The Right to Write – Doing It in the Road

In this exercise, the writer takes an hour to observe a public space. No self-criticism, no editing – just watching the people.

I am at Northeast Coffee shop, on Johnson. I’m in Northeast Minneapolis. I parked my car in a lot nearby, and was asked when I ran to retrieve my phone if I worked in one of the buildings. I do not. It was crowded earlier, between 11:45 and noon, but now the shop has slowed. The girl in the EMT uniform with the tattooed laptop left, as did the baby that fixated on me and smiled as babies seem to do around me. Right now it’s men I saw working on the roof of the building next door. They must work for a day labor company. The man at the counter’s pants sag, and his shirt is pink from sun-bleaching. He gets himself cold tea, or something that bubbles and one of the plastic wrapped confections ubiquitous to coffee shops. He wandered to the bathroom. Trust is high here.

The women behind the counter all have a punk aesthetic or some kind; the woman with cat’s eye glasses and piled hair fascinates me – she’s both so cartoonish and real. I think tattoos may be an employee requirement. I wonder if I am the last of my generation as-yet unmarked.

A man walks in, with two kids. He bends in front of the glass counter to look at drinks and desserts, and despite wearing a belt, his shirt rides up and I can clearly see the crack of his ass. It’s a good inch worth of property line. He is lean, and tall, with pronounced varicose veins in both arms, and a tattoo – a medicine wheel wit ha feather hanging off – on his right arm. He has brown hair that curls the way my own does in humid weather, and a baseball cap. It looks like he does not know the fine points of conditioner use. The girl with him is maybe 8, and probably tall for her age – she’s all leg, and a pink sweater, and wet but combed hair. The boy is younger, and opens his mouth. He can talk, but verbalization is still third or fourth nature to him. He wears a blue baseball cap. I don’t catch the logos. The father turns his face, and it is sun-worn, but could be taken as age-worn. He nasio-labal folds set deep around his eyes and face; he could be my age, just more sunburnt.

A pretty woman in skinny jeans and a yellow t-shirt walks in; she has rich brown hair and freckles dusting across her nose and cheeks, in a perfect arrangement, as though someone powdered freckles across her instead of blush. She pulls on a hoodie. She wears those flat hipster clown-shoes with laces, and her jeans are cuffed tightly to her ankles. It’s like the late 80s again, but with purpose – hipsters here wear their jeans that way when they bike a lot.

The walls of the coffee shop are a guacamole green, halfway between the olive oil and the avoacado. A black T-shirt hangs on the wall, on a hanger seemingly suspended on thin air. A sign above it, framed in black with frank black on white writing says T0shirts, S,M,L, XL $12 2X $14. I think about buying one. I’ve been here for several more hours than the average customer.

A goth girl walks in, plus size,jeans, flip-flops, black shirt. What I notice about her first is her dark blue eye shadow. While the skulls screen printed on the back of her Ed Hardy shirt tell me she probably shops at Torrid – I know those jeans and the underlace shirt tucking out beneath the T well – it is her hair, in a mini bun with a white bow, the dark blue eye shadow and eye liner, and the alto delivery of her voice that reveals her to me as a goth. Goth women use empowered speaking patterns. They speak as women, not as little girls. It’s one of my favorite things about them.

Next to her a man in a tan safari hat with a baggy dark blue overshirt, jeans and a courier bag awaits service. He looks out the window, then back at the women working behind the counter. There are three of them – a sufficient amount for this type of service. He looks over at me, tapping his hand on the counter, frowning. While he sees me, I don’t think the look is about me.

There are oversize cookies on a wood stand in front of the cash register. Next to the same register is a giant ball jar, with “NE Coffee Shop” logo on paper, taped to the jar, and next to that, a short jar with business cards for the shop. A line of those pump coffee dispensers sit like soldiers, ready to spill forth their black oil like mercenaries in the coffee trade. I wonder what they use to dispense coffee in places like Colombia or Brazil. They take coffee a lot more seriously than we do here. Do they dispense it better? I am at the table that faces the door. A woman sits on the bar in front of the long window, her feet bare and propped up on an edge while she works on a laptop. If I were more polite, I’d take one of those chairs too. I don’t because high stools invariably cause my left foot to go numb.

A shelf of merchandise stands between myself and the door. In front of me I can see brown T-shirts, tea source bags, coffee filters. A local producer also supplies soy candles. I’ve sniffed them before – they smell wonderful, but the price and weight still exceed what I want to bring home. Also, I rarely burn candles without purpose, so my collection of candles meant for pleasure is quite limited.

Small round lights hang above the long bar where the barefoot woman sits. I think they came from Ikea. A big pipe runs across the ceiling; the owners painted it a rust colored orange. The floor is wood, and in need of a sanding and refinishing. I notice the black marks that can only come from yeras of scuffing underneath the barefoot woman’s stool. The pretty woman with freckles sits behind me; she is talking on the phone to a friend. It’s gossip, but I don’t listen to close. I only like gossip when it’s really interesting – grand adventures, bodies discovered, a good haunting. All else is usually just the inevitable loss of perspective that happens when you’re too close to the same people for too long.

