I Buy Dale a Coffee

Scene: San Francisco’s Mission District, a few weeks ago. I think it was a Friday. Dusk had come, I had eaten too many tacos, and I was ready for a good, solid, ass-on-old-couch sit, and so I ended up at Philz Coffee. It’s the kind of place that still really feels like an old, grubby, gathering place—raggedy stickers plastered everywhere, concrete floors, and the aforementioned sagging couches.

I posted up in Philz, feeling pretty spacey based on something I had eaten earlier that day that didn’t quite agree with my bod + my brain (gut health is brain health, dontcha know!). It was too late for coffee, really, but there I was was, sipping at a cup that set me back $4.50. I had popped into Ritual Coffee on the way to Philz, but it was boring, hip, minimalist, looked like a million coffee shops in Portland, etc. I have increasingly less patience for those types of places. My new preferred spots in Portland are the places where old folks read the paper on Sunday mornings and non-hip kids munch on pastries.

I was reading on Philz’s worn leather couch when a man walked in. I made the (perhaps unfair) assumption that he was out on the streets long-term. He kept wandering in and out of the shop–easily, because the warm weather outside had prompted the workers to prop the front door open–and hovering. He’d stand near a wall or sit on the bench below the counter. He had ragged jeans on that were too big for him and only stayed up by cinching a belt tightly, and an old, dirty parka. A hat. Everything he wore was crusted with grime, and the workers didn’t pay him much attention–they’re probably used to folks coming in and out off the street.

I have no idea how much time passed, I just know that I was hyper-aware of this man and that he made me uncomfortable for many different reasons. I’m still embarrassingly unsure of how to act around homeless and potentially mentally ill folks–I think this just comes from my chronic lack of contact, lack of experience. Fear drives me in these situations–a fear of doing or saying the wrong thing–and that fear translates to discomfort. There was also a different discomfort, one of the knowledge that it felt unacceptable or even offensive to the patrons in the shop, just this simple act of this man coming inside. There was a subtle but palpable heightened tension when he entered. By crossing the threshold into the shop, it’s as if he crossed some sort of line of middle class comfort, of “your space” and “our space.” It felt ugly. All of this was swirling through my brain as I pretended to read. He was playing with his zippers and digging in his pockets, and my anxiety was weirdly building over the whole thing, became I realized that he might be trying to scrape together a few coins for a cup of coffee. Or, in my stupid, fear-fueled, modern American brain in which any public space is now the potential site of a massacre, he was reaching for a gun. Those were the two exclusives my brain had allowed me, clearly an indicator of my utter lack of situational creativity.

Then, the thought dropped into my head, totally clear, complete, and fully formed, so obvious but obviously challenging and again, uncomfortable for me:

“Buy him a cup of coffee.”

I can’t emphasize how very much this thought did not come from myself or my own mind, because when it arrived, I heard myself say out loud, “Oh. Right.” (The man on the couch next to me gave a glance.) I don’t know how long I sat on this thought–it really couldn’t have been more than a minute, but for that entire minute I felt a weird, nervous torture about it. My many thoughts all point to the fact that I am not yet an entirely good person. The first was that I couldn’t afford it, the extra cash on this coffee. Having selfishly dropped several Hamiltons on food and books just an hour before, I shoved that one from my consciousness pretty quickly, chastising myself for my selfishness (picture Gollum and Smeagol and you’ll get a sense of my brain’s energy over the course of this encounter). I was then left with the knowledge that this act is simply what had to happen, and yet a little part of me didn’t want to get up a buy the man a coffee because I was afraid of the interaction. That same old dumb anxiety. I then realized that if I didn’t do this little thing, then I would feel like absolute shit about myself forever, and I didn’t want to have to deal with hating myself over my own sad cowardice.

That’s what finally spurred me to pop up off that couch (not an easy task–that thing was seriously squishy): not for the goodness of the act, but the fear that I would feel bad if I didn’t do it. I feel the need to clarify that because, again, I remain a deeply un-good person.

