There is a coffee shop in Peoria, IL called Thirty-Thirty., that is, and will forever be, the best coffee shop in the entire conceivable universe. It opened in 2012 when I was a Sophomore at Bradley University, and quickly became my go-to spot to edit poetry, work on research papers, catch up with friends, and meet professors for independent studies. There is a huge bear standing near one of the entrances that, according to local folklore, was a polar bear that only turned black after being burned in a fire. Right.
I frequented Thirty-Thirty so often that I began to recognize a handful of people who gathered there on a regular basis. Sometimes we nodded at each other in acknowledgement and, if we felt sociable or perhaps lonely, we smiled and said, “Good Morning,” or “Good Afternoon,” as we cradled our seasonal lattes. The familiarity and friendliness of Thirty-Thirty is something truly special, and hard to replicate. Not every coffee shop is inviting, and most do not feature a giant stuffed bear. Most baristas do not remember my name, give me free refills and talk about local musicians, the evolution of vinyl, capitalism, seasonal depressive disorder, or the process of writing a book. Thirty-Thirty was full of friends.
It may be prudent to recognize that there are just as many friends as foes in the world, and I’d like to tell you about my personal coffee shop nightmare-foe. A man who tried too hard and drank too loudly and attempted to strike up conversation despite my wearing headphones.
He wears a jaunty cap and a buttoned vest over a navy plaid shirt, with the sleeves rolled up as if he were hard at work at a task that would get his hands dirty. He gets his nails buffed weekly at the local salon, where the estheticians despise the way he drones on and on about Faulkner. He wears pointed boots, and curls his mustache between two fingers while writing in a leather bound notebook that is just the right size to fit in his breast pocket, or back pocket, since his ass-pocket and breast-pocket are the same size, since he had the outfit tailored but tells his friends he “found” the pieces at Goodwill over the course of a few months, and he just likes the thought of wearing something that belonged to someone else, you know?
He is the quintessential man-splainer. Thinks he’s so good looking, so self-absorbed that he can’t keep a girlfriend but doesn’t really want one because no one is as interesting as himself. He's never quite figured out women; thinks they’re crazy because they tell him that his poetry sounds like an ad from Better Homes and Gardens. They aren’t deep, like he is, not thoughtful about the world, like he is. Not observant and in touch with their emotions, like he is. Not a giant, hippopotmous-sized-asshole, like he is.
He orders a black coffee and adds 2 packets of Splenda because he likes how fake it tastes. He watches passerby and writes about them, because he’s observant. He sees a man kiss a woman, and writes, “There is nothing I want more than to feel the way you make me feel, every day of my life,” a line he has used repeatedly on the women he dates, and which usually works until he chuckles afterward, because love poems are funny but he’s really the only one who understands that.
“There is something about art,” he says to me one day, as I’m attempting to finish my poetry manuscript. “There is something about art that is at once deeply personal and deeply public. Like, what is the point of creating something, if not to share it with the world, really get yourself out there, you know? You really should try to get these published,” referring to my poems.
I roll my eyes internally, because I’m not a bitch, and because I don't feel like explaining to him that art is something I create because nothing else makes sense. I write poems and tell stories because art like this has saved me. I don’t care what he thinks of my poems, and I don’t tell him that two of them are being published in a journal called Barking Sycamores, because I don’t want to be an artist like him. Someone jonesing for attention, measuring my worth as an artist through the vapid approval of everyone other than myself.
I can’t quite pinpoint what feels off about this person, but I do think it's a him thing, not a me thing. My best friendships are the ones in which I feel comfortable being my absolute weirdest. This guy, with his earnest expressions and shallow compliments, makes me feel at once self-conscience and sorry for him. What a sad, bizarre, lovely experience.