Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Sunday at Starbucks

A few days ago I found myself recalling a line from the Gospel of Matthew: "As ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me." While I'm no expert on comparative religion, I'm certain that some version of this warning is common to all faiths: be kind to those in need. You never know...

So I'm sitting in Starbucks on Sunday. I brought my thick book and laptop and iPod for a couple hours of video editing, some writing, and a little bit of morning relaxation. This guy on the couch next to me spots my Mac and leans over.

"You an iPhone man?"

I'm not sure how to answer. "No," seems reasonable enough. I work a Mac and happily enjoy my iPod Touch, but I don't pay AT&T the requisite fees to play in the larger iWorld (not yet).

I offer some mild explanation to that effect, but the gentleman bores in further, delighted at the prospect of extolling the virtues of his phone. Seconds pass, then minutes. He tells me about the apps, the speed, the utter suckiness of comparative Verizon products. He's in full-on monologue mode. An audio-taped commercial to which I can only nod (iNod, I guess).

Problem is, I came to Starbucks for the company of buzz, but not really to chat.

He catches a breath and I catch an opportunity to interject my thanks for his advice.

I assure him I'll share his arguments with my wife when it's time to return to the family debate over how much we're willing to spend on wireless.

He seems to catch the hint, pulling back and turning his gaze away from me.

I feel vaguely guilty, but not too much.

Across the aisle, another guy - a Starbucks regular, it seems - utters greetings to the fellow who'd been chatting me up.

Ahh, I think. That'll do it.

I get back to my work, editing a video.

A few minutes later, the first fellow leans over to me again, picking up the book I'd brought with me, The Difference Engine.

"I write science fiction, myself," he announces.

Thus begins another monologue. Something about Oort Clouds and Venusian diamonds, the impossibilities of FTL travel and disparaging comments about wormholes, plans for a five-volume "hard" sci-fi epic and descriptions of the short story that'll pull it all together.

I cannot nod and "uh huh" fast enough to keep up with the growing cathedral of ideas being built verbally, brick by brick. At one point I even interject, "this is cool, but I'm having a hard time processing all this."

I figure the pseudo tech-speak will both affirm what he's saying and break the spell. Something like, dude, I grok - but cut it out.

Nope, he reviews his blueprint and returns to building his city of words, each a narrow beam that glints against the superstructure, broadening it, deepening it, driving me nuts.

At this point, only a sledgehammer will do.

I won't repeat what I said. It was sufficiently direct and contained a decent attempt at kindness. But I hate the words all the same. He knew what I meant, and he stopped talking to me.

I settled back into my editing, only occasionally noticing that a few other regulars certainly knew him. By name, they'd greet the guy, share some news, show some respect. Three or four others. Not me.

Is he lonely? Is he brilliant? Is he crazy?

I haven't a clue.

Eventually a friend of his came by and the old man picked up my book, showing it off. I removed my earphones and found myself in a brief conversation about steampunk literature. A normal conversation, with turn-taking and everything.

The two fellows wished me a happy day and left, leaving my book with me.

What happened?

Again, I haven't a clue.

But I wonder if I missed the chance to be kind, to be patient. All and all the entire interaction lasted no more than 30 minutes. I could have humored him. I could have listened to him. I might even have learned from him. But soon, he was gone.

Did I dodge a bullet, an afternoon suffering under the assault of an unending one-way conversation? Or did I miss the chance to serve another person?

Was he "the least of these?"

Or was I?


Jon said...

The Difference Engine is an awesome book.
I am definitely not a sci fi or fantasy fan - as witnessed by the fact that I don't live in my mother's basement - but I do have a soft spot for "alternate history" stories.

highway163 said...

I love DE - have read it four or five times. I love the language play ("clackers" instead of hackers" and line-streaming instead of streamlining). I love the gorgeously precise descriptions of Victorian bric-a-brac. And I love the vision of the all-seeing eye in 1991. Haunting stuff.

I only wish that the "Fifth Iteration" were a little more comprehensible. Every time I reread the book and I reach that section - after the section addressing the Stink - I always think I'm missing the significance of a name, a place, or some other reference hinted about previously in the book...

No doubt, DE takes work, but what a ride!