Totally fictional fiction: Anniversary Coffee Date

By the end of the afternoon he was about ready to strangle the barista. She would not shut up. “HI! WELCOME IN!” “THANK YOU!” “HI EVERYONE! WELCOME IN!” Sometimes it was bearable. Other times, it was piercing. He’d finally tune out the background noise, itself an awful atonal asynchronous jumble of blenders being turned on and off, chair legs scraping on the floor, cash registers and ovens beeping, abrupt shifts in conversational tones from across the lobby, order announcements, scoops being plunged into the ice chest, and the horrible mix of punk, scat jazz, and emo crossover country they’d somehow patched together from the instantly identifiable playlists corporate approves for the stores companywide, and there it was again. “HI! WELCOME IN!”

He kept banging his head on the chandelier above his table when he stood up to stretch his legs. This lady’s greetings and farewells were worse.

He started consciously noticing and listening for subtleties of accent and cadence after he moved back to California, sounds to reassure him in his dysfunction and neediness that he was finally home. The way this chick spoke seemed off, for a white girl in NorCal. At first he took her accent for Midwestern. After an hour or two of her unpredictable but reliable onslaughts, he reclassified it as Lower Brahmin Northeastern. NPR. He had no idea where she’d been raised, of course, and he knew plenty of lifelong Californians who sounded like they’d picked up their accents out of state, even overseas. This barista had obviously not learned her hello-and-goodbye shtick in the community. It came from corporate. “WELCOME IN” was one of the tics he could date not to a vague time range but to the aftermath of a specific, jarring episode. It had appeared out of nowhere in the days after a different barista, also a white woman, also speaking with a cadence and intonation that belonged on NPR and only on NPR, had the Philadelphia Police arrest a group of black men for asking to use the restroom in her store. Her reasoning was that they should have bought something first.

She called the managers of outside, as some describe the police. She was already the manager of inside. Calling up the chain of command was her duty, as she saw it.

The Philadelphian was why this other chick, in wine country, was now, years later, bellowing welcomes and farewells over the muzak every minute or two. The Philadelphian was why the new protocol was to specify the directionality of a word that had been understood since before the days of what anyone would be pedantic enough to call English as a reference to movement into a space, not out.

Surely the company psychologists are aware of this, he thought. We see you entering our space. We are on guard for invaders.

Why have we been doing this for twenty years, he wondered. He wasn’t even forty. More than the second half of his life to date had passed under this surreal post-traumatic national culture, this regime of paranoia and fnords. Even after the horrific ongoing reaction to the marginally less horrific, long-finished attacks had calmed into something that felt comfortingly survivable, the country remained by any reasonable standard insane. Civilians were still walking around thanking random soldiers they’d never met for their service. He occasionally had veterans ask him if he’d been in the service, to his surprise and honor, or spontaneously open up with stories about their own deployments along canals full of shit in Vietnam. In a bad week it might be a naval deployment. How on earth he displayed a military bearing sufficient to make veterans think he was a comrade in arms was beyond him. It helped that he’d never thanked a soul for taking up arms.

“You’d be stinky for the next week!” “We all thought our gunny sarge was ancient!” The guy who told him this was sitting across from him on a bus, easily ninety by that point, miraculously still fit enough to hop on and off the bus without assistance and present enough to tell the old war stories from the European theater. “How old do you think he was?” “Oh, he was probably 35!” They’d somehow both made it to 21st-Century Reno.

Service, everybody was again careful to call it, something more often praised than performed. The ones who made it home alive were grateful. Nobody talked about the ones who weren’t. To be aware of them, one had to talk to soldiers, or talk to people who talked to soldiers. Quite a few guys made it home with little to say about Bataan. Whoever “we” were, white or yellow or brown or dead in Port Chicago, we were fighting an alliance of arrogant nuts that time, two grasping, arrogant, overextended empires in the habit of alienating the locals in their colonies with racist diatribes and massacres, plus a thundering drama queen who in a better governed Italy might have been prime minister for an August. This time, “we” were the ones who thought Afghanistan worth conquering. We were the ones who took up with torture-prone Uzbek satraps against a nation of the fiercest, most skilled guerrilla fighters on earth, on their own home territory. Then “we” toppled our old Sunni Arab buddy in Iraq, sending him to the gallows at the hands of “our” new “allies” at a time when “we” were increasingly tempted to launch first strikes on Persia.

Fuck, he thought, this is sure a society that likes to play away games.

He forgot why he was in there in the first place. “We” were “reopening” after “quarantine,” in this instance meaning that it was finally legal to dine in again. Not being able to sit down in a coffeeshop and just dwell had been horrible. More unprocessed trauma, he thought. More repressed pain in a country that couldn’t recognize itself as a whole if it tried. Everything here was a synecdoche for everything else. “We” were not “quarantining” on the kill floors to feed well-to-do hypochondriac shut-ins whenever they summoned a delivery serf to fetch them a package of factory-dressed meat. Everybody was not in fact staying home. He could never cope with the feeling of national dissociation he got from listening to trendsetters construe America to be California to be America and neither to include Manteca.

