Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Long Winded Varty

A friend recently loaned me a book that she thought I would like. She was right, and very thoughtful to have made the loan. The book was called The Long Winded Lady, and was written by a woman called Maeve Brennan.

Maeve Brennan wrote a column from 1954 to 1981 for The New Yorker magazine. Her column was called "Talk Of The Town" and, in my experience, was a showcase for one woman's ground floor, ordinary observations. But...

Her observations were extraordinarily ordinary.

I decided to write a column in the style of Maeve Brennan. It felt easy, to be honest, but it's far easier to emulate than originate. I tip my hat to Maeve Brennan. It took me one hour to hand write my column, and one hour to edit it. It's lengthy at 1649 words, perhaps even long winded. To that I aspire. Without further ado, here it is:

One sign lives on the beige awning which shadows the windows of the building in which I now find myself seated. Its dark letters say Reid’s United Books. Another sign has been professionally pasted to each and every window. It says Reads: Newsstand – Magazines – Café. Puzzling, but not inexplicable.

My de-caf coffee finds refuge on a small, black-topped round table that sits to the left of my wingless wingback chair. Before I really settle in I make eye contact with a woman who looks like my son’s former piano teacher. There is that awkward moment, when I’m thrown by the newfound colour of her hair, and I worry that I have made gestures towards a stranger. No, it is her and we make polite small talk across the buzzing café.

I wonder if those within earshot make it their business to listen to our chit-chat. Do they really care that my son has made forays into the obvious world of teen guitar strumming? I’m sure that some of them are listening, because I’d be listening if I were them. No one is here for the coffee.

But maybe they’re not like me. Maybe their lives are so full, so self-involved, that they hear or see nothing outside f themselves. One clean shaven man, who clearly must shave every morning or face the prospects of a grizzled thirty something face, is wearing headphones. I try to imagine to what he might be listening that could possibly be more engaging than my utterings or the music being piped through the café’s sound system. I look for speakers, but see only honey mustard coloured acoustic ceiling tiles, behind which the speakers must live.

I don’t know really know what an acoustic ceiling tile is, but those overhead sound good to my hungry ears. Two women, fifteen feet away, compete with the stereo speakers. One looks tired. Her face is a map of her life. The skin below her eyes sags in dark crescents. Her skin is unsmooth and ruddy, as though she had had been left out in the wind. There is no wind today.

Her friend appears to be the type of woman who lives a comfortably plump existence. She is not fat, just comfortable in her clothes and skin. When she leaves the café to drive to her suburban home on the hill, I have no doubt she will drive away in a Toyota Camry. It will be beige. To my surprise she speaks of her landlord. She looks far too comfortable in her spruce green cardigan and coffee cream knit top to be someone who writes rent cheques. I’m surprised. Her car could be a Corolla, I suppose, but I doubt it.

Everyone in the café is needy, and that need extends far beyond the cup that holds their coffee. I, myself, need stimuli. Most people in the café sit along the perimeter, like tree top vultures encompassing the carcass of humanity. Comfy chairs line the perimeter of the room. The walls, like the acoustic ceiling tiles, are a matching honey-mustard. The middle of the café is populated with dark chestnut brown hardwood chairs, many of them occupied. These solid, unwelcoming chairs say ‘drink up and go’. They are largely ignored.

“Hey June, how’s your day so far?” asks a Castro capped man who appears to be hiding behind his platinum laptop. He’s speaking to his cell phone, which sits on the window ledge to his right. Overhead the sound of ‘Funky Town’ gives his call a funky backbeat in this unfunky town.
I struggle with people who make it their business to broadcast their business to those who don’t care to listen. Fortunately, I do care, at least on this mild February day. Things are not always so blissful.

“Hey, how are you?” I whirl around in the soup aisle of an imaginary grocery store where I’ve been before, ready to forego my quest for a sodium free broth in exchange for a friendly exchange. I’m feeling great, though troubled by the presence of MSG in the soup. I’m just about to exclaim ‘great’ to a friendly and familiar face when my jaw snaps shut and my tongue falls limp. An unfamiliar face speaks into a phone. I turn in embarrassment and fumble with the consommé. “I’m fine”, I mutter to myself.

The Castro capped man thanks AJ for helping with some looming crisis in the Truro office. AJ could be Andrew James or Alexander John. I like initial names, like K.C.Irving. They add mystery where often none exists, and besides, does the world really need another Alex or Andy? Of course AJ could be a woman, but what are the odds?

