Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Coffee + Stranger #1 (Part II): Coffee with Good Days and Bad Days

Apparently adult snuggle parties are a thing nowadays. Who knew? Not me. These are, I learned, organized parties where consenting groups of adults and strangers get together to lie around and do some non-sexual snuggling, kind of like that big monster pile in Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are (see above around the 1:10 mark). Curious, I googled the shit out of the phrase “snuggle party” and actually found several “how to guides to snuggle partying": you can find examples here and here. Among other things, it’s suggested that these fiestas include drinks sans booze, light snacks, soft, cuddle inducing music (maybe a little Monsters of Folk? I could snuggle all day with those monsters!), snuggle “lifeguards” to reign in potential amorousness, and the understanding that the occasional boner could arise. Furthermore, if you’re having trouble pulling such a party together, it’s suggested you defer to the experts - certified cuddle party facilitators.

I wonder how they’re doing in this economy?

And how did I learn about snuggle partying? From Marianne
1 , the fun, open, and energetic first of hopefully many strangers in this little project of mine. Although she herself had never been to a snuggle party, Marianne mentioned these shindigs as an example of why I might get many responses to my Coffee with a Stranger ad on Craigslist. People seem to be increasingly searching for “real” interactions with others, even strangers, so what’s the harm in a quick, free cup of coffee with some guy from the Internet?

And what can I say about my initial impression of Marianne? She was in her late 30’s, seemed tall to me, and had long, dark hair that was wet from a shower after a run around Lake Merritt. And as I mentioned in Part I of my experience at Café Madrid in downtown Oakland, she was a little late for our meeting. 15 or 20 minutes late to be exact, which gave me plenty of time to weave a fun web of neurotic, self-conscious, and self-doubting thoughts in my busy little brain. Good times!

Marianne, however, turned out to be well worth the wait. How could I not enjoy someone who, after some initial awkwardness and everyday chitchat, broke the ice with the story of the first time her boogers froze up due to horrifyingly cold weather? That’s when I realized Marianne and I could really talk and get down to business. If you can talk boogers 2 with a stranger without it being a reference to your kid or pet, you’re okay in my books.

If I had to describe Marianne in one word, I would use “expressive”. She had these huge, brown eyes that you could just tell didn’t miss a whole lot. She was also always in motion in some shape or form, even before the caffeine in her café con leche had a chance to work its magic. Her hands were always moving and she constantly shifted her body as she sat across from me. This isn’t to say that she squirmed around like some little boy who needs to go to the bathroom, but you could tell she’s someone who likes to be active. She also had the habit of pulling down the sleeves of her sweater and scrunching them into her palm when we talked about more serious things than boogers.

Things got a little more serious, for example, when we talked about “good days” vs. “bad days”. I know all about good and bad days – the difference being those days where I strut around like a man on a mission versus those days where I’m convinced my hair looks weird, my pants feel too short, I’m constantly checking to see if my fly is down, and I’ve definitely managed to dribble coffee down the front of my shirt. Obviously we all have our good and bad days. Marianne, however, talked about those particularly painful days where you pose those difficult “self-worth questions”. Scrunching her sleeves into her palms, she said that sometimes she felt like she wasn’t meeting the expectations placed on women in her age group. She was in her late 30’s, divorced, unemployed, and not preoccupied with burping babies or driving tweens to soccer practice. She felt it was easy, then, to sometimes feel like she didn’t fit into any of those “worthwhile/worthiness boxes” that society, media, and well-meaning friends and family want to place us in. Essentially, if you’re not a mother wearing high-waist mom jeans or a career woman wearing business suits a la Condoleeza Rice, what are you and where do you fit in? And if you’re not in the “mom box” or the “career box” like everyone else around you, who do you hang out with and what is your community? Jokingly, Marianne wished that she could be a part of a more “alternative” community. If, she said, she was a “transgendered polyamorist, maybe there’d be a stronger and more supportive community of like-minded people waiting for her?

