Coffee and a Story to Go
I have this habit. I walk into a coffee shop or spend time in an airport, and I come away with a story. Maybe it is the writer in me, the quiet observer. It could be I am small and look irrevocably innocent. But, I think strangers become storytellers around me because I listen. Usually, a story begins with a small detail, a pair of unusual eyeglasses or a hat.
Take a writing class or read a book on writing and you’ll hear about the power of detail. One vivid detail can open a doorway to a world. It can also unfold a story in the world.
Once, standing in line at Starbucks, I noticed a man wore artsy glasses. I asked if he was an artist. He was—a designer for Ralph Lauren. Before our orders were filled, while my husband waited in the car, I knew about this man’s ailing father, his partner, their move.
Another time, I dashed into a convenience store. An elderly, hunched man shuffled glacially slow in front of me as I waited my turn at the coffee station. “Move it along, Speedy,” I teased. He apologized, “I am sorry I am so slow.” Nodding at his WWII Vet cap, I said, “Yeah, but you weren’t always this way.” He beamed, picked up his pace. In that moment, he was not a feeble, old man in a Kwik-E-Mart; he was a man with a story.
Everybody has a story. One summer afternoon, I sat in a train station with my family. The man next to me worked a crossword puzzle. “I don’t need help from your iPhone, Son,” he argued playfully. I leaned over and gave him the answer. He grinned at his son: I told you so. Turns out the father commanded helicopter pilots in Vietnam and the son was the colonel who led the war-changing charge into Baghdad; a movie was being made about the son starring Gerard Butler. Later, on the train, I saw these two unassuming men dining with strangers and giving up no hint of who they were.
This is the wonder of stories. Stories are everywhere. An ordinary man boarding the train is a war hero. A woman working the register at Target lost her husband. A baby girl waving backwards at the fabric store is learning Cantonese. Most stories pass by us unheard. But stories are there, sitting in the waiting room, standing in the post office, walking in your shoes.
To be human is to live a story. Our stories trail behind us; our stories pull us forward. We are the creators of our own characters and plots, but also the listeners who bring the stories to life. When a story is heard, the teller comes alive again, we connect to our truer selves and each other, and we pass on the narrative that continues our civilization.
This is why I write stories, and why it takes me so long to get a cup of coffee.
Photo credit: Richard Pearson
*An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that this contributor was featured in Issue 18.