I Didn’t Ask You

Sitting, as is my custom, on a stool at the counter of Power Coffeeworks, watching the caffeinophiles of the area come in and out, I have developed a sense of admiration and empathy for the young men and women who work part time as baristas. I have been A.D.D. before anyone thought to so classify some of us. (Not A.D.H.D. I never hung by my ankles off a Lower East Side fire escape the way my uncle Dan did over a century ago, taking a decade or more off the life of his mother – before he went out west to become a Jewish cowboy.) I simply have difficulty keeping track of more than one thing at a time.

There were times when I’ve had to stretch my power of concentration beyond its limits. Case in point: back in the days when I worked for NYC’s ‘Special Services for Children,’ especially when I was supervising a team of five workers and was also a shop steward for our union. I might leave my desk to perform a simple task, like copy a document, only to find there was no paper in the copy machine. Off to the supply room, whereupon someone would waylay me with a union matter, which would require me to speak with someone else’s supervisor, which got me involved in something else…. You see where this is leading. I would return to my desk an hour later, and maybe, just maybe, I had gotten around to copying that document.

On any particular morning, the young barista on duty at our coffee emporium may be busy preparing an order, perhaps two lattes and an Americano (grinding the beans and working the espresso machine), when two more customers show up outside at the take-out window. Their order must be taken A.S.A.P., otherwise they’ll think they’re being ignored and depart in disgust. Then two people inside want to pay for their cappuccinos, but they also want to buy a kilo of beans, ground to use in a coffee machine. (Find the tub with the tarazzu dark-roasted beans among the fifteen or twenty identical tubs spread randomly about the store, weigh out a kilo of beans, grind them, pour them back into a bag.) It’s hard to keep it all straight and make everybody happy. I for sure couldn’t do all that.

On the day in question, I was, without meaning to, causing grief to the young barista, who was fairly new on the job. I wanted to refill my liter bottle of cold brew, but they didn’t have any. (Their refrigerator was broken, and Stephanie was waiting for the repair guy to show up.) OK, I’ll give you back the bottle; I have another one at home.

Handing back their bottle entitled me to a five shekel deposit, except the barista did not know how to record that transaction on their computerized cash register, so Stephanie had to show him. I also wanted the receipt I normally get when I pay with a credit card. But it wasn’t coming out. STEPHANIE! What was the problem? The little device that prints out receipts was out of paper. The young man took out another roll and was just about to load it – which would have taken between five and thirty seconds, and he would be done with me – when a woman who was waiting for her order insisted, I want you to take care of me before you do that.

I had seen her come into the store a little while before. She was short, dumpy, and middle-aged. There are other people like her in physique, some of whom I know, and they can be the nicest, kindest, sweetest, most generous people on the planet. But not this customer. She was decidedly unpleasant; you could tell from afar that she meant business. I suspect that her ‘Team Grumpy’ shirt was in the laundry, which is why she was wearing normal street garb. Her first complaint had been about the plastic-coated bags in which coffee beans are sold. OK, she had a point; even grumpy people have a point sometimes. However, she didn’t need to harass the barista to save herself half a minute; there she was bordering on crossing the civility line. But why be content to remain on the boundary when, with little effort, she could be truly hostile? What grind setting did she want for her purchase, she was asked. She insisted that there was little difference between the setting for a pourover grind and that for a French press. There is a difference, I interjected, not meaning to start a commotion. She turned to me and replied, I didn’t ask you.

She had me there; Team Grumpy hadn’t asked for my opinion about grind settings or about anything else, for that matter. I was just kibbitzing, which, after coffee tasting, is the most popular pastime at Power Coffeeworks. My point was, and is, if you’re going to bother getting the best coffee available, and the store has the ability to grind your coffee exactly the way you need it, why not go for it? Nothing to lose, everything to gain. There’s nothing to lose by considering someone else’s suggestions (within reason of course; no one is obliged to listen to prattle of anti-vaccers). And there’s everything to gain from engaging in conversation from folks you’ve never met before.

Which I did the following week, starting out at the same stool at Power Coffeeworks. A young fellow named Benjy and I exchanged pleasantries and a handshake, and after he went outside to meet a friend, a middle-aged guy with a big smile stuck his head into the store to place an order. He remarked that coffee had saved his marriage and repeated that statement out loud at least three times before he left. I could have followed him down the street and asked him to explain himself, but I thought to myself, do I really want to know?  In this case, the answer was a definite NO, so I kept my seat for the while until it was time to head into the shuk.

There’s a tiny store, Lehem Beri or Bari (I should ask), where I stopped to pick up a baguette. I asked the young woman working there if she would pick out one for me as the task – selecting one from a basket filled with twenty or so identical items – seemed daunting. Then she hit me with the best question of the day. Do you know how to set up touch ID on a MacBook Air?  Was there an assumption that my fluency in our mutual mother tongue qualified me on the subject? I have an iMac and now an iPhone 12, but neither gadget has that feature. She had her brand-new laptop on the counter, and the two of us tried unsuccessfully to figure out where to place one’s finger to start the process. When in doubt, Google it, and she soon had her answer, whereupon she told me her story.

She is a student, not taking any money from her parents, doing a double major, working two part-time jobs. She had no computer and had to visit friends to get her schoolwork done. Her brother cajoled their mother into buying her an entry-level Air, and there it was, all sleek and shiny, next to some samples of the bakery’s bread, ready to be set up. We parted, her with a 4000NIS device that would keep her in business for years to come, and me, with my 12NIS baguette that would be consumed before nightfall – but both of us pleased as punch with what we had.

Feeling on top of my game, I went over to Kraft Pizza and asked for a single slice – with mushrooms! (an additional three shekels) The fellow behind the counter tried to induce me to order a glass of beer as well; beer has no calories, he insisted with a straight face. Speaking of calories… I told him my theory that if you take a cookie or something similar, and you eat one half and then the other, there are fewer calories than if you eat the whole thing at once.

A young woman sitting at a table, intrigued by our conversation and detecting a familiar accent, asked me where I was from? The standard answer: I am from The Bronx, but we made aliyah from Teaneck, NJ. Whereupon her face lit up. I’m from Teaneck! Of course, she knew where Cranford Place is; she had been good friends with the daughter of the Rosenblatts, who lived down the street from us (and in whose house many of us gathered for an informal reading of Eicha every erev Tisha B’Av). From there, it was inevitable that we would reminisce about Hot Bagels down the hill on Teaneck Road, where they have the best bagels EVER. Finally, we talked about her and Natania’s experiences with Jewish education in Bergen County (You don’t want to know…). And then I left to continue my shopping and head back to Ma’ale Adumim, where the bagels are not as good, but the view is terrific.

Perhaps there is some advantage to joining Team Grumpy besides their spiffy shirts, but, for the life of me, I can’t figure out what it is. How does telling people to shut up improve anyone’s life? A good cup of coffee or a good conversation (or both together), what could be better?  The best part is, that even if you’re A.D.D., you can handle it, sipping your latte (or munching on your slice of pizza) and listening at the same time. Life is good here in The Land.

(Coming Attractions: Barbara and I are signed up for a tour to see the pyramids along the Nile in January. If this trip actually takes place (and who know?), you’ll be hearing from me. You’ll probably be hearing from me even if it doesn’t. So stay tuned.)

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