Sitting in a metal patio chair at an outdoor table. This is my personal space. I am early enough that there are miles and miles of empty space between me and the next coffee drinker at this neighborhood café. The table has uneven legs and see-saws back and forth every time I pick up or replace my coffee cup. A minor annoyance. I am relaxed, absorbing the fresh air, the morning, the space.
A heavy rain fell early this morning, but stopped by the time I began my half-mile trek to this space. Water no longer pours from low-hung storm clouds but continues to drip from every single summer leaf overhead and from the wooden plank awning that is the only obstacle between me and the big, blue July sky. Between the slats of the awning I hear thunder rolling off in the distance. Goodbye, thunderstorm, like an unhappy child being sent to her room, noisily complaining as she stomps her feet, loudly marching on her way eastward through Illinois. Who is she? Where did she come from? What is her name?
This café is a petting zoo of companion animals of the dog variety who accompany their owners to their favorite neighborhood hang-out. Near enough to their homes, by daily coming here, dog owners can get their morning dose of coffee while their dogs get a little exercise. I’m a cat person, but I get it. The rising sun has burned off the last of the clouds and the air is damp, humid, warming up fast. The odor of wet dog hair permeates every breath I take.
I imagine these are mostly single guys, older, in their 60s and upward judging from the looks that I am not always competent to analyse. They are the first wave of patrons to arrive. They walk past the row of tables beneath the awning, stop at the entrance of the café, tie up and leave their dogs at the door, and disappear inside after promising their dogs they will return, which they do –cup in hand. They untie their dogs and mosey along the length of the wooden plank awning, past mostly empty tables, out to the sidewalk and back home. There’s a distracted quality to their demeanor; they hardly seem to notice the animal attached to the end of the leash they hold. But, familiarity works both ways, and their dogs walk along, nonchalant, unconcerned about that man on the other end of the slack line. They know each other. The shine has worn off. They get along.
Next comes a wave of younger guys with younger dogs and younger women with laptops. The owners and their dogs are more energetic. One seeing-eye dog, a Shih Tzu mix, a Labradoodle, a Schnauzer, a 6-month old Golden Lab, three Chihuahuas prancing in sync with each other as if professionally choreographed, a Great Dane, a Bulldog, a Beagle, a Yorkie, a 3-legged Pomeranian, 2 Cocker Spaniels, and a frisky Greyhound. The dogs are one by one reined in and presented to the coffee drinkers now settled in their seats at the patio tables. “Would you mind?” “I’ll just be a minute.” “Could you please?” Incomplete sentences but fully understood meanings: I’m going to leave my animal(s) unattended over here right next to you because there’s an empty table and I don’t want to lose it while I go inside to get my coffee because, you know, dogs are not allowed inside. I want you to guard my laptop/knap sack/book and also keep an eye on him/her and take responsibility for making sure that he/she does not attack the other dogs in the parade as they pass by and are left with other non-owners in the safe-keeping of other strangers, perhaps even you. The standard reply: a nod of the head, assenting to the unspoken request.
Occasionally, a beautiful young ingénue with makeup and hair beautifully done – far too perfect for this time of morning, dressed to kill in a form-fitting body stocking type of running suit, will chirp and coo and ask about the dog: its name, sex, pedigree, age, food allergies, favorite color, favorite toy, favorite treat, litter mates, zodiac sign, place of birth, training, etc. The communal water bowl is refilled, the cooing and chirping ceases while the owner is gone. But, when the dog owners return with their coffees in hand, they often end up abandoning the staked-out table in favor of uniting their space with the space of the person who watched their dog while they were inside. Years and years ago, back before Internet dating web sites, I occasionally participated in a Friday night cruise through the aisles of what was known as “The Pick-up Schnucks” – a grocery store, in the heart of an affluent neighborhood, that developed an interesting reputation as a place to shop for companionship as well as canned artichokes and wine. Maybe this neighborhood coffee shop has taken up the mantel of that long-gone enterprise.
“Are you Karen?”
My space is invaded with the question that lands on my ears like the scratching of fingernails on a blackboard. I look up and scan the personage standing in front of me. “Are you Karen?” she inquires again. Only now do I realize that I’ve sunk so deep, deep into my personal space that it takes effort and a few seconds to swim up to the top and process those three words repeated for clarity. I look around to get my bearings and recall that I am still alone at my table so maybe I am Karen. But, no, I am not. “Excuse me, are you Karen?” she asks again. There is a dog attached to her hand by means of a red, retractable leash. Still not yet completely emerged from my bubble of solitude, I shake my head ‘no’.
“Are you sure?” she asks.
“No, I’m not Karen,” I answer.
Unconvinced, she looks me over from top to bottom and I have the feeling that I’ve been sniffed. She is jealously eyeing the 3 empty chairs around my table. I get it: there are no more empty tables underneath this wooden awning and she is looking for a place to sit or to tie her dog. It’s early, and I haven’t yet accessed sufficient verbal communication skills to offer her a place to sit with me, so it probably seems to her that I have been tied up to this table to wait for someone. But I have not. If only I could prove to her that I am not Karen. If only I had some form of ID with me, a tag engraved with my name and phone number.
At last I gain control of the language center of my brain and put together the words she is waiting to hear. I offer her a chair at my table. Great! She says, and turns her back to me, signaling 3 other women and their dogs, who are waiting at the far end of the awning, to come and join her at this table. A quick count around the table and they are openly disappointed to find that they still require one more chair. Every eye is on me, every dog is on me. The third wave has arrived. I’m a cat person. Okay, it is time for me to go, but could I wait until they get back with their coffee?