Marilyn Gardner Woods
Moments apart. Footsteps away.
Updated: Sep 29, 2021
Crossing the First Street Bridge one sunshine-filled day recently, I glanced west. The view of Point Loma and the sparkling waters of the bay stopped me; I leaned on the bridge’s iron railing to soak it all in.
As a jogger passed by, I started again strolling towards Laurel on another of my Starbucks early afternoon kicks - Soy latte and the bacon and Gruyère Sous Vide Egg Bites two or three times a week for a late lunch.
Until I burn out again.
I rounded the corner on Fifth to an empty sidewalk in front of the entrance to my neighborhood coffee joint.
Stepping in, the soft sounds of the coffeehouse-pop playlist welcomed me. One other person, a solitary forty-something dark-haired guy dressed in business attire, stood toward the back between the empty tables and the order counter. I glanced next at the pre-teen-size young barista at the counter. An over-sized—way-oversized—apron hung on her tiny frame.
She waited patiently, with a faint smile, for my order.
I looked back at the only other customer gesturing one hand toward the counter. “Have you ordered?”
“Oh no. Go ahead, I’ve ordered.”
She took my name, I paid, and stepped back to look at the almost empty community bulletin board. Not long after, the barista who prepared my latte called my name.
As I started toward the pick-up counter, the guy behind me shattered the silence with a booming, “Is that my coffee?”
The young girl’s face paled, colorless as foam on a latte, as he marched toward the far end of the counter near the entrance. He stopped, stood ramrod straight, and pointed in anger at a lidded coffee six inches away from my latte.
“My coffee? Why did you call her order first? You wouldn’t do that if I was white,” he shouted as those of us looking on gasped.
He continued spewing, this time toward the tall, skinny second barista who remained silent, his expression puzzled. The frightened girl reached to push his coffee toward the glaring customer. A third male employee, also youthful and very thin, moved furtively from the storeroom with a load to replenish the shelves.
“Just what I expect in America,” the customer’s next outburst, still at the counter in a confrontational stance.
The four of us—three employees (I think Starbucks refers to them as partners) and me— stood motionless, mouths open as his rant continued.
“You called her name. Why not mine? I was here first. Why did I have to ask for my coffee?”
Fear of what might come next.
What could come next.
I glanced sideways at the three youthful people behind the counter. Kids. Kids working at a time when “We’re hiring” signs fill windows up and down the streets. Kids working, now scared to death, with no protection but me. An adult, yes, but older and probably much weaker. A pathetic and slightly uneasy situation.
I looked at the young girl who couldn’t be more than a year or two older than Chesapeake, my granddaughter. Her lip quivered uncontrollably. When I was able to lock eyes with her, I cautiously nodded my head to the left toward the storeroom. She scurried there away from the outraged patron's last barrage of “You wouldn’t do that if I were white like her” and “preferences and privileges” and “that’s what it’s like in this country…”
With this he slammed his fist against the door, kicked it open, and exited.
The three of us remaining in the coffee shop breathed a cautious, collective sigh of relief.
Like a hospital chapel, the coffee shop which usually brimmed full of people exchanging neighborhood kindnesses, languished in stillness and uncertainty.
The young girl returned, her head down. When she stopped and looked toward me, I saw that her eyes were red. I was certain she had been crying. I stepped close to the counter across from her.
We stayed in our paralyzed positions praying he wouldn’t return. Perhaps his outburst continued into the street. Maybe others were scared to enter the store? No one did, at least not while I remained.
I lost myself thinking what on earth had triggered such an overwrought emotional response from the man. How had either a neglect or a soft-spoken announcement of his order sent him into a space he will surely regret? At least, I would hope so. He had caused such shocking verbal abuse, especially for the young working people. How stressed he must be, I thought. What pressures confront him? What had been done to him? Had I done anything?
I’m not certain how long we stood in quiet terror and contemplation, afraid to disrupt the seemingly safe space that surrounded us, not sure what or if we had escaped. All I know is that both my latte and my egg bites were cold when I finally picked them up which was only after the skittish young girl had calmed.
“I’m so sorry that happened to you all,” I said as I turned to leave. “You were wise beyond your years not to engage."
The one barista who seemed to be in charge, himself a teenager in a black uniform several sizes too big, replied “Please come back. Nothing like that has ever happened here before.”
I didn’t rush home. Instead, I wandered, still deep in thought and concern for what had just happened. I headed across Sixth to Balboa Park and then to the Marston House before turning back.
As I finally reached home, I decided I would try to reach the manager at Starbucks the next day to let her know how incredibly well her employees had handled such a difficult situation.
I would return.
Maybe, just maybe, the man would also return. To make amends.
I joined a friend for dinner that evening, a matter of hours after I left the scene at the coffee shop.
The alfresco scene—Jimmy Carter’s, the legendary Mexican Café and Cantina on Fifth Avenue in Banker’s Hill, San Diego—my neighborhood, my “Cheers.” Not unusual to find a friendly face there.
Immersed in a Cadillac Margarita, a sizzling hot plate of Chicken Fajitas, and conversation about art—specifically Japanese woodblock prints—I paid no attention to the world around me. My glib dinner companion didn’t either.
We spent some time discussing the Joan Mitchell exhibition which had just opened in San Francisco, our volunteer work at The San Diego Museum of Art, and a current exhibition there—Paintings from the Confinement—a stunning gallery of miniature pandemic-related paintings done in tempera by an extraordinary artist, Marianela de la Hoz.
As my art-loving companion dipped a crisp chip into the last of the guacamole, two men approached our table. Kind of hip looking, especially the one in black wide-framed circular glasses. Designers, for sure I noted. “Pardon us.” he offered. “We couldn’t help overhearing some of your conversation about art.”
Before we could answer, he reached his hand out to shake my friend’s. “We just wanted to thank you for your appreciation of the arts.”
Turns out, the pair were new to the area and lived nearby. They had owned an art gallery and several art supply stores in their previous location in Arizona and hoped to do something similar in San Diego. After a few more exchanges, we bid them goodbye.
The darkening night, still and beautiful, found us in no rush but eventually my dinner date went to find our server for our check. “You’re not going to believe this,” he said smiling when he returned. “Those two guys paid for our dinner.”
We left Jimmy Carters soon after, still a bit surprised and very grateful and strolled down Fourth, crossed the Quince Street Bridge, and headed back toward the First Street Bridge. We said goodnight at my gate.
As I stepped back inside my home, the day’s two acts—one frightening and troubling, the other kind and generous—created a striking contrast in my mind.
Moments apart. Footsteps away from one another.
Enjoyed the latte/Jimmy Carter article...had a similar experience ( altho' less violent) today while waiting for a light...a young woman (who happened to be black) was singing loudly into a mic while waiting next to me for the same light...with her window down. I looked over and she yelled "how do you like it?" I gave her a smile and a thumbs up...she looked back at me and gave me the "finger"...go figure?!! AR
A really good read!
My heart went out to those kids in Starbucks, and sadness at the anger in the world.
Redeemed by your experience at Jimmy Carter's !
Wow! The guy in Starbucks was obviously a minority. He must experience things like that happening a lot or why would he go off? Feel for the young baristas. Lessons learned. SC in Michigan
How incredible that such a trivial moment in a corner coffee shop could turn without warning into a flare of violence (road rage in a tangent). But how lucky that all this negative karma could burn itself out when countered by an anonymous and unexpected act of kindness. Thank you for sharing RS
So interesting Marilyn! Thank you for sharing, our world is so complex now, I would have be so scared in Starbucks!❤️JS