This happened to me last spring, and it happened exactly as I tell it. I have embellished nothing.
One of my favorite places on this earth is the town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
The college town has a southern charm that stirs me. The spacious downtown streets are shaded with old growth hardwood and pine trees, and lined with small shops, restaurants, pubs and coffee houses. Every time I pass through, I find another little gem that makes me grateful I went out of the way to stop. Don’t even get me started on the Shrimp & Grits and the Frozen Mint Julep at Crook’s Corner.
But every rose has a thorn, and last time I was there, I got pricked.
It was a beautiful spring morning, a perfect setting for a brisk walk through the town and around the campus. My room key, credit card, I.D. and $20 was all I thought I would need for my morning’s exercise.
Out the door at about 6:30, so the town is just starting to wake up…fresh newspapers, still strapped in their bundles, on the sidewalk outside the different shops. College professors ambling down the street carrying weathered, leather satchels, full of today’s blue prints to liberalize America’s next group of unemployable college grads. Dirty brown sparrows are eating the French fry fragments out of the vomit from last nights “full contact” partying…it’s quaint here, but it’s still a college town.
I get a solid 40-minute workout in, so I decide I’ve earned a nice breakfast to help fuel today’s revenue generation activities. I’m a superior hunter-gatherer, especially when it comes to hunting and gathering breakfast foods.
And that’s where it happened.
Only a few paces from my hotel is an unassuming, poorly marked, hidden little café. There is a chalkboard menu by a dark tinted glass front door. I had to kinda “test push” the door to make sure the place was open…the test was positive.
About a dozen or so modest tables with a variety of styles of chairs are scattered about the dining area. The college town café reminds one of a college student’s apartment – function is more important than style, so much so, that function becomes the style. There was a large counter at the front of the shop, and behind that counter stood a sturdy woman with gray hair pulled tight into a pony tail, thick glasses that magnified the size of her pale blue eyes, and a smile that made me feel welcome. The smell of their “artisan” coffee filled the air, and the whole vibe made me sure I had lucked into another “gem” in Chapel Hill.
“Good morning, sir. You place your order here at the counter, and then we’ll bring it to you when it’s ready. We make everything from scratch, so it takes a few minutes. Our menu is on the board behind me, we have an amazing homemade apple & pork sausage burrito, with egg and cheddar cheese, garnished with our house made sweet & hot salsa, as our feature this morning. Take your time.”
“Say no more,” I reply. “I’ll have your ‘special’. I’m not a coffee drinker, do you have any cold drink options?”
She looked at me with disappointment in her kind eyes, Not a coffee drinker? How sad for you. She offered me a pear flavored seltzer water. I accepted. She gave me the can, and a dishwasher spotted glass full of crushed ice. I paid her, and headed to a table in the seating area.
Nice place. I love breakfast burritos.
The dining area was scattered with about 3 or 4 groups of 2 or more at tables, and 3 or 4 individuals at a table. I took a seat at a smaller table, in a corner by a window facing the street. With my back to the window, I took inventory of the room. Sitting diagonally from me was a pretty young mother of 2. The kids were sweetly taking turns playing a game on an iPhone, while mom was typing away on an iPad. Behind them, sat a man at a table with 3 women. 2 of the women seemed to be hanging on his every word, the third woman only seemed to be interested in her phone. She would look up with an accommodating, perhaps even patronizing smile whenever the rest of the group shared a laugh, but for the most part, she was disconnected from the people at her table because she was connected to her technology. These are the times we live in.
I love to people watch. I have played this sport since I was a kid. As much as I like to watch, I rarely like to “connect”. Something brief? Sure. I like to pay a compliment, make someone smile, extend a courtesy…but I don’t need much more than that. I have plenty of friends, I make work connections all day long. And here, I definitely don’t want to connect to anyone, because when this burrito comes to my table the carnage is going to be ugly. I’m hungry, this meal will not be eaten; it will be assaulted.
As I waited at my little corner table, a woman who appeared to be in her mid 30’s came in and ordered something from the counter and then set up shop at the table next to mine. This is not uncommon, especially if I have a little sweat working, what with my pheromones and all. She removed a stack of papers, a phone, and a smart pad from an expensive leather brief case, and arranged them strategically on her table. She made eye contact with me, but didn’t smile, so I made the gay assumption, but who’s to say. She held her gaze on me briefly as she sipped her halfcaffsoylattespresso, or whatever it was. I smiled and turned away.
She sat, and started her tasks in her makeshift workstation. I turned my attention to the rest of the room; watched the kids with the pretty mom, the professor and his table full of ladies, and just as I was turning my attention to the street, the new patron…the one with the work station, asked me if I would stop “staring at (her)”.
Because I didn’t think I heard her correctly, I smiled, and said, “Excuse me?”
“You’re staring at me, and I would appreciate it if you would stop,” she said.