A lot of magazines spend a month or two in Reid’s/Reads. Time magazine has a rather striking cover, featuring the Man Of War. Initially, from across the room, I thought it said Man Of The Year, which was ironic because I didn’t recognize the dramatic face on the cover. The homme de guerre looked like the aged offspring of Conrad Black and a bulldog, and by that I’m not referring to Lady Black of Crossharbour. This man had bite.

Newsweek was less dramatic, offering only, in a disappointingly small font, that Antidepressants Don’t Work. In itself, a simultaneously uplifting and depressing thought. Coffee, anyone?
I realize as I’m writing this that my body is listing severely to port, while my neck is craned hard to starboard. I’m scribbling furiously. What must the coffee klatch be thinking of this intruder? And that’s just the point. I am here as much to notice, as to be noticed. I am the zipper that won’t close.

Castro cap is now looking for Gerard. Castro cap, I learn, has a name. It is Ed. I know this because Ed says “Ed here” while exofacing with Gerard. Ed runs his empire out of a coffee shop in Canada’s most innocuously conservative city, Fredericton. Even white bred Ottawa bows down.

Ed thinks that he might be able to swing by the Truro office during the week of the 22nd, as he’s got a seminar coming up with CBCL, an engineering firm in Halifax. Ed must give seminars to engineers, when not taking fashion tips from nearly dead Communists.

The woman with crescent eyes wears nice looking running sneakers, as though she might need to flee at any moment. Her black soled sneakers are accented by white and silver uppers, with sky blue stripes peeling off like rays of bent light. Her elevated foot, hanging from the knee draped across her other leg, bounces nervously for five seconds,and then stops abruptly. Again, it bounces for five seconds and stops. The pattern repeats.

Ed is now making plans to sell Gerard some septic piping or, at least, offer some pricing. I’m glad I’m not Ed. He grabs his long dead coffee and walks past me. He talks as he walks. Gerard is no doubt listening religiously while rolling a pencil around in his fingers. I’m glad I’m not Gerard.

Ed, in his dark coat, is now outside of Read’s, walking westerly along the sidewalk. His mouth and legs move competitively, though not quickly. He holds his phone in front of his body at chest level as though his entire chi, his life force, is being reflected or channelled back into his iPhone. I imagine that Ed is wholly unaware of the sidewalk passing under his feet: the cracks, the undulations, the stains, the stories. He doesn’t see the flags trying to wave from the bland beige brick facade across the street. Four of his five senses are on hold while his ears make the call.

Ed seems very happy with his lot in life, and then disappears off to a septic seminar, or perhaps to recharge his batteries.

There’s a couple sitting little more than an arm’s length away from me. They seem to be having an intimate conversation, the type long since abandoned by the married. His voice is low and bassy, which seems to fit his extra-large leather coat draped inside-out across his chair back. The lining is looking upward, admiring the acoustic ceiling tile, while the logo and XL tag spill down the backside, staring back at me. I try to identify the brand of his coat but I am unsuccessful. There’s a large, stylized and swooshy O, followed by four or five very small white letters. They mean nothing to me.

His hair is a similar dark colour to the chair in which he sits. His jacket and liner are black like the table top that houses his elbows and coffee. His companion sits across from him in a narrow corridor of focus. They should be somewhere else, but this is Friday at 10: 00 a.m. in Fredericton, and early check-ins are discouraged.

I take my plaid jacket off and let it slide between my back and the comfy chair in which I’ve taken up residence. No one will see the embarrassing label in my coat. The label was surgically removed by either the manufacturer or the discount retailer where it was purchased. My coat cost ten dollars and was purchased from a discount retailer.

I care, but I don’t. I’m just happy not to be giving sewer pipe seminars like Ed.

I’ve been in this identity challenged café or over an hour. At least half of the people still here were here when I arrived. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a life. My coffee, largely ignored, is down to its last cold sip. It’s time to go.

The man with the extra-large leather coat gets up just before me. The coat really is too big for his frame. Perhaps he bought it on sale, but I think he would have been happier with a large. Of course, he might favour wearing sweaters underneath. It’s quite warm today for a February day.

1 comment:

  1. Great storytelling, Ian! It was as if I was sitting in the coffee shop seeing the world through your eyes. Thanks for taking me someplace else for awhile.I'm trying to avoid the huge pile of work on my desk.