I Miss Eavesdropping

How do we come together when we’re so apart?

Coffee, made and served by someone other than me, a week before March lockdown. Photo by author.

Tell me again what it’s like to sit in a cafe on a January morning, the sky still on the verge of daybreak here in the Pacific Northwest when light appears at 7:30 a.m.

Tell me about the people sitting at surrounding tables: individuals hunched over laptops and porcelain mugs; a booth of friends meeting to share stories about their controlling bosses, a concert, the thundering fatigue of parenthood, a recently run marathon.

Remind me of the music, the alternative radio fare that mixes, say, Nick Drake followed by an unrecognizable hip-hop/techno mashup I’d only ever appreciate away from home.

The Forgetting

Since the advent of covid, I’ve been so focused on other things — the best covid-avoidance protocols; my dwindling productivity, growing ennui, the election, a country’s polarization, some recent hope.

What I’m acutely aware of missing is a constant menu: seeing family members who live out of state, especially my mom; my co-working space, talking to colleagues, seeing clients in person, being out of the house during the day.

I miss being with friends more intimately, holiday gatherings, entertaining, ferociously cuddling my grandkids to the point of eating them whole. These are the center stage longing, things I’m aware of missing every day.

But there are other things that I miss, too, almost forgotten:

I miss the anonymous company of my fellow citizens. I miss being that person in an airy crowd, passing through unnoticed, standing off to the side, staring, listening, watching.

The Holy Hour

For a good 15 years pre-covid, my week days went like this: swim at 5:30 a.m., followed by an hour in a cafe before going off to work.

Good god how I loved that morning holy hour: the restfulness after a hard swim; the calm before a cacophonous work day; an Americano with two inches of steamed cream and brown sugar; leaning back in my favorite corner seat with a view of the sidewalk and its pedestrians, the commuters lined up at the bus stop, the bikes whizzing by, the crows fighting for space on utility pole wires, an open notebook, oversized and unlined, like a runway for creative ideas to land.

I daydreamed, people watched, eavesdropped, wrote a poem or worked on an essay, chipped away at what would become a memoir.

But what I loved the most was the company I wasn’t keeping, per se, but communing with — brushing up against, and listening in on. I loved being around a bunch of strangers in an environment that excused me from interacting with them.

Once, there was a group of cops sipping lattes a table away, talking shop. For twenty minutes I watched and listened and scribbled down their police language — “method of entry”, “exigent circumstances”, “product tampering” and poured these phrases into a poem. This was, in my book, a very good time.

The (Surprise!) Remembering

I live in a Seattle suburb, in a state where restaurants and cafes have been closed for eat-in service for months. There are outdoor tables at some, but it’s been too cold and rainy, even though I attempted a couple of shiver-filled times.

Then on a mid-January Saturday, I woke up with a craving for a mocha at a French bakery a couple miles from my house. This was the last cafe I’d been to since mid-March; I have not been a great patron in these times.

It was a cloudy but dry day, mid-40s. I bundled up, shoved a small (unlined) notebook and a pen in my coat pocket, and off I went.

I don’t know what to expect, but here’s what I got:

  • One extra hot, hit-the-spot oat milk mocha
  • One almond croissant baked by a French pastry chef
  • One tippy outdoor table with two chairs and a heater at my back
  • A blissful hour on a Saturday morning, just like the old days, sort of.

The view was nothing to photograph, even though I did. From my perch on an empty sidewalk I looked out onto the damp pavement of a vacant parking lot.

More importantly, there was a coffee (I didn’t have to make), my pastry, (that was brought to me by a young man in a mask and smiling eyes), my tiny notebook open to an empty page with a pen nearby.

The parking lot bliss cafe. Photo by author.

THEN IT GOT EVEN BETTER!

Two women sat down at a table nearby. They started talking about a local restaurant that was doing well, and grown kids living in other states.

I sat in my little euphoria cloud a good 12 feet away, the notebook untouched, the trill of their conversation working me like a gentle massage.

This good-feeling tide continued to rise and then it hit me, what was happening:

I WAS EAVESDROPPING.

This is something I used to do — avidly — every day, any place; it was how I moved through the world. At all my jobs, I never wore headphones, because I wanted to hear what was being said around me.

I am that person standing nearby, staring into the sky but listening in, at the park, at beaches, in line at a store, at the pool, restaurants, the gym.

I eavesdrop with such commitment, I have had to stop myself from slipping in a comment, forgetting I’m not actually part of it.

But covid life removed me from my eavesdropping outlets. The pool is now one person per lane. I stay out of retail stores. Grocery shopping is done swiftly, the gyms are closed. I don’t frequent restaurants other than for occasional takeout.

As I bought the masks, sheltered-in-place and socialized outdoors, I became scared and cautious. I pulled away.

And I forgot.

I forgot about the joy of being an anonymous human keeping company among other humans, and taking it all in.

I forgot the feeling that we’re all in this together. I might wish for this, or believe it, but the feeling happens most when I’m in a crowd of other humans.

I feel our connection even when they’re talking about a musician I can’t stand or a public servant I’d never vote for. There’s something about our shared humanness — your body, my body, this space — that overrides separate beliefs.

That’s what’s challenging about this time in history. We’re being asked to come together when we’ve never — literally — been so apart.

Let’s Remember

Just in case there’s something you’ve forgotten that you love, some simple, daily life pleasure, like putting your hands in the dirt, staring at something beautiful, listening to the winter birdsongs (they’re out there!); leaving a tip for your favorite barista, doing a handstand, here’s to remembering.

Here’s to remembering this big beautiful existence of ours.

Writer, coach, swimmer, runner, late-marrier. I coach writers, professionals & re-inventors. Everyday Creative Coaching, www.everydaycreative.net

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