This is not to say that Marianne doesn’t have good friends and a nice community in the Bay Area. Far from it, as she spoke of several friends and the fun things that they do together. Interestingly, though, she did mention that she wasn’t going to tell just anyone that she’d met up with me. Even some of her closer friends might think our encounter was a somewhat “odd” thing to do. I hadn’t thought about this. How many people might I meet during this project who might not tell anyone about meeting me or who might be quite selective, including the careful omission of husbands, wives, significant others, siblings, kids, and BFFs? Is there something inherently weird or taboo about agreeing to this particular kind of meeting? Marianne even mentioned that she has friends who are quite comfortable with one-night stands with strangers met at a bar, but who would never agree to a much less intimate cup of coffee with an Internet stranger. I wonder what kind of numbers I’d get if I took the following poll:

What are you more comfortable with?

1) A one-night stand with a stranger picked up at a bar.
2) A cup of coffee with an Internet stranger.
3) Neither. Both are gross/crazy/unappealing/immoral.

Maybe I could get Star Magazine to tackle this subject in their next big poll?

All in all, Marianne was a great test subject for my first
Coffee with a Stranger. She might actually have been perfect, as she was a firm believer that people often “reveal more to strangers than to close friends.” Strangers, after all, never have to see each other again after an encounter. That’s the beauty of being a stranger, despite the loneliness and isolation that may come with it. If you’ve moved around a lot in your life, as Marianne had from California to New York City to the Twin Cities to Scandinavia and back again, maybe you can relate.

Eventually my conversation with Marianne petered out. We said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. Later that night, she would send me a nice email thanking me for the cup of coffee and asking that I keep her posted on my project’s progress. In the meantime, I’m going to try to keep my “bad days” to a minimum and, if all else fails, I guess I could give an Oakland snuggle/cuddle party a shot?

1 Marianne, by the way, isn't her real name. This particular stranger had some concerns about privacy, which I wholeheartedly respect, so she asked that I come up with a pseudonym. Why Marianne? Lately, I've been listening to Beck's cover of Songs of Leonard Cohen with MGMT, Devendra Banhart, and others, so I thought I'd give Marianne a shot.
2 In case you were wondering, Marianne's boogers were frozen while she was living in the Twin City area of Minnesota. I can't say she enjoyed the experience or would like to repeat it any time soon, but at least, I guess, it was memorable?

Coffee with a Stranger #1 (Part I) - Coffee with Self-Doubt

My first Coffee with a Stranger was scheduled on a Tuesday afternoon at Cafe Madrid in downtown Oakland. I had no idea what to expect. Not only had I never been to Cafe Madrid, but this particular stranger was a somewhat guarded and secretive individual in our pre-meeting emails. It was made very clear that privacy was of the utmost importance to this person, what with Google's prying eyes tracing our every step like a bloodhound following a potent scent with wild eyes, lolling tongue, and bristled fur. Or at least that's the way I picture it. I am, after all, a guy who refuses to post anything personal on a certain social networking site. Instead my page features the mildly inappropriate exploits of a stuffed animal. Seriously. I even spent time posing this stuffed animal in scandalous positions for the eye of my camera.

So, yes, I was going into this meeting with very little prior knowledge of this stranger. I wasn't even sure of gender, as his or her emails cheerfully signed off only with a pair of initials. I did know that this individual found my ad on Craigslist while searching for jogging partners. There was also mention of always being interested in writing, but being "too chickenshit" to take a class or pursue the idea further. Some other tidbits shared were the fact that he or she was unemployed, looking for temp work, and that some friends had had "scary experiences" with online dating.

Armed with these details, a tape recorder, a pencil, and a notebook, I head to Cafe Madrid. It was a dreary, overcast winter afternoon and downtown Oakland was, as per usual, somewhat deserted. As I approached the cafe, a woman coming from the opposite direction was also heading for the same cafe.

"Aha!" I thought to myself, mentally stabbing the air with my finger. "Maybe she's the one behind those cheerful initials!"

