On the weekend at my favorite coffee shop, I would see the same woman working, who greeted me with a smile and some friendly comment. She didn’t know my name. I didn’t know hers. She became a fixture in my Sunday morning, knowing my cup and what goes in it, she asked where I was heading, where I live, told me where she lived and that she sometimes walked to work.
During the week, I frequent different places; the same coffee shop chain as the Sunday shop, just different locations depending on where I’m heading each day. Each one features its own cast of employees and customers, each, like me, with their own story.
Over the months, the weekend visits that included the cheery woman became normal, just a part of my Sunday, which really was focused on my taking my young nephew for “our” time, me with my usual shots of espresso on ice, his frozen concoction. He and I knew that we would probably be served by the happy gal, and even though we never spoke directly to it, it seemed understood that she was as part of our routine as the drinks.
As life goes, someone alerted me that the woman had gone into a coma associated with advanced cancer that I never knew she was struggling with. She was expected to die within 48 hours, which she did. The wave of sorrow that hit me was as unexpected as hearing the news: after all, I didn’t even know her name, so why that would trigger anything but mild feelings of distant sorrow for her, or her family perhaps, was a surprise. I thought about the times I conversed with her husband outside the shop, introducing our respective family dogs. I found out her name, and that she and her husband had three children along with the dog, and that they lived in the house that years before had offered their yard to a float that didn’t make the grade for the local Independence Day parade. I saw the collective sorrow of her colleagues, who went through the pulling of espresso shots like robots with tears streaming down their faces. And I cried while trying to talk to my nephew about life and death and people and random relationships that form while we’re not paying attention.
So back to a different shop, where groups formed around some random guy who held spirited conversations with whomever was around. He brought his big furry dog every day and tied him to the shop’s fence while inside he was holding court and waxing philosophical, or political, or social, psychological, whimsical. I knew the dog’s name, but not the guy’s. Nearly each of the days that I started my morning at this particular place, I could count on seeing them there.
One morning, I was barely out of my car when the man rushed to me and shouted from ten feet away, “MY DOGGY DIED.” And he broke into tears. I felt compassion, and listened as he sobbed and spoke to his loss. I realized that my reaction was not just obligatory, but heart-felt. Curiouser and curiouser.
I offered a hug, instinctively as an animal lover but also because of this strange nothing of a relationship that still made me teary-eyed as I went into the store. The employees at this store, who also know my drink and my cup but not my name, asked how my morning was going, and looked deeper as they may have noted the tears..
I collected my drink, headed back to my car, and began my day post-coffee-shop. I would think about the guy and his dog, and the cheery woman at the other shop who died and left a hole in her friends’ and family members’ lives, and it got me to thinking how strange it is that we become intimate with people whose names we don’t know, whose houses we have never been to or would likely ever go to, whose families and friends we didn’t know, whose histories we have no part of yet with whom we are inextricably linked. Via espresso. Via location, interests, common steps we share.
If I am a microcosm in the vast planet of people, I would venture that we all carry our own unique set of intimate relationships that we don’t necessarily or immediately recognize. It is the random quality that makes it easy to relegate those moments, events or relationships to the mundane or unimportant. Yet the way we touch others or are touched come in surprise packages. In a collective sense, as part of the teeming intricate concept that defines humanity, we are ultimately and simply not alone.