adventures at the end of the world


the best thing about us is the people we know.

Charles and Beacon // Sunday, 1.54pm

After church, I walked across Boston Common, a peculiar mix of park and parade ground that is much easier to picture Victorian couples promenading through like a Georges Seurat painting, than the current mix of loungers, journalers, tourists and fried dough carts that currently call it home. I was neither promenading nor wandering; I was homing on the Starbucks adjacent to it.

I don't like admitting how comforting these corporate joints are to me, when I'm tired and adrift in a foreign place. My high school self, who used unwittingly socialist tenets as a prop for volatile angst and anger, rises briefly from the grave to express its chagrin whenever I sit in the parking lot of Trader Joe's to consume a rack of their pre-packaged California rolls, or linger in a McDonald's for longer than it takes to check my email on their free WiFi, or drive out of my way to visit any given region's Whole Foods, just so I can spend an hour's time wandering through their aisles, sampling wistfully from their bulk bins.

I went this morning down the street from Ian's apartment, to a Third Wave joint called Dwelltime, where a girl with a taper-fade combover was pouring pure Jersey milk from High Lawn Farm into a cup of locally roasted coffee, and a 70-pound Asian girl in an apron was carrying a tray of caramel-oozing rolls from the back kitchen out to the display case. It was entirely charming; I felt entirely ferklempt, because I don't like coffee and I hadn't had a shower and I was wearing a knitted hat and a knitted sweater coat. At the same time. You see what I mean. I was really only there to get some hot water in my cup, since I couldn't figure out how to work the efficient little modern stovetop in Ian's apartment. But I felt obligated to buy something more, so I bought one of the caramel rolls, and rang myself up on the iPad cash register app (as the cashier guy busied himself with more pressing matters), and took my caramel thing from the anorexic Asian girl and got the hell out of there.

Most Third Wave joints don't offer WiFi at all, I've found. Starbucks does, and so do McDonald's and Whole Foods. And that's often the excuse I offer myself when I go out of my way to patronize these establishments. But that's not always, not even often, the true excuse.

I went to Park Street Church today, which is right beside Boston Common and is a marvel of adapting prior century to the present. It's an olde New Englande meeting hall sort of place, three stories and creamy white wainscoting and Jacobean chandeliers, and the choir recessed at the back of the mezzanine. I got there late, because Ian and I were having an interesting conversation, and Google Maps gave me bum directions, and I had to spend $12 on parking in the underground garage in order to make the drive any kind of worth it, and I couldn't find a seat, and I had to pee dreadfully but couldn't seem to find a bathroom anywhere. But when the pastor said "Please open your Bibles to...", a deep calm pervaded my ruffled insides. The only reason I can reckon on is that it was the balm of the familiar.

I walk into this Starbucks, and it's busy and crowded and people are milling among each other haplessly like cattle at an auction. The music is music I have heard at countless Starbucks...hell, it's music they used to play back when I worked at Starbucks. (My introduction to Paolo Conte and Pink Martini.) I put in my headphones, thinking to listen to something that enables work better. But I never turn my music on. The album loop is about 25 minutes long; right after Louis Prima and Keely Smith comes "Via Con Me," again. Between that, and the patterns of cups and smells and even the lemming-like behavior of the people lined up for the bar and the bathroom, I'm as at home and unstimulated in this environment as if I were back in my high school bedroom.

And that lack of environmental stimulation is exactly what makes it the ideal place to work, at least while I'm on this trip. At least at this point of being on this trip.

The lady who prayed with me after church today--Esther, a woman probably in her mid-forties who is from Venezuela and has lived in Boston for 14 years and works as a nanny--was speaking to my problem, recently diagnosed, with being comfortable as God's dependent. "Children," she said, "don't worry about being a burden. And we are supposed to come to God as children."

I started this trip with discomfort being part of the point. But I have my limits, and when I reach them, I just want to be somewhere familiar. Even if it means embracing something I used to disdain. I wouldn't feel comfortable working in a Starbucks if I lived anywhere for a long period of time. I'd be distracted by all the galling evidence of how nothing is changing.

Maybe if I lived down the street from Dwelltime, and taught myself to appreciate coffee, I'd be able to relax and work there.

Esther says that the word that sums up that attitude of children toward their caretakers, and what ours should be toward God, is "trust." The word that made me burst into tears for no good reason about three years ago. The word that I feel I've come so far in. What's lacking still? What's missing? Why can't I be happily, unselfconsciously dependent on God? Why am I always apologetic about it?

I'm reasonably confident when I go to a Starbucks, or a Whole Foods, that I'm safe for a good while. I'm sure it's as likely a candidate to be shot up as any public place, but I've never been in a Starbucks that got shot up. What's more, I've never been eyeballed as an interloper in a Starbucks. Either I fit in well, or nobody cares. And maybe more importantly, I don't care.

But in Dwelltime, I feel self-conscious. I feel self-conscious about being there. And if I were in a coffee shop less tragically hip, I still feel self-conscious about writing there. Because after all, I'm doing this. I'm living it. It's hard to write when you're so focused on living. Hard, anyway, for me.

We were just talking about this, Ian and I, this morning. About David Foster Wallace's writing about successful people.

An important component of trust seems to be unself-consciousness.

A red-faced guy with bristly hair and a zip-up fleece printed with some kind of team...I couldn't see which one...stares over my table until I look up and notice him. My headphones are in, so he speaks loudly.

"How you doin?" he asks. His accent is thick.

"Good," I say.

"That's good. Have a good Thanksgivin."

"Thanks," I say. "You, too."

He holds up his fingers in a V. "Two weeks," he says. "Two more weeks. Don't get sick. Hope I don't get sick."

"Yeah, I hope you don't, too," I say.

"You eat too much, you get sick," he says, moving forward with the line toward the bar. "It's okay if you get sick at your own house, but you can't get sick at my brother-in-law's house."

"Okay," I say. And he moves with the line, out of eyeshot.