A sign in a rust orange frame just a shade more red than the giant pipe has a blackboard with multi-colored chalk on it: Special, spicy tuna wrap with chips and fruit, $6. Soup: chicken, wild rice. The color descends: lavender, the matching rust orange, yellow.

A man walks in with his hand jammed in the pocket of his baggy shorts. At first, given his thin arm and the odd gait, that something is wrong with his arm, or that he might not have a complete arm. I am wrong. He just likes keeping his hand jammed in his pocket, and he keeps a black folder with white papers sticking out of it clamped beneath his arm.

A woman walks in, bouncing a baby in a fishing hat while a toddler in a pink fishing hat clutches a pacifier, swings sunglasses and appears undecided between making a run for the door or seeing how this whole coffee shp scenario plays out.

They are followed in by a thin blonde woman with a minitiarized hobo bag beneath her arm, and a grey, long-sleeved U of M T-shirt over her pants. She has her hair back in a headband, and she resembles Meredith Monroe. (not Marilyn, Meredith.)

Behind her a women with short hair, a scarf tied in front, glassess, a baseball T-shirt and capris stands, wearing an Ace Hardware baseball shirt. I wonder what the story is. She has a tattoo peeking out from her arm, a sharp downward traingle, directing its viewer to the black carptets that define a pathway across the wood floor, past the counter and on back to the seats. A man behind her with a chain swinging from his jeans belt, loose-cuffeed jeans and a large knapsack stands with an empty plastic container. He has a berad, a buzz cut, and is tapping. He has a tattoo on the back of his hand. It looks like an eagle, or a bell, or something faintly military that is then surrounded with flowers. I think of the man who frequents the one bar I spend the most time in, who has a tattoo of a thumb holding down spurting blood on his arm as a reminder to stop at the drugs requiring needles.

I wonder if, to any of these people, their tattoos replace tying strings around their fingers.

I look back, and the man with the white baseball cap who was clutching the folder has his head bent, and writes earnestly. The barefoot woman has left. In the far corner, I see a shock of red/orange hair and sun chips, with a disposal coffee container behind it. I realize I’m not stopping to taste the peach sparkle in my Izze.

A corkboard next to the entrance is covered with papers and tacks. Drum Lessons! says on paper, and next to it is a green flyer for some festival or another, one of those events Minnesotans host to squeeze the maximum they can out of summers before winter grabs us all by the balls and boobls in the most unpleasant way it can again.

A woman with a pixie cut, grey hair, a black shirt and a multicolor sweater over jeans walks in. Her bag is black, with green handles, and huge. She has broad lips and a uniquely fixed smile – she is PRESENTING. She talkls to the counter help, this is her first visit, as she asks what they can do. She is reaching in her bag and inspecting the foods behind the counter, including the vegetable offerings. She has tiny gold hoop earrings in her ear. When she orders, I hear her say “Let’s do…” as though her order is a cooperative agreement. She is a consensus builder, and I am suspicious of her because of the way she looks around, the slight spread of her legs in a power stance. She’s older, but she’s spent her money on the proper moisturizers. She wears peep toe black mules with a slight heel, and jeans probably originally intended for a boot cut, Her eyes look too blue, unnatural. She looks at the corkboard with fascination. I wonder if she wears contact lenses.

Another woman wanders into the shop, black sweatpants, grey shirt and a visor. I try to remember the last time I saw someone wearing a visor in real life. I think I was in Hawaii, and I was willing to bet that the woman’s visor at the time was probably older than I am.

It’s an odd combination of casual and dressed coming in and out of the shop. The woman with the rainbow vest thing brushes her hair as she sits on one of the long barstools with her cold coffee and vegetables. She gets out her cell phone, and laughs, probalby at a text someone sent her. It’s a sharp laugh, and while she doesn’t do it, it looks like the type where you put a hand to your chest. I silently label her “from Edina.” That’s not fair. She could be from Woodbury.

Another woman walks in wearing grey striped trousers and a white t-shirt. Her hair is pulled back in a bun, and she wears gold earrings that are not quite so tiny. She’s all business, and there’s no consciousness or calcuation to her body movements. She’s just there for a cup of coffee, and as far as can be observed, there’s nothing on her mind except her coffee, wherever she’s going, and wherever she came from. She’s wearing a compromise between sandals and flip flops.

A man with grey hair and bangs that stick straight up and square glasses, walks in, drops something in a garbage can and walks out.

A man channeling Kurt Cobain strides in the shop, wearing exact-fitting jeans and a black overcoat over a T-shirt. His hair is just long enough to look neglected, and very artfully NOT neglected into looking just mussy enough. He has a beard and mustache. He heads straight back to the restrooms. Another guy emerges from the back, with black sweater and red stripes, with those crop pants and boots the late 20 somethings are going to look back upon and regret. Apparently the man in black that just cut on through was a friend of his.

The life here, it continues. A woman with argyle patterned hose, black ballet flats and a black coat dress with long red hair appears. She meets the woman in the multi-colored jacket, bringing with her a white purse with green paper sticking out, and sets down her own black purse. It’s a business meeting of some kind.

And I’ve just seen a man wearing crocs, and not the new crocs, the old kind. THOSE crocs. So this is where I stop.