Mid winter in Boston. Cold, windy and slippery. I wrapped my wool scarf securely around my neck, stuffed my books in my bag and locked the door behind me. Leaving behind the warmth and solace of my mid-sized apartment; prepared for a day of highlighting, note-taking and addictive coffee intake.
My spot in the library was losing its powers of productivity. It became an excuse for idle chatter and surfing the web. For weeks I wandered aimlessly from desk to desk, room to room, unable to find a proper place to study. Until last week. The coffee shop located in the center of my hometown. A mere 30-minute walk from the University, or on days like this, a 20-minute train commute.
In the past week I had settled here three times, sipping the perfect mocha at a desk I claimed as my own, with few people entering for over five minutes. Satisfied, I decided to make my fourth trip. I waited for the train; 85 cents in my right pocket and loose bills in my left.
There is something about the train. I stood against the stairs trying not to stare, but gazes take on a magnetic power of their own. There we were, staring at one another, curious about the lives each led. Yet, an unspoken 3.5 second rule was present. An acceptable time to observe; long enough to become inquisitive, yet unsubstantial to form a connection. Pass that limit and the curiosity transforms into “a staring problem”.
So I looked away — at my feet, then straight ahead, at the advertisements. Fifteen minutes later I stepped off the train, maintaining my balance as the snow beneath my feet teased my boots, and walked two blocks to the coffee shop. Coffee shops have indeed become the “in” place to study — the nucleus of true intellect where one can have a profound thought, a heated conversation, even a flirtatious rendezvous.
My secluded coffee shop lacked such complexity and that was what made it perfect. Very few, except locals, knew of its existence. I ordered a skim mocha — large, sprinkled with extra chocolate powder — and went to the last table, so that my back faced the front windows. I took out my first book: Anthropological Studies of the Middle East, with yellow highlighter ready to attack and began to read.
It was quiet, yet not silent, as Magic 106.7 FM played in the background. Two hours later my only distraction, much to my appreciation, was a gentleman with a child I assumed to be his granddaughter. I played peek aboo with her for a few minutes while her grandfather ordered his decaf coffee and an orange juice. There is nothing better than a child's smile — the purest and most innocent of gestures.
I looked at my watch, 4 o'clock — three more hours before heading off to meet a friend for dinner, which was unanimously decided to be at the Mexican place across the street. I returned to my position; forehead leaning against the palm of my left hand, my feet up on the chair across and my book beneath my right hand. And then I heard his voice.
I was about to turn around, but for some odd reason I chose not to. I pretended to continue highlighting. He ordered a cappuccino and a regular coffee — I knew the cappuccino was for himself. He asked for an Equal packet — Sweet and Low would not cut it. I shared his sentiments.Their conversation began slow; catching up on the news, world disorder and historical equivalents. This lead to the roots of today's moral wars and hence the evolution of mankind.
Engrossed in their conversation, clinging to every word and keeping a few to myself, I turned my left ear a bit closer.With passion, he talked about his beliefs, about solutions, and about his own life. About what he had seen, what he had learned, what he had earned and what he had lost. A man whose spirituality and kindness were apparent in his voice alone. He added in moments of comic relief to avoid the emotional turn such a conversation could take.
His sadness was hidden in humble happiness. His laughter made me smile. He talked about his family with pride and honor. As if no one else in the world mattered aside from his loved ones.
As they got up to leave, he mentioned my name. I walked over and we hugged. “Baba joon, I love you.”