By Jo Haraf
Last week, Professor Friedman lectured how, in an information-rich economy, consumers are free to choose what’s in their best interest. At the Roastery, the chichi café where I work before classes, the milk choices are near endless: full fat, 2 percent, skim, coconut, soy, almond, and cashew. The drinks, however, are never free.
The barista set the man’s usual order on my tray: double espresso and two lumps of organic brown sugar. His order slip curled in an ashtray—the chipped glass a remnant of the days when bearded, sour-smelling men slumped at uneven wooden tables, drinking stale coffee, and crushing out cigarette butts with tar-stained fingers. Six months after the biotech companies sprouted near campus, the renovated smoke-free café smelled of artesian bread and certified sustainable coffee. Our customers wore beards groomed to three-day-old perfection.
The man occupied his table with the confidence of Mick Jagger taking the stage. Too old to be a student, too fashionable to be a professor, I pegged him as a trending biotech exec. An artfully distressed messenger bag hung off his chair, disgorging the latest iPhone and a slim plastic-shrouded notebook. Every day he unwrapped a new notebook. Somewhere a desk drawer, closet, or landfill bulged with his discarded thoughts.
He didn’t look up or mumble “thanks” when I placed his order on the faux marble tabletop. I added an unordered bottle of French water I’d bought with the tips others’ left—never him. Sweat, or maybe tears, slid along the bottle’s pregnant green belly.
For weeks I’d listened to his calls over the hiss of milk frothing into foam, beans grinding into a nose-filling perfume, and customers reciting orders like poetry: half-caf, non-fat, cocoa, mocha.
He texts. Sips. Calls.
“Early dinner, Vicky. Got a morning flight.”
Text. Sip. Call.
“Running late, Jill. Be there around ten.”
Surrounded by laughter and small talk, he scheduled his arrivals and departures as tightly as the planes he never caught.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not a prude. My roommate and I share a boyfriend. By the time we realized that Jane’s Friday night poet and my Saturday night statistician were the same guy, we’d learned to love our part-time relationships—if not the guy himself. We traded him off to fit the demands of our jobs, exams, and menstrual cycles. Once, he walked into Miller’s Bar and saw us leaning over open books and lecture notes. We smiled. He nodded and backed out, brushing a finger along the brim of a non-existent cowboy hat. We knew. He knew. Free to choose.
Vicky and Jill deserved to know.
I traded his empty coffee cup for another bottle of water. As I wiped tables and restocked honey straws, the morning crowd dwindled. My shift ended. Economics 301 started without me.
Finally, those thirty-two ounces of water needed an outlet. He slipped his phone into his bag and headed toward the back. Drying my hands, I waited for the door to close behind him. Fifteen seconds. I’d practiced. I could send two texts in fifteen seconds, plenty of time—even if he didn’t stop to wash his hands.
Come 2 Roastery. Surprise 4 u, I punched into his phone. Once for Vicky. Once for Jill.
I bought two bottles of water. The girls would need a drink.