Watched Pot

It was four in the morning, still dark, and Laura leaned against the counter and sighed. The coffee-maker burbled behind her, trickling the dark liquid into the clear pot – taking what seemed like forever. A watched pot never boils? Well, even if you don’t watch, they take as long as they like. She was in a sour mood.

The night shift was fine, usually. She didn’t mind starting work at eleven at night – that was when she was most awake anyway. She also didn’t mind dealing with the characters that came in and out of the all-night diner. Some were shady, scary even, but Laura treated them just as if they were a couple of middle-aged lovebirds stopping in for afternoon tea. Some of the more aggressive guys would try to hit on her, or else make fun of her relentlessly so that she’d snap at them, but Laura never caved. She was calm to such a degree that it made the thugs get bored and back off.

There were the sad people who came in, too; the prostitutes, makeup smudged, counting their earnings in a corner booth and asking for take-away pie for the kids at home; the homeless men and women who collected enough change during the day to buy a cup of bad coffee and maybe a bowl of fries; one or two crazies who wandered in and yelled about the end of the world or Jesus living inside them. Laura knew most of them, since they were regulars. The diner was the only twenty-four hour one in about a mile around. Anyone who worked or lived on the streets around it would come there instead of trekking over to the all-night Starbuck’s that was ten blocks away.

So Laura normally liked the night shift. The denizens of the darkened city and small hours of the morning were familiar to her and she wasn’t scared or judgmental of them. They were just there, and like anyone else, they needed to eat and drink.

Sometimes, though, like tonight, the familiar tired, worn out, or constantly tough faces were supplemented by others. In the big booth right in the center of the diner sat six of the rowdies, most obnoxious teenagers Laura had ever seen in her life. It was people like them that made her irritable to the point of wishing dearly to serve up coffee with spit in it.

They were obviously drunk or high, and they were laughing uproariously as one of the guys did some imitation of a comedian. Laura was rather glad they’d moved on to laughing about stupid stuff like this, because what had come before had been much worse. She already knew everything about their evening – they’d gone to Big Tod’s penthouse, and they partied there, and then they went to Shazzam, the biggest and most dangerous club in the area, where they’d partied some more, and then Trudy-O met them at the liquor store where they knew her and sold her whatever she wanted and they partied some more right there on the street until some cops came by and told them to get home or else. Instead of doing that, they’d decided they were hungry and wanted to sober up a little, so they came to the diner, where they unknowingly became the stuff of Laura’s nightmares.

Gangsters, she could handle. But these rich kids slumming it for a night? She couldn’t stand them. She knew they were just kids – probably just a few years younger than her, maybe even as little as two – but she felt that their naiveté was like a bad joke. They honestly thought they were living dangerously, taking risks, being cool. Laura could almost hear the thoughts in the heads of the other customer – thoughts of how much they’d like to teach these kids just how dangerous danger could really be, but why bother when mommy and daddy the lawyers will be swooping down on them tomorrow? No reason to create more trouble with the law than there already was.

Laura didn’t approve of harming people just because they were annoying, but she couldn’t help fantasizing about it, especially since these idiots had been mean and abrasive towards her, and she knew that she was going to get next to no tip, despite the fact that they had a big order coming. Including, of course, six coffees, and right now, followed by an audible whisper and giggle concerning white-trash waitresses.

The coffee-maker clicked off, the pot full, and Laura turned back to it. She poured the coffees, put the mugs on a tray, and carried it over to the teenagers.

“Here you go,” she smiled brightly and put the coffees down in front of each of them. She caught the guys staring down her shirt and the girls turning away from her, continuing to talk over her, as if she were invisible. No thank-yous came, but Laura smiled and told them their food would be coming out any moment now. She smiled all the way back to the coffee machine, which she refilled and started up again.

This time, she faced it. Maybe this way she wouldn’t be able to go back to the table to bring refills. No coffee boiled and brewed, no refills, right? So she stared at the machine, willing it to adhere to adage and never boil.

The H Cafe

The H Cafe is a small place, sitting right on a busy, noisy street. It’s a main thoroughfare between one part of the city and the other, and the sound of cars, trucks, ambulances and motorcycles is constant. There is also a cake store on the corner next to the H, that doubles as a plain bakery and cafe. It could be said, by some people, that the H Cafe is not in a prime location.