This woman was short, likely in her mid-thirties, and had long, wavy brown hair that reached down to her shoulders. She carried a squat, brown bag over her shoulders and a massive book in her hands. She looked up at me, looked as if she might smile or say something, then quickly looked back down and hurried into the cafe.

I was crushed! I was sure this was my mysterious first stranger and that she had taken one look at me and freaked out. As per our agreement via email, I was wearing my brand new, Flashback Friday Toronto Blue Jays hat (an incredible Christmas gift from my sister and the most noticeable piece of clothing that I own), so there was no mistaking me. After all, other than Raiders' hats, jackets, tattoos, eye patches, and head-to-foot costumes, there's not much sports paraphernalia being worn in downtown Oakland.

I followed this woman into the coffee shop. I may even have held the door open for her. My gut said that she was the one. I stood behind her in line, listened as she ordered a cup of tea, and watched as she fumbled between her squat purse, her Biblically sized book, and her wallet. I was even extra nice to her at the milk and sugar table. "Take your time," I assured her, my small coffee in my hand, as she rushed and fumbled some more with bags and books while pouring milk and sugar into her tea. I got a wane smile for that little effort. I realize now that maybe, just maybe, I might have been freaking her out with my expectant stares and over-politeness. But I was just trying to be nice! As I topped my coffee with milk and sugar, I watched disappointedly as she shuffled off to a far corner of the cafe. And by far corner, I mean tremendously far, as Cafe Madrid is really quite spacious despite a rather small clientele.

I decided I too should take a seat. I sat near the front door by a large window that looked out onto the street. And, no, don't worry, I didn't sit uncomfortably close to that woman who I suspected was Stranger #1, so I could continue to stare at her from beneath the brim of my brand new Blue Jays' hat. That would be odd. We were, in actuality, almost at exact opposite sides of the cafe, although I still had a clear view of her. She was busy sipping her tea and reading her Biblically sized text. I wondered what that big book could be. Harry Potter number four, five, or six? An Avatar-esque sci-fi/fantasy novel? Foucault's History of Madness? The Bible?

This is when the self-doubt really started to kick in. Was it ridiculous to think that this project could actually work? I mean, really, who in their right mind 
would agree to meet me at a coffee shop, so I could record and write about an unscripted, shoot-the-shit session between the two of us? Did this woman across the coffee shop, quietly reading, sipping her tea, and fiddling with her hair, see something creepy about me that I'd never noticed before? Was I too young? Too old? Overdressed for the occasion? Underdressed? Did I have spinach stuck in my teeth or Worchester sauce splattered across my cheek? Or maybe I just looked a wee bit ridiculous in my brand spanking new Toronto Blue Jays hat? Maybe not as ridiculous as this guy to the left, but close?

Soon 5, 10, 15, and finally 20 minutes passed as I nursed my small coffee before a table laid out with my tape recorder, pencil, and notebook. Part of me wanted to give up on this project entirely and head home with my tail between my legs. That is, of course, until I focused my attention once again back to that woman with the Biblically sized text. She had to be the one! I had to confront her! Looking back, it's somewhat odd that I didn't first consider that maybe I'd just been stood up or forgotten. I really had it in my head that that unsuspecting woman was my stranger, but for some reason she'd taken one look at me and decided against our meeting. It was then that I decided to approach her. To walk across that cavernous coffee shop and ask this woman if she was here to meet a stranger for a cup of coffee. To confront her. To figure this situation out. Why not give it a shot? Nothing ventured, nothing gained!

That, apparently, is what self-doubt can do to a guy trying to kick-start a writing project involving anonymous strangers found over the internet. I battered my doubts from the internal (me) to the external (unsuspecting woman) like a birdie hit between two hard-smacking, trash-talking badminton players.

Before I could initiate what was bound to be a somewhat awkward and accusatory conversation, luckily another woman came rushing into the coffee shop. Her hair wet and recently brushed, she took a quick look around before making a beeline for a certain brand spanking new Toronto Blue Jays hat. This little project of mine still had some life!