I stood up, the rate at which my heart was physically pounding in my chest acceptable only for someone about to propose to their partner or someone about to jump from a plane. I began to walk up to the man, who at this point was sitting on that same bench below the counter. It looked like he was searching through his pockets aimlessly, perhaps trying to find change. I plopped down on the bench next to him and said, “Hi, would you like a cup of coffee?” He turned to me, a little startled, but with an answer so immediate, so ready, so clear that he was only waiting for someone to ask the question that it broke my heart: “Yes ma’am, with cream and sugar.” His voice was higher than I expected, and a little wry, a little shaky. Old. But the voice wasn’t the first thing I noticed when he turned to me; those were his eyes. They were blue, a brilliant blue. They were stretched tight around the edges and wrinkled all around. When was the last time they had been looked directly into?

“Light, dark, medium, do you have a preference?”

“Light please, ma’am, thank you.”

My heart was still pounding. I walked up to the counter, asked the barista her favorite light blend, and ordered a large one with cream and sugar. I let her know that it was for the man behind me when it was ready. I tried to be normal and subtle about it. I hope I was. I paid with cash. My heart was pounding the whole time. Why?

After paying, I walked up to the man and let him know that the barista would call it out when it was ready. He looked at me again–those eyes, grateful, almost pleading–and thanked me. There was such an earnest quality to him, an eagerness. His shoulders and countenance subtly lifted when he talked to me.

I returned to my seat on the squishy couch, mentally trying to sort through this weird swirl of emotions, the potent but unexpected discomfort I felt over the entire thing, when another patron walked up to me, coffee in hand. I was so lost in my mind and startled that I don’t remember exactly what she said, but it was something along the lines off, “I just wanted to say that it was really cool, what you did.”

She had noticed. Had I wanted people to notice?

“Thanks,” I replied, and she smiled and walked away. Another interaction to leave me with a tempest of thought–my brain was firing on all cylinders.

So had people noticed, then? She had because she was at the counter, but had the other people with their noses bent down to their laptops or phones? Part of me wanted them to have noticed, not for the personal accolades, but instead to shake everyone out of their coffee shop world, their Macs and lattes. I wanted to hold this man directly in front of their gaze, to make them look at him, wiry and dirty and fleshy and human, to shatter the illusion of otherness, that crushing disconnect. People act like homeless folks are a different species, I swear.

His coffee was taking a long time to prepare, and I didn’t want him to think he had been forgotten. The waiting felt excruciating. I wanted the coffee in his hand. Did I seek the comfort of a completed transaction? Maybe. Finally, as I sat there in nervous agony that can only be equated to a 1950s father waiting outside the delivery room for his wife to deliver their child, the barista indicated to the man that she had his coffee ready. I sat on that same spot on that damn squishy leather couch (oh couch, what have you witnessed in these many years?) and watched him as he sat in his same spot. He wasn’t drinking the coffee much–perhaps it was still too hot. It made me uncomfortable. I don’t know why I so needed him to like the coffee.

And then, another lightning bolt of a thought: I didn’t know his name, and that felt inexcusable. In that instant, a name represented personhood and humanity, and I needed to know his name. So I sat next to him one more time and asked how he liked the coffee. He said it was very good, thank you, and then I asked his name.

“Dale.”

“I’m Anna.”

“Nice to meet you, Anna.”

I wished him a good night and walked away. A better person would have talked to him. Asked him more questions about himself. But I am weak and still so painfully naive when it comes to interactions like this one, and his name was all I could handle. One day, I hope to be the type of person who would stay and ask him about his life.

Dale. One syllable. It haunted me for weeks.

He sat for a bit more, sipping the coffee that had somehow morphed into the singular object of my obsession, and then he stood and wandered back out into the street to who knows where. He didn’t come back.

There, it was over. The interaction–the transaction?–was over, but I still felt so unsettled. Here was a person who, based on circumstances that really don’t matter, could not even wander off the street and into a store without feeling totally and completely judged and out of place. No one told him he had to leave, yet equally, no one acknowledged him or looked at him. Noticing. It feels so simple. Why is it so radical?

A cup of coffee. A freaking cup of coffee. It’s nothing. But was it the first warm drink he had had in days?

I’m not trying to idealize him or his situation, or my role (remember, I am a deeply not-good person). None of that is the point. I’m just grappling with how we define humanity, value, and kindness. Privilege.

Dale. That name. His voice–a little higher than I anticipated when looking into his face. The whole thing feels like a dream. I had to write it down to prove that it was, in fact, real. He’s out there somewhere. And my life beats on, affected.

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