I’m sitting at Panera Bread eating cheddar broccoli soup and drinking tea. I eat by myself. My wife is off getting a massage. It’s an hour massage, which means I only have sixty minutes to myself. I wish I had more time. I love to eat alone, especially in cafes like Panera. One of the Apollo astronauts (I forget which one) said that when he returned from the moon he liked to go visit the mall just to be among all the people. I feel the same way about cafes. Or anywhere people congregate to eat and drink and converse. I go to be among all the people. I type and observe and listen. Humans are such curious creatures in cafes – so involved in their own meals and conversations. I almost feel like I’m at the circus, or a carnival. Call us “The Incredible Masticating Masses.” The patrons are so foreign to me, so strange and freakish in the best possible way. And such wonderful material for a writer.
And so here I am at Panera Bread, burning my tongue on the soup and sipping my scorching tea very slowly. I keep my eyes moving. The cafe is in constant motion. New patrons sit down with their bagels and cappuccinos, while old patrons pick up their purses and put away their novels and clean off their plates. At the table across from mine, an Asian woman leans over her grilled chicken sandwich to type on her laptop. She munches and crosses her legs, her eyes bulging as if the computer were trying to suck them in. Her hands are so narrow, the fingers so close together that she appears to be missing her thumbs. At the table behind her, a man reads from a thick hardcover while eating something on ciabatta bread. He wears an unbuttoned blue work shirt with holes in the elbows over a cleaner formal shirt. His hair is gray and receding, a few strands combed over his increasing bald spot. A pair of square-rimmed bifocals rest upside down beside his plate on the table. The man intrigues me and I begin to wonder what he does for work. He’s wearing sneakers and jeans and his hands are large. Maybe he’s in construction. Maybe he owns a vineyard.
I finish my soup and look further at the more distant tables. Somewhere a child begins to wail. I can here silverware and plates clanking around in the kitchen. Someone dispenses ice from the soda machine. Photos hang on the walls under soft spotlights: Charlie Chaplain from “The Tramp”; a round loaf of bread resting in the bell of a trumpet; a grinning boy in a black fez, holding baguettes in both hands. A man at the table beside me packs up his laptop and leaves. He is replaced by a group of Asian men (Japanese? Chinese? Korean? I feel so ignorant not seeing the difference). They have coffee in mugs and arrange the lounge chairs around two end tables. They lean back comfortably, as if in their own family room at home, and begin chatting away in their quick lean language. I’m going to assume they are speaking Chinese. I love the sound. I can’t make out the meaning any more than I can make sense of Rachmaninov, but I appreciate the music. I love the precision, the speed, the rainbow of tones. I’ve heard that Chinese is a very ambiguous language, full of metaphor and allusion, but you wouldn’t know this from the sound of the words.
I pause from my observation to take a long sip of tea, and type a few words on my computer. Outside, a dense soot-colored raincloud throws the streets into shadow. It’s been raining off and on all day. Not a drenching rain, which I’d prefer, but a depressing drooling rain. I dislike half-hearted showers. If it’s going to rain, I’d rather it come down so hard you can hear it from the wine cellar. Spare me the intermittent sunshine. Spare me the misty drizzle. Give me lightning and thunder. Give me rain drops that knock my hat off.
I feel suddenly foolish, complaining to myself about the weather. I shouldn’t complain when I’m so comfortable inside the cafe, sealed off from the whims of nature and the fumes of traffic. And what kind of fool complains to himself anyway? I’ll have no more of it. I slurp my tea and watch as a mother and daughter sit down at the table beside mine. The mother’s hair is florescent white; the daughter is probably just entering high school. The mother tells her daughter she can have only half a cup of soda pop. No more. I’m intrigued and listen closer for an explanation. Why only half? Is she diabetic? Is she concerned about her figure? No luck. There must be an understanding between the two women, because the daughter doesn’t ask and the mother doesn’t explain. The mother simply leans back in her chair with her hands in her lap, while the daughter rests her elbows on top of the table and sips at her half cup of soda.
By now my tea has gotten cold, and I notice it’s after one o’clock. I suppose it’s time to pick up my wife from the masseuse. I don’t want to. I glance back at the Asian woman with narrow hands. I wonder again about the man reading at the table behind her. I don’t want to leave the cafe. I wonder what my wife would say if I told her to walk? It isn’t raining yet. The massage parlor isn’t far – it isn’t terribly far – from the cafe. But I know exactly what she would say. Nothing. And it would freeze the blood in my veins. So I get up. I walk past the men in the lounge chairs who continue to chat in Chinese. I listen closely to the sounds. I try to memorize them and take them with me, like smooth stones from the beach.