There’s everybody, and then there’s the help. Was he crazy to be alarmed by the appearance of bullies trying to operate a complicated, dangerous machine while denying the very existence of its most crucial components? Over half a million had died before their time in the midst of this national delusion about “quarantine,” with hundreds more joining them every day, the news kept saying. His parents trusted the news more than he wished, in ways he found made them more paranoid about ordinary Americans and more trusting of predatory officials. The previous fall, he’d bought a ticket back east to visit his parents the week New York State exempted California from its interstate quarantine order, painfully conscious of the half year they’d spent upsetting him over the phone with politics they’d picked up from homicidal liars on TV, mostly New Yorkers. He felt a wave of relief every time he managed to puncture their cocoon. This was harder to accomplish virtually. As much as he hated being so aware of this, on top of everything else, he was thankful to remain so oriented in the real world, and no less proud to have made it nearly a year and a half without going on Zoom.

This coffeeshop was closerr to the real world than his own apartment or, God forbid what He always allowed, his own head. America, too, was corporate. Its energy, too, was off. By God’s grace, he could at least observe it firsthand in the flesh, not just hear about it on television from hysterics whose understading of the world came from television. At long last Americans living in all but the most neurotic corners had been given back their dispensation to live their lives in public. He spent the afternoon seizing it.

The noise seized him back. He gave up on his halfhearted reading agenda and tried to do some journaling in real time. He knew there was meaning to tease out of the barista’s deafening greetings. He bogged down trying. Staff outbusts punctuating background noise were all he could hear or think. He was stuck in the tunnel of welcoming.

He looked at airfares back east. He scrolled his feeds on alt, trying to break through ennui and confusion. Nobody was posting anything that captured his interest, just as he expected for an Indian Summer Saturday afternoon. He left for church. He was mentally and spiritually dulled to the liturgies from start to finish, but at least some moral and aesthetic thought had gone into them, and he appreciated it. There were worse things to repeat all afternoon.

Four mornings later he landed in Buffalo. He spent the balance of the week eating goat curry takeout by the falls and riding an incomprehensible bus system past Love Canal and Polish cemeteries in black ghettos and the square where riot cops cracked an old man’s skull open in front of a live TV crew, at a volume that came through for the folks back home. He was happy to be back in the water for a week or two, ultimately closer to three, away from the boasts of serial Gavin Newsom voters about how little time they were spending in the shower.

Manhattan, strangled to death by public health regulations according to refugees freshly arrived in Florida, was more chaotic than he remembered it from the eve of the plague, suffering from degraded public accommodations but not to an extent that hadn’t been looming on the horizon for decades. The subway worked better than he expected when he went to the Battery on an Amtrak layover. The ferry terminals at the Battery and St. George were both close to immaculate. The grime on the ferries was unremarkable for New York. That was the perverse wisdom of the toxic putzes who kept worming their way into high office in New York City. They insisted on misgoverning the one city in their state that could not be killed. It never occurred to them to try to ruin Buffalo.

The American derangement washed back over him when he got a coffee for his joyride on the ferry. The franchisees were ethnic, Indian or Pakistani, as far as he could guess. They spoke with a half-Mideastern, half-Outer Borough diction as authentically New York as badly-dressed Jews rushing through Penn Station. One of the younger guys manning the Dunkin shoved an order at a customer with a shout of “Stay safe.”

From what, he wondered. He knew, but he wondered. The same guy exchanged safety wishes over the counter with two other employees before he got his coffee and headed into the terminal. He escaped the pleasantries. These fuckers know it’s a fool’s errand talking like that to reserved out-of-towners, he thought, and just as well. He’d read a bit about the Spuyten Duyvil derailment and the crash of the Andrew Barberi. Two at the throttle and at least one of them awake, seemed to be the moral of those stories. When he recalled the LIRR shooting months later, he assumed he’d forgotten about it because taking the train was still safer than driving and he didn’t usually perceive threats to life or limb from weird loners walking around all pissed off about shit.

There were eyes everywhere in both terminals. A black private security guard ran a bomb-sniffing dog over his suitcase on his way into the Battery terminal; in St. George, it was two Italian cops in khakis, probably Port Authority but not worth trying to tell. Two security guards all but rushe him into the elevator on the Battery when he tried to take the escalator. Baggage. Nobody was going to get injured by it.

Eyes.

His trip went fine in spite of them, off without any additional hitches. He made it downtown and back to midtown on the train without incident, barely even delays. Might he see somebody tonight? It was a month after the floods, two before the government gas exercises, and another few until the attacks. The goddamn government.

He’d come in a good season.

The Barberi pushed out, past the single looming needle that replaced the pair of looming towers, making one out of two, past Ellis Island, past the dock cranes of Bayonne, past the Statue of Liberty. A city might be overrun with the worst Irishmen and Italians, the worst Pollacks, even the worst Jews, and despite it all it might still be home to a big French broad who’s always got a light. As the mayor said that garish bright fall, we harbor all kinds. His police agreed.

Few understood them.

Dammit, he thought. Understanding. Jesus came to understand things at Gethsemane, and look what that got him. An entire generation had now been born, the oldest and most precocious of them fully raised, under the guidance of hopelessly idiotic paranoiacs. In a parallel timeline, he might have become a paranoid idiot, not a paranoid visionary, silently trying to understand.

It’s a horrible country, he realized, but it ain’t bad. From this expanse of the Bay, the Brooklyn side, midway between the hipsters, the yuppies, and the cops, a fellow might mistake her for a Jersey girl.

Welcome the hell in.

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