But it’s never empty. The waiting-staff don’t wear uniforms. Not even t-shirts with the H’s cat logo. The only way you’d know who your waiter or waitress was, would be because they came to you. And they do. They’re kind, sweet, funny and patient. They don’t get mad if you order a coffee and nothing else. They don’t bug you when it takes you a long time to order. Best of all, they don’t seem like they’re suffering, and that’s a good thing to see. They look, rather, like they happen to be asking people what they’d like to eat. When they aren’t needed, they stand around the register and talk to each other, laughing charmingly, but always with an eye out. If a hand pops up or a head turns their way, they’ll be there in a flash, still grinning.

How, you might ask, does it manage to have clients at all hours on such a busy and noisy street? The H has cleverly made up for its location by simply refusing to admit to it. The outdoor seating area is raised on a wooden platform, and is bordered on three side by greenery. The lamps that sit on the platform, entwined in the bushes, look like they were taken straight out of London in the 1920s. They’re picturesque, yet simple. The tables are wooden and often wobbly, but the chairs are comfy enough and you’re never in the sun or rain. During the summer, plain white fabric umbrellas rear their heads and give a pleasant tent-like quality to the place, while in winter the area is surrounded by glass and feels like a cozy, warm fish-tank.

The menu is small but with wide variety, the coffee is superb and the atmosphere lovely. It’s the only place in which I’m ever recognized and acknowledged as a regular customer. The H Cafe is a diamond in the rough.

3. Heather

Heather stood in front of the glass door, arms wrapped around herself. She closed her eyes and leaned her cheek against the glass, which was cold despite the heat inside the shop. She shivered, the chill in her cheek spreading within moments to the rest of her body through her bloodstream. She jerked away from the door, and turned back to the warmth inside.

Miranda was still sitting at the table at the very end of what looked less like a shop and more like a deep and narrow closet. The entire shop was just a bit wider than the door leading into it, and both walls were lined with racks. The racks were filled completely with clothing inside plastic bags, to keep them all separated, clean and neat. Miranda, who was ancient, dumpy, tiny, and brought to mind things like tin cans full of a animal crackers and yellowing newspapers, had owned the shop for the past fifty years and didn’t seem to be thinking of leaving it any time soon. The biggest and only change she’d made to it in years was hiring Heather, because one of her eyes had gone blind and the doctors had forbidden her to keep sewing and straining her eyes. She didn’t listen to them, of course, but instead merely hired some help so that she’d only have to sew about half as much as she’d had to before.

Heather sat across from Miranda at the rickety old table at the end of the shop and rested her elbows carefully on it, making sure not to move the dress that was half stuck in the sewing machine in front of her. She felt stiff. That damn tear in the evening dress had been plaguing her for the past hour, as she tried to sew the old and thin fabric back together perfectly. Miranda prided herself on the miracles she performed, mending any type of clothing and never saying no to a job, and she made sure that Heather was capable of doing the same when she’d hired her to help out.

Miranda worked odd hours. Her shop was open from late afternoon until late at night, so Heather got to sleep in every morning. But some nights, like tonight, she really craved a good, strong cup of coffee. Miranda forbade her from bringing coffee into the shop, though, claiming that the smell made her gag. Heather considered trying to bring a travel-mug of coffee and tell her employer it was tea and see if she’d actually notice the smell. Maybe tomorrow.

Miranda lifted her head from her work and gave Heather a piercing glance. Heather smiled reassuringly and bent back over the dress. It was going to be a long evening yet for her.

Across Five States: Into Maryland

We entered Maryland in the early afternoon. We drove on a main highway, and the biggest change I noticed was the lack of trucks and the return of cars. Regular cars, small, light, compact and sane – unlike the monsters we’d been driving with for the past day. Suddenly, we were the biggest on the road, including the SUVs, and there was a feeling of fear as we wove through the growing traffic that we would crush one of these tiny aluminum vehicles. It felt also like a return to civilization – we were suddenly around pleasure cruisers, commuters and road-trippers, instead of being around people who were doing a job as they drove.

All this, of course, was only because we were again on a smaller freeway, but commingled with the knowledge that we were so very near our destination, it caused a bit of a shock. It felt like we were almost done with this magical trip, so short but yet so full of experiences. When we stopped in Maryland at a Waffle House for coffee and sustenance, we came very close to deciding to stop at a motel again for the night and drive into Virginia the next day. None of us admitted it, but I felt that none of us really wanted this road magic to end – the feeling of being severed from any one time and any one place, belonging instead to constant movement.

In the end, though, we decided to push on despite everything. We still had unpacking to “look forward to” and we wanted to get it over with as soon as we could. We payed for our coffees, climbed back into the truck, and after some frustration over the rats’ water bottle leaking we set off again, knowing we’d be seeing another state in just a few more minutes.

