Coffee with a Stranger, in case you hadn't noticed, is a work in progress. I'm still not exactly sure where I'm going with this project or what kind of writing will come out of it, but I do know that I'm having a damn good time. Everyone that I've met for coffee has been open, honest, and entirely game for a project that has a somewhat loosely defined structure and purpose. All in all, I'm just enjoying getting out, meeting some interesting people, and seeing what happens. Who needs structure and purpose anyway?
Since I'm taking a flying by the seat of my pants approach, though, there will inevitably be times when I screw up a wee bit. Take, for example, my meeting with Stranger #5. I thought I had it all planned out: we'd meet at SubRosa Coffee near the MacArthur BART station in Oakland's Temescal neighborhood, we'd talk it up, I'd record our conversation, and we'd go our separate, merry ways. Simple, right?
Well, apparently not. I learned, for instance, that I should really do some research before meeting someone at a coffee shop that I've never been to before. Turns out SubRosa, which was my suggestion by the way, isn't open at 6PM on a Tuesday. And even if it was open, there isn't much in the way of indoor seating in a shop the size of postage stamp.
So when Stranger #5, whose name is Gary, strolled up to the dark and increasingly deserted corner of 40th and Webster, I sheepishly asked if he'd mind searching for somewhere else to sit and have a cup of coffee. Gary, for his part, was totally game. After walking and small talking for a couple of blocks, we quickly discovered that this particular part of Temescal isn't exactly a hot spot for evening cups of coffee. Mixed Martial Arts, hair braiding, and hair extensions made from real human hair were all at our fingertips, but a cup of coffee? Not so much. We tried Cafe Portofino, a pizza and calzone joint on the corner of 40th and Telegraph, but the guy behind the counter mainly seemed puzzled when we asked for coffee at his pizzeria.
With things looking bleak and Gary's acupuncture appointment looming in the not so distant future, I threw a hail mary: why not try Lee's Donuts & Croissants? I spotted it out of the corner of my eye - a tiny storefront with a neon OPEN sign nestled in a strip mall across the street from Cafe Portofino. From the outside, it looks like this:
Take a good look at this picture, which I took several weeks after meeting with Gary. Note the "No Prowling!" warning. Try to wrap your head around the need for a "No Wandering!" warning. Keep in mind a dark and damp winter night. Keep in mind, too, that Gary and I are internet strangers and that Gary had been busy, you know, working all day. And no disrespect intended to the proprietors of Lee's Donuts & Croissants, but that unassuming storefront doesn't inspire a lot of confidence.
If I were in Gary's shoes, I probably would have bailed. Made some excuse and gotten the hell out. Something along the lines of "dinner with friends", "left the stove on", or "forgot to feed my chinchillas" would have done the trick. But what did Gary do when I suggested good ol' Lee's Donuts & Croissants? He shrugged his shoulders, zipped up his San Francisco Giants jacket, and said, "Let's go for it."
Way to go, Gary!
What can I say about Lee's Donuts & Croissants? It was bright inside. Fluorescent light bright. There were, as the name implies, lots of donuts on display. I don't remember seeing croissants. Their coffee was burnt, but drinkable. When I later looked the place up on Yelp, I discovered it's actually best known for its fried chicken and not its croissants or donuts. Who would have guessed? The folks behind the counter, and there were several of them, seemed somewhat amused by Gary and I. I caught a few stares in our direction and smiles exchanged behind that case of Boston Creams and Apple Fritters. But who can blame them? I'm not sure it's everyday they get two guys who come in, order only two coffees in small styrofoam cups, and who sit in one of their yellow/off-white booths for 40 minutes with a tape recorder between them.
Which brings me to my next wee little screw up. The tape recorder. Turns out I don't really know how to operate a tape recorder. When I later sat down to listen to my conversation with Gary, I discovered that I recorded exactly 13 seconds of our time together before a telling CLICK and silence for the rest of the tape. 13 seconds. Really. I timed it.
So I'm working off memory alone here. And some illegible notes I scrawled in a spiral notebook. Here are a few things that struck me about Gary and our conversation:
1) Despite being a great sport and game for a venue change, Gary wasn't without his suspicions. He admitted that when we first met outside of a closing SubRosa Coffee, he sized me up - if I turned out to be real crazy, he decided he could "at least" outrun me to the BART station. Also, when everything was said and done and we were finishing up at Lee's Donuts & Croissants, he asked me to "level" with him and tell him "what this project was really about." Was there some "catch" I wasn't telling him about? Was I, for example, "counting the number of times he said coffee or something?" I'm still not sure he believed that all I wanted was to literally meet strangers for a cup of coffee. And not to toot my own horn, but I think that foot race back to the BART would have been closer than Gary anticipated...
2) Gary is into Magic Cards. I don't understand how Magic Cards work or their appeal, so I asked Gary to explain them to me because I don't like not understanding things. Gary did his best, but the whole concept still flew way over my head. I just don't get it.
3) I realize I forgot to ask Gary about the significance of his email address. It involved the words "Standing Warrior", which Google tells me can involve ancient statues or the following yoga move:
Knee Bend Standing Warrior Pose in Hatha Yoga -- powered by eHow.com
4) His email signature also involved a quote from the TV show Lost. The actor who plays Benjamin Linus apparently said the following:
"I notice more and more that grownups are just later versions of the children they once were."
Yikes! If that's true, I'll always be both obsessed and terrible at Mortal Combat for SEGA, I'll never be able to get through the movie Labyrinth without freaking out, and I'll always blush when I talk to girls.
5) Gary, who worked for the government doing worker pension stuff, was someone who used the internet as a tool rather than a crutch. Instead of hiding behind the easy, stay-at-home anonymity that the internet provides, Gary actually used the world wide web as a means to meet people in the flesh. From social networking sites to Craigslist to online dating services like JDate, Gary had met fellow Magic Card enthusiasts, hiking buddies, friends, romantic partners, and even random dudes who meet him at dark street corners in Temescal for a cup of coffee.
6) I pressed Gary to tell me some juicy, horror stories about the world of online dating. Not that I'm against the idea, but I've heard some hilarious and crazy stuff from friends. He replied that he really didn't have any horror stories, and that he's actually had pretty good luck with the whole thing. I was hoping for tales of 90-year-old women posing as 30-somethings, flatulence at the movies, and weeping at dinner over iPhone pictures of recently deceased cats, but no such luck.
After shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries, Gary left the bright confines of Lee's Donuts & Croissants. I bought a donut, and you know what? It wasn't half bad.