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The old man in the truck with his dog
And all the other little things
One of the worst parts of the pandemic for me was not being able to go to the coffee shop.This was not because of the coffee. Anyone who’s a coffee shop regular understands it isn’t about the coffee.
What I missed was the opportunity to observe the little things. Observing the little things is also one of my favorite things about being a writer, because it’s sort of part of your job. “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it,” as Mary Oliver said.
You don’t have to be a writer to pay attention and be astonished, but it definitely provides good motivation. Is there anything more satisfying than reading a novel or memoir or essay and seeing some aspect of existence that you thought you were all alone in suddenly perfectly reflected back at you? Is there anything better than the warmth it lights inside your heart, knowing that it’s not just you? No. There’s not.
I do write at the coffee shop. And grade. And chat. But also, I watch. I pay attention. Here are some of the things I’ve seen, at the coffee shop and other places.
- On that very windy day last week, I watched a fibrous ball of…something…roll into the intersection. I couldn’t tell what the thing was, only that it was stuck in the street, moved by the wind in a way that took on a sense of intention, like it was a living thing. I had to keep reminding myself that it was not. The suspense of watching it and wondering when it would get crushed under the wheels of a passing car took up a good five minutes. I can report that getting run over by a car had little effect on it. It survived. It made me think about the wind as an animator—the amount of time we spend trying to distinguish between a leaf being blown across the sidewalk and a living thing, like a sparrow. Is it the wind or is it alive? Or is it both?
- I’m always interested in the ebb and flow of regulars. Someone who’s in the coffee shop window every day for a week and then gone. The differences between the morning crowd and the afternoon crowd. Lately, there’s a guy who is also a writer of some sort (I know this, friends, because of eavesdropping, so be warned about conversations you have in the coffee shop when I’m there.) He’s in the coffee shop for hours at a time, which makes me wonder if he has another job and then jealous if the answer is no. Most recently, he had one of those special keyboards you can buy which sounds more like a typewriter. I was jealous of this, too, if also a little disdainful. Such is how writers view other writers.
- Between classes last week at the college, I watched a young woman in the bathroom spend a good five minutes perfectly adjusting her casual, off-the-shoulder sweatshirt. When I walked in, she was working on her hair. But by the time I was washing my hands, she was busy meticulously adjusting the sweatshirt and her bra strap that was revealed. She was not at all self-conscious about these adjustments. She was deadly serious. There was no sheepish shared smile in my direction. In fact, it was as if I wasn’t even there. Maybe I wasn’t. I couldn’t tell you what the differences were in each minute adjustment she made. Obviously, I couldn’t. Look at how I was dressed! I was amused by her ministrations, yes, but also, impressed. How could I not be by that level of dedication? I hope more enlightened beings than me appreciated the perfection of her ensemble after she left the bathroom.
- An older man pulled into the 10-minute parking space in front of the coffee shop in an old truck the other morning. Window rolled down. A black dog in the seat beside him—maybe a border collie mix—with gray around its muzzle. The dog lay on the front seat while the man got his coffee and chatted. The dog was chill. Patient. It didn’t bark or even hang its head out the window waiting for its owner to return. I was only half-aware of the dog and the truck until the man came back. He hauled himself up into the driver’s seat. The dog stood, tail wagging. The man ran his hand over the dog’s head. Not a pet or a scratch, so much as an absentminded caress. An unthinking habit. The dog moved closer, almost into the man’s lap, making it hard for him to grab the steering wheel. I waited for the man to push the dog away, but he didn’t. The dog laid back down. The man rested his hand on the dog’s body, one hand on the wheel, and pulled away. There was nothing excessive about the way the man touched his dog, but every motion spoke volumes about love and companionship. Watching inside the cab of that truck, I felt I was witnessing something intimate and unexpected. An old man who loves his dog with a tenderness that so many men are mostly not allowed to show. What more do you need to know about a person than how they treat their dog when they believe no one else is watching?
Will these little nothings turn into something more? I don’t know. I write them down. I gather them and squirrel them away in the hopes of future use. Maybe they’ll become a scene. More likely, I’ll know in my head that a certain character is the kind of person who absent-mindedly caresses his dog when he’s all alone and that will make the character more real than any single other detail, even if I never mention it in the story itself.
But even if nothing else ever comes of these moments, they’re worth it. They’re valuable. They’re little nothings that add up to a lot.
I know this is an incredibly privileged thing to say—I didn’t lose my job or a loved one to Covid or find myself stuck inside an abusive home. Lucky in all those ways. Still missed the coffee shop.