doesn’t hold an Americano, a latte, or an overpriced iced tea but instead sits and gazes either through the glass or at his own reflection; it’s difficult to tell which. My bet is on the later, although I should not be one to speak considering that I am also alone in the nearly vacant café, sipping warm milk and honey with an extra sweetener at eleven in the morning.
The barista is alone, too. She sings along to the smooth jazz flowing through the speakers when wiping down the counter with a dirty rag. The jazz is as rich as the coffee, but it leaves some to be desired. It’s as if the ambiance of the place is too artificial; the music, the tile floors, and the paint–it is putting on a front. We all are, really. None of us recognize the others except in glances beyond our own navel gazing, but we are longing for real human contact. Why else does someone sit alone in a place like this on a late Wednesday morning? Regardless, I flash him eyes whenever he feels compelled to look forward, and I begin to adjust my chair because he finds the noise distracting.
The place would more likely be considered a coffeehouse rather than a stereotypical café in a book or Lifetime romance movie: orange tables, green walls, abstract carpet and ironic wall art. It oozes American. There are outdoor tables, too, made of cement. Another man enters the meeting place of the lonely; large shoulders and calves, football player type, and after he orders a burger and fries he sits down to read the New York Times on his MacBook. No hipsters yet. The barista continues swaying her hips in her own world behind the counter to the changed radio station, a Katy Perry tune, and the man in front of me finds the napkin dispenser particularly interesting when I smile at him.
I finally give up on vying for his attention and eventually a young blonde woman comes into the café and greets him with a smile making me feel as if I am some sort of specter, a ghost. He lights up, and after putting on his khaki coat the couple takes their leave. It’s warm outside for January; spring’s come early. People walking by can’t see through the one-way glass. The man reading the Times has given his interest to his meal when the clock changes to 1:12 p.m. People slowly begin filling in for their lunch hour–people in suits, in sneakers, cardigans and sweats, all busy calling on phones or listening to music with headphones in their ears.
After polishing off leftover milk I purchase a bag of chips and take my leave through a side door. The man disappears under the girth of the crowd. The barista’s hips continue to sway as she fills the customer’s orders, lost in the radio while she rings them up without saying a word. Whatever happened to the art of saying hello?
(Kelsey Matson / firstname.lastname@example.org)