Coffee Shop Chats (#39)

Okay so at this point I feel like I’ve thoroughly expressed my thoughts about people who talk to other people they don’t know in public places. In summary, I don’t like it. It’s not that I’m completely anti-social or anything, it’s just that I have an intense aversion to the type of small talk that is usually shared during these conversations. Making polite conversation is sometimes physically painful for me, although there’s no way to confirm this medically I’m pretty sure the vein in my forehead throbs a little bit and that can’t be healthy.

I almost wish that everyone was vastly inappropriate and dove right into the TMI topics. Like if a random person came up to be while I was filling my gas and started talking to me about how their sister’s husband used to be a rodeo clown, I would be so down for that conversation. Or if someone noticed I was wearing light blue and was like ah yes I recognize that shade of blue from the time I swam with sharks while I was deployed on a secret mission in Guam. My point is, people are awesome and so are their stories, but small talk is the worst.

Today I was at Starbucks for a couple hours to get my standard Mango Black Tea Lemonade (aggressive name aside, it’s delicious you should go try it) and I was doing my standard eavesdropping on all the tables around me. At the Starbucks in Media, it’s not that hard to do because the tables are so close together at one point the guy next to me just totally had his notes on my table and didn’t even realize it.  As I was eavesdropping, I kept getting very distracted by this man who was meeting with high school students and their parents to discuss strategies for applying to colleges. Like the complete and utter nerd I am, I was strangely enthralled by this talk of Common Apps and SAT’s and which schools look favorably on making the effort to go visit.

I was so into this conversation that I kept smiling to myself when he made a joke, and nodding along when I agreed with a point he made. Finally, when he made a spot-on crack about Lehigh, the school right next to mine, I LOL’ed. Like legitimately laughed out loud at a joke made in a conversation I’m supposed to be politely ignoring. Naturally the whole table turned to look at me and I felt it necessary to explain that I went to school right nearby Lehigh, and that yes the social scene does in fact suck if you’re not in Greek life. This then leads to College Counselor Man asking me about where I went, what I’m doing now, and basically all the standard questions you get asked at your big family Christmas party. In other words, I had broken my biggest cardinal rule of not talking to strangers and was now engaged in the dreaded small talk.

The worst part about small talk with strangers is that there is no freaking way to end the conversation that is not incredibly awkward. If you say “nice to meet you,” they might through in a “you too, I’m Mark by the way,” and the conversation starts all over again. Just saying goodbye seems slightly rude, especially when you’re not going anywhere. In high school, I was notorious for just walking away when I felt the conversation was over but it’s impossible to employ that strategy when you’re waiting in line for something or stuck in a small corner table at Starbucks. The best equivalent I could come up with was to just pick up my pen and pretend like I was writing something again. Granted, they could totally see my paper and that no words were actually being written, but it at least gave them the ability to resume their conversation that I’m sure the parents were paying good money to have.

After surviving this first ever incident of self-started small talk, I resumed my writing. At some point, the cute boy with the overflowing notes at the table next door packed up his bags and left. Soon after, a guy who was like late twenties early thirties and a kid in his early teen years took his place. I looked up long enough to notice that the guy had some cool dreads, and then quickly returned to my notebook because I was in the groove. After about a couple minutes, I felt like someone was staring at me so I look up and me and Mr. Dreads immediately make eye contact. He opens up his mouth to say something and I brace myself for whatever mundane thing he is about to say.

Instead, he goes “are you writing a book?”, which caught me off my guard. I was so surprised at his accuracy that without thinking I replied with “yeah, how’d you know?” and next thing you know he’s telling me about how he was struck by the fact that I was handwriting something instead of typing and how he doesn’t know anyone else who still does that. We chat about how writing things by hand makes the words seem more personal and easier to manipulate. He pulls out a black, leather-bound book that he’s been carrying around for months as he works on his next poetry project. We talk about what genres we like to write in and about how coffee shops are the easiest places to work, though we can’t explain why. He does throw in a “I”m Darius, by the way,” but since we were actually having a genuine conversation I almost didn’t mind having to shake his hand and introduce myself.

As the conversation was ending, he told me about this even that him and his friends host every month. It’s basically an open mic night for writers, who have the chance to get up and share something they’re working on and get some constructive criticism. He told me I should come, when/where it was, handed me his card with the address of the place, and then put his headphones on and dove into his own work. Basically, this was the ideal social interaction.

Because I’m me and terrified of everything outside my comfort zone, I’ll probably never go to Darius’s reading group, even though it sounds pretty cool. However, it’s nice to know that in this modern world of awkward encounters, good quality conversations can still exist between strangers and people can actually meet the old-fashioned way.

Coffee shops man…they bring it out of you.

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