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Lessons In the Unlikely

While seated at the Kickstand coffeeshop (or “espresso bar,” as it more or less harmlessly insists on calling itself) in Chicago I had the kind of conversation that is usually reserved for novels.  Started randomly, with a stranger I sat next to at the bar-style seating in the window, circling around topics relevant not only to me but to the larger scope of things.  This rarely happens.  If you put one of these in a short story, you’d be told “nobody has conversations like this in real life,” and whoever your editor was would be right.

He started it.  I snapped the above picture [will upload later] from my seat and he looked up from his book and said “Nice.”  I flinched, seeing as 1.) His tone said he didn’t mean it, and 2.) I’d chosen to sit next to this guy instead of the lone spiky-haired guy at the window bar on the other side of the door precisely because this one seemed more introverted and focused on whatever he was doing, and was thus seemed less likely to bother me.  He’d tried twice before, with a theatrically loud sigh inviting comment, but I ignored it.  After one particular train ride in Yokohama I have zero tolerance for guys trying to mess with me.  I prepared to stab him in the eye with my pen.

“Yeah, well,” I shrugged.

Then he just took off.  He literally launched into a sentence that went something like “Isn’t it weird how these days people are so into preserving where they’ve been in digital form, that they don’t even take time to notice the word outside their devices.”  I would’ve bristled had he been remotely antagonistic about it but after the initial quipped “nice,” he retreated into a totally neutral tone.  Besides, this guy himself was constantly checking an Android smartphone, so he wasn’t considering himself above or outside of the group he was questioning.  Had he been younger I probably would’ve shot him down, just to be left alone.  But he was a stringy (in the bikes-a-lot sense) balding 40-something, vaguely British-looking, totally harmless guy.  Plus, as an older person, he would naturally have some assumptions about people my age that I ached to destroy.  Having just whipped out a hot pink digital camera to take that photo, I had respect to recoup.  So I engaged him in a conversation that must’ve lasted half an hour or so, ranging from the Lifemarking project one of the Ito recipients had been developing in Tokyo (at which point I changed my goal from attack to debate, since the mere mention of the words “conference” and “fellowship” defused whatever soapbox he’d been considering mounting; he must’ve been an ex- or wannabe-academic or something because he clearly respected academic credentials), to the seeming inability of little kids to get by nowadays without a screen of some form nearby.  We concluded the way any number of discussions like this have probably concluded:  acknowledging that yes, something was being lost in this constant reflexive impulse to record and report and preserve, digitally, every aspect of our lives; but at the same time, it was damn addictive and hard to put aside.  Again, this man’s possession of an Android phone defanged my approach, since if he had been sitting there with a pencil and paper and half a novel written, waxing poetic on “kids these days” and their techno gadgets, I’d have grown surly.

To my delight, despite a lengthy and intense conversation, he neither asked my name nor sought any identifying information about me, though he paid me the compliment of asking if I was from central Europe “or at least England,” which query stemmed probably from the slight accent I unthinkingly (and sometimes embarrassingly) adopt when talking to people with slight accents.  He sounded like a Scot trying not to sound like a Scot, so that is probably why I started changing my cadences.  (This started, I think, in my LOTR days, when I spent a tremendous amount of time studying the accents of the various actors in interviews, and would try an change the cadence of my sentences, though not the pronunciation of words, to suit the various areas.)  Eventually he headed out into the downpour on his bicycle, though not without paying me a very cordial farewell, and receiving a tease from behind the counter as he returned his cup.  “Have fun over there?” snerked the coffeeshop worker, whom I gather the Scottish guy was friends with.  He laughed sheepishly and disappeared in the rain, and I basked in the afterglow of a meaningful conversation with a stranger who was neither deranged nor trying to hit on me.  It was great.  I love Chicago.

2 responses »

  1. Rick Wright

    That accent…could it be that you’ve watched “Pride and Prejudice” once too often?

  2. Hahaha, could be that too. I DO love that movie, and watched it a million times in Japan. Plus Friday nights are often British Period Piece nights, when R’s at work and it’s me, the dogs, and beleaguered brits in voluminous hairstyles.


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