Three Ladies at Peet’s

Three ladies sat outside Peet’s Coffee in Santa Monica. There were many little tables outside the coffee-shop: one was inhabited by a trendy man in his early twenties, wearing a brown hat and reading a design book; one other table was occupied by a balding man with glasses perched precariously on his nose who was proofreading a paper as he sipped his coffee and occasionally looked up at the people going by; the third table was surrounded by three ladies.

The three ladies were of varying ages. Two were in their early fifties and looked like sisters – both had similar features and they had that sort of friendly and easy manner with each other that comes from a good sisterly relationship. The third was obviously a family member as well – the daughter of the one and the niece of the other. These ladies were surrounded by lots of baggage – a purse, a backpack, four pounds of Peet’s coffee blends, another shoulder bag, and, of course, three large cups of coffee, a cinnamon roll and a small box of chocolates.

The conversation between the ladies was fast and carefree: gossip about family members and family events, chit-chat about the merits of good coffee, small talk about travel plans. Somehow, in all the chatter, the subject of ostrich meat, an option that had been on a menu of a restaurant where the ladies had been the night before, came up. There was some discussion over the general aversion to the very idea of ostrich meat, and then with a casual remark from one of the ladies about how it tasted like roast beef, the table exploded. The ladies all burst out laughing as one of them spit out her coffee, overcome with laughter, and the other two followed suit while trying to control themselves and the flow of coffee spilling over their baggage.

Eventually, the three got themselves under control, though still giggling, and got up to leave. As they were walking down the sidewalk, the young hip man called out with a smile that he enjoyed their laughter and liked to see that they were having fun. He wasn’t mocking – he was sincere. He had enjoyed the sight of three ladies laughing at a table in the Los Angeles sunlight. Only the young lady had noticed that the other man, the quiet one with the glasses, had smiled to himself as well as the three had been laughing hysterically.

The youngest lady walked away from the whole encounter feeling that the world was a good place if people could enjoy the enjoyment of others.

Halfway ‘Round the World

Flying is a journey that begins hours before it is actually underway with packing, passport gathering, and final checks of house and pets and luggage. Once the keys lock the door and the luggage is in the taxi, it is still only the merest beginning of the ordeal. Airports are no picnic, and the security in Israel is stricter than most places. Young, post-military-service men and women look at the passports in an  appraising, ask if you’ve packed your own bags, and explain that they’re asking because you might have taken something from someone that you deemed innocent but would actually be dangerous.

A few lines, machines, check-ins and difficulties later, the next part of the trip begins: the perils of the Duty-Free Shopping Area. While many are drawn to this most dangerous of all airport pursuits, my mother and I are not among those many – in fact, quite the opposite. While others might stroll up and down the lanes of various James Richardsons and Tommy Hilfigers and The-Tie-Shops, we huddle in the most remote of coffee-shops, sip our beverages, and try to hide from the too-alert-for-this-hour shoppers.

Next, of course, is the constant peering at watches and clocks, the straining of the ears to hear the garbled messages that come over the loudspeaker, and, in the end, the walk to the right gate quite a while before boarding starts, just so we won’t be late. Here, again, begins the process of tickets, passports, lines and shuffling forward one step at a time, until our feet actually set upon the cheaply carpeted floor of the airplane, and we find our cheaply leathered or upholstered seats. Setting our behinds down in those, we ready ourselves for the many, many, many hours ahead.

All this was just the beginning.

Two Years

My father died exactly two years ago. I can’t express how much I miss him. Really, I can’t. He was just the most amazing human being, and the most amazing father. He treated my brother and me as human beings, not as children, never as children. He respected us, and found so much to love and be proud of in us, which in turn made us happy, because we respected and loved him so very much.

His presence was so strong, even if he was silent. He always had the radio on, sometimes to good music and sometimes to bad, annoying music or loud and obnoxious talk shows. He never listened when it was on – he was always reading the paper or writing when the radio was on. But he didn’t like the house being silent. I think the most touching moments I’d ever seen my parents in was when a song they both loved came on, and they would start dancing together, bopping around and kissing and embarrassing my brother and I. I realize now, of course, that that was wonderful, so beautiful, so miraculous for two people to have been married for so long and to still have been so much in love.

My largest and most horrifying fear is that I’ll forget my father one day. Forget how it felt to walk hand in hand with him when I was little, forget how it was to be mad at him, forget how it was when he sang me his lullaby, forget how it was to watch him doing exercises and then sitting down to watch the news, forget how he read my papers for school and helped me improve them, forget the smell of his cigarettes and coffee in the morning and the cake or cookie he ate as his breakfast. I haven’t forgotten yet, no, but what if I will one day?