I have always had a remarkable ability to drown out conversations around me and retreat into my own world. I remember back to high school, when my drama teacher tested my secret superhero talent by posting me up on stage, reading a random page of The Crucible while the entire theater class swirled around me, shouting at me, saying salacious things in my ears, and otherwise tried to distract me. Afterwards, I had a quiz on what I read–and I missed not a question.
What used to be a childhood form of cloaking and escape–of controlling my space when I had no other way to do so–now helps when I work at coffee shops, which I do frequently so as not to feel entirely alone. A bit ironic, now that I think about it–when all I wished for when I was young and afraid and clutching a book was to be left alone. But solitary work as a professor can be a little too quiet for days on end, particularly in the summer. I like the energy of a coffeeshop and studies have shown that the background sound can make you more creative and productive. There is even an app, Coffitivity, to reproduce coffeeshop sounds when you toil away in your basement office or at home in your PJS. It actually sounds a lot like what I hear while I type the hours away–but I prefer having a reason to get dressed.
So for this week’s challenge, I had to consciously focus on undoing years worth of practice “tuning out.” I found that the conversations I was most attuned to were those of the folks that work at “my” Starbucks. I realized that, because their voices were so familiar to me–I come here almost every day for at least a couple hours–I did not automatically tune them out as “background noise.” I realized that their conversations, in part, were why I had come to feel an attachment to this particular coffee shop above all others, as well as how much information I knew and remembered about the employees–who was originally from Arizona, who liked the air conditioner set to freezing, who was moving to California. . .
Their youthful, passing-the-time conversations also induced a feeling of restlessness in me–reminding me of the retail/service jobs that I myself have worked in my life–hawking stationery at Papyrus, roast beef sandwiches at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, and wrapping gifts at Party-on-La Cienega–and the afternoons I passed in pleasurable conversation with people I may not otherwise have known, but grew to like and sometimes love. In some jobs, where the customers treated us especially poorly, our conversations did more than just pass the time–they were salve for our wounds and reminders that we were more than a lowly “helper class.” At one job, I helped a German coworker learn American idioms–”my dogs are barking” was her personal favorite. . .as we could not sit down. Another time, an older coworker, realizing I liked music, told me about her punk rock past in the 1980s and took me to a party in the Silverlake Hills where I met the drummer from Blondie. Sometimes these were not “conversations” at all–I used to have dance offs at the mall with a friend who worked across from me to the music that pumped so loudly out of “DJs for Men.”
While it is easy now, from another time and place–with much better and more stable employment–to remember the good things about those jobs rather than the low wages, lack of health care, and regular rations of shit we all received from the general public, this exercise made me realize that the afternoon conversations of Starbucks–sometimes silly, sometimes serious, sometimes inane, sometimes while dancing, often about Game of Thrones–can enliven me as much as the caffeine.