where to drink coffee

I was looking for coffee this morning, or tea, or something hot and reflective. I’m in the middle of an unretreating retreat, getting away for about 24 hours or so without actually going anywhere.  Because I think better with something warm, I was being very reflective about that.

After taking Hope to school, I started driving on my usual path to work along the fringe of the city. I found myself with that sense of “I could go there” and I turned toward downtown. I began thinking about he coffee. I started working on my list of tasks and decisions, scrawling single words while driving.

And suddenly, I realized that I had to make a significant choice: Global Coffee Chain or Global Fastfood Chain.  They face each other in downtown Fort Wayne, these local outposts of successful experience marketing firms. Just plain coffee, which is what I usually drink, is about seventy cents different between the two places, and I like both products.

The cultures, however, are very different.

One is quiet, muted, comfortable, non-confrontive to my aesthetic sensibilities. The people are like I aspire to be, at least sometimes. When I buy coffee there, I feel, well, cool. I’ve acquired a taste for the richness of the darker roasts. I am not an expert, but I understand that there are regional variations of beans. I’m not an expert, but I understand the effective creation of a third space, a place to gather and befriend away from work and home.  The chain has grown rapidly over the past few years, in part by making every location local.

The other chain is equally ubiquitous, and is almost reviled for it. It is far from cool, full of far more marginal souls, externally limping more from life, from age, from choices. Although they have improved their coffee blends,  at most outlets the choices are caffeinated or decaf. And tomorrow’s choices will be exactly the same. Rather than planning business deals, people here are more likely to be planning the next meal. Rather than finding people planning construction deals, here you find construction workers.

At both places, regulars are known by name. Both places are busy. Both places offer choices and context and community.  I like both places.

But this morning, I realized that if I have to choose one store and only one, as I had to choose which store to enter, I had to pick the fastfood place. I had to pick the place with the people who struggle to live in a different, more visceral way.

And as I sat writing this longhand, I looked up and the person at the counter looked back.

“How is your coffee? Your meal is good?”

Then she walked over from the counter, taking my tray so I’d have more room on the small table.  Her one eyelid, something isn’t quite right. It droops a bit, and not from a piercing. She works with more passion than polish. And she has absolutely no clue that she made me cry.

“I’m fantastic. Yourself?”

Fine, thanks. I think I’m home.

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