Today I sat down at a corner table with four seats. The shop was half empty when I arrived, and I felt okay taking a large table even though I was by myself. After a steady stream of customers trickled in, the shop started to feel crowded. I kept looking around, feeling uncomfortable, wondering if it was time for me to move to a smaller table (in a less desirable location). It was getting awkward, but my love of the corner spot kept me in my seat.
After I’d been there an hour, an older African American man approached me and politely said, Could we have a couple of your chairs, Ma’am? I decided this was my cue. Would you like to trade tables with me? I really don’t need this space, I said.
He looked at me as though I had offered him a hundred dollar bill. Yes! We would love that! Thank you so much!! Wow, thank you! You are such a kind lady! and on an on he went, in complete sincerity. After he gestured to his friends (who it turned out had been perching on stools at a small counter) to join him at the corner table, he said, What’s your name?
After I told him, he exclaimed to his friends, Hey everybody, this is Laura! She just GAVE US HER TABLE! Can you believe it?! When another friend arrived, the first gentleman introduced me to the newcomer, again insisting that I be thanked.
Finally, I said sheepishly, It’s really not that big a deal. I didn’t need all that space! And the newcomer said, It’s a big deal to us! Usually we have to stand up.
As I type, my new friends are sitting behind me, having a committee meeting of some sort. There are four of them, all older adults, three men and one woman. They are talking shop and erupting into roaring laughter every few minutes. They have just pulled the barista into conversation, asking her about her college major and her career plans.
What lovely people. Meeting them has made my heart smile.
Some would look at this encounter and see an indictment of our current social norms, that we have so collapsed as a society that a stranger offering you her table at a coffee shop—-a table she clearly does not need—-is cause for celebration of her “generosity.” That’s not where I am going to go today.
I want to focus on the fact that we are not so far gone societally that we cannot have outrageously warm interactions among strangers. That though a bigoted boor can secure the presidential nomination of a major political party, strangers of different generations and ethnicities can still interact as friends in coffee shops. That there are still men and women who move in the world with spirits of gratitude and generosity. That our public meeting spots really can be beds where the seeds of civility and friendship grow.
And how else to water these seeds than to model this warm civility like these elders have? Is this the full solution to our societal problems? Of course not. But it is surely part of it.
Go forth and interact, friends! Laugh and engage the world exuberantly with a smile and wink, making sure to ask people their names.
©2016, Laura Goetsch and Thinking About Such Things