Eavesdropping in a Panera Bread
I rarely write in coffee shops. I prefer the privacy of working at home, where I can protect my anonymity as an unpublished author; I don’t want other café patrons to observe me as I struggle to write. But on Black Friday 2015, while my wife shopped at Target in Towne Center plaza in Fayetteville, New York, a suburb of Syracuse, I sat at a table in a Panera Bread, sipping a cup of coffee and editing my full-length poetry manuscript. Families packed the restaurant, sharing a quick meal in between spurts of shopping and running errands. Patrons ordered food and drinks at the counter, workers talked loudly and silverware tapped against ceramic plates. I sat against a wall, unnoticed, and tried to listen to the conversations taking place around me. A woman with black and gray curly hair sat in front of me, and I watched the back of her head bobbing as she talked to a younger woman who could have been her daughter, niece or granddaughter. The older woman explained how Lou Gehrig was one the greatest baseball players of his time until he was forced to retire after contracting the disease ALS (now known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). She said Gehrig showed extraordinary courage in walking away from the game he loved, and she described the famous speech he made in front of thousands of people at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939 (I added the date as a reference). I think she also relayed the famous quote from Gehrig, proclaiming how, despite his illness, he considered himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” A short time later the older woman shared some advice with the younger one, stating in a calm, professorial voice, “Everyone makes their own choices in life, based on their own desires. There’s no one way.” I leaned across my table, straining to listen to their discussion. I wanted to hear the younger woman’s response or hear what the older woman would say next. I thought I could benefit from her wisdom, even though I was not the target of her words. But the noise level in the Panera Bread’s dining area rose and muffled the conversation, ending my eavesdropping. A few minutes later the women stood up and started to leave. I gazed at them as they walked away from the table, and I wrote down their physical traits in the margins of one of my poetry pages. The older woman had glasses and wore a blue chamois shirt and jeans; she bore a resemblance to actress Julie Kavner, who played a nurse in Awakenings, the 1990 movie starring Robin Williams as Dr. Oliver Sacks. The younger woman was a little heavy and looked to be in her early twenties. She wore a white sweater and a turquoise headband and her dark hair was pulled into a ponytail. She walked with a limp and I wondered if she had cerebral palsy or another disease affecting the muscles. I followed the slow movement of their figures as the women strode across the restaurant and then opened the glass door and stepped outside into the gray afternoon. I wondered what their plans held for the rest of their Friday. Would they do more shopping or head straight home? Did they live together? Would they share a quiet evening at home, watching a holiday-themed movie on television? I tried to regain my focus in editing my manuscript, but was unsuccessful at the task. The eavesdropping had interrupted my editing momentum. I packed up my belongings, threw out my trash and started to leave the coffee shop. I wondered if anyone was paying attention to me as I walked out of the Panera Bread. Were they recording my physical description, my age, shape and hair color. Did they observe that I wore glasses, or that my worn, black pea coat might not make it through another central New York winter? And I realized being a writer has its drawbacks (not the first time I have come to this conclusion). For if you are a writer—even an failed one—you can never be present in the everyday moments of your life; you must always be aware of your surroundings, paying attention to the people and objects around you, taking note of colors and designs and listening to the voices speaking in your midst. You feel compelled to observe everything because you never know what nuggets you may pick up, what details you can capture and use later in a poem, story, essay or other work. But in doing so you only “half live,” as you never fully commit to being there in the present. I also wonder if it’s unkind to snoop on others, listening to their conversations and recording details about their appearances, jotting down notes about their flaws. Is it wrong for me to watch people when they are unaware of my presence? And do I steal part of their identities by writing down what they look and sound like? I don’t have the answers to these questions, except to say I follow an instinct I cannot resist. I can’t stop myself from observing others and trying to write about them. And maybe that’s OK. Maybe I am the only one who is paying attention to them.