“No Ma’am. I’m not staring at you. I’m just waiting on my food,” I replied. I was a bit shaken by the interaction, she was clearly irritated. I looked away, back out the window onto the street.
Probably 2 minutes went by, it seemed like 20. I wasn’t staring at her, but now I’m afraid to even look up. Do you know how hard it is not to look at someone when they demand you stop? Even though you weren’t in the first place! Now I’m staring at my fingernails, looking at the floor…thinking, SHIT! When is my flippin’ food gonna be ready?!
So I look back at the front counter to see if any plates are coming out. Unfortunately, the work station is directly in the line of sight between my table and the counter. And even though I tried to look over top of her, it was game ON!
Immediately she put down her phone, and placed her palms flat on the table and asked, “Why do you keep staring at me?” This time, rather loudly.
“Ma’am, I am not staring at you, or anybody else. I’m waiting for my food. I just want to be left alone. Can we please just leave each other alone?
So now the negative energy is being generated, and it’s connecting the people in the room, and connecting them back to us. The pretty mom looks at me, and the kids look up from their phone game. The table with the man and the 3 ladies became quiet, and about every third group in the room turned their attention toward us…at this point it’s just a curiosity, but only for about another minute.
Our heroine looks me in the eye, and asks, “Don’t you have a phone, or something you can look at rather than harassing me?” She continues with, “Why don’t you have a phone? You’re making me uncomfortable.”
She then turns away, and walks up to the counter and asks for a manager. The same, friendly, gray haired woman who served me came to the counter from the kitchen, exchanged words with my, (now) adversary, looked up at me and her face flushed. Not the good kind.
My sturdy host hurried over to me and quietly asked, “Do you have a phone or something, sir? You’re making my customer uncomfortable.”
“No, I do not have a phone with me, and I’m a customer too. I was on a walk; I don’t need my phone. I’m not bothering anybody. I just want to have some breakfast.”
So the lady at the table says, “Well you have to move then. You keep staring at me, and now I’m feeling unsafe.”
NOW…it’s escalating. As soon as the first syllable of “unsafe” was spoken, the guy at the table with the 3 women stood up and walked in our direction…to save the day in front of his ladies. He was very tall.
OK, I’ll admit that I didn’t have to say the next few things I said, and perhaps the story would have ended better if I hadn’t. But I did…
“Excuse me ma’am,” I say to my accuser, “I don’t want to be disrespectful, I just want my breakfast. I am not, nor have I been, looking at you. I smiled at you when you sat down, and that was it. There is no reason for me to be staring at you. You have no reason to feel unsafe….and I’m NOT moving!”
The very tall “ladies man” faced me and said, “You’re gonna have to move sir.”
The sturdy proprietor said, “Yes, (Large Man) this woman feels unsafe, and we can’t have that here. If you don’t leave I’m going to call the police.”
I hope you readers can understand why I was upset. All this happened because I didn’t have a phone in my hand. I was doing nothing but sipping on pear flavored seltzer water, and NOT looking into a screen of some kind.
My next comment was the straw that broke the manager’s back. Tall guy moved in closer and explained to me that if this woman felt unsafe, and I didn’t leave on my own, he would be forced to remove me (I’m paraphrasing). I looked him in the eye, and responded with, “The only person here who should feel unsafe right now is you, sir. Do not put your hands on me.”
My declaration backed him down, but r e e e a l l y pissed off our shop owner. “All right! That’s enough! You leave right now, or I’m calling the police”, and she walked to the counter. I could see that other people in the shop were upset. The little kids just stared at us, (how come nobody said anything to them?) and while I don’t think they fully understood what was going on, they were nervous. I apologized to the mom, and told her not to worry. I followed the manger to the front of the store, and asked for my money back.
“We have a no refund policy sir. Your food is done; I’ll wrap it for you to go.”
And she did. She handed me a white paper bag that was warm, and smelled delicious. It was a bitter irony.
I left, wanting to say something as I walked out the door about how our addiction to technology would be the downfall of humanity. But I was too upset to say anything cute, or thought provoking. I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t stare at that woman. I was treated like some sort of freak because I didn’t have something in my hands to occupy my face.
In all my anger at the moment, I maintained my composure, and I maintained my dignity. I walked back to the hotel, and up to my room, almost in a daze. I was pulling things together as I walked into my room, I looked at the white paper bag in my hand, filled with food from a place that tried to rob me of my dignity, and I tossed the bag into the wastebasket by the desk. The bag no longer held food, that bag was filled with hate and intolerance…and misunderstanding.
But as I sat on the bed, the aroma of that bag full of intolerance and misunderstanding started filling the room…and as it did, it seemed a little less hateful. It was then that I realized something…my dignity was hungry. My dignity and I knew we were alone in that hotel room, but we still looked around to make sure nobody saw us dig that bag out of the trash can.
It was delicious.
Thanks for reading.