Don’t Talk To Strangers — Lessons On Lines At Starbucks

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I’ve got a bunch of kids and I drink a lot of coffee. The one surely relates to the other. How much coffee? In the time it took you to read this, I’ve moved Arabica futures markets. How many kids? Enough that my youngest son recently complained about having to wear his siblings’ hand-me-downs. A quick word about civil disobedience. I don’t have a problem with child protest per se. I’ve got just enough Buffalo Springfield in me to tolerate a little insubordination now and again. But let’s be clear. When I say that memories of the Abingdon Five still haunt me, I’m talking about the time one of my kids dropped a fiver in a southwest Virginia Pilot parking lot.

Nor do I mind that he rabble-roused while we stood in line at Starbucks. It’s that he complained in a voice loud enough for the woman in front of me, an Audra Lindley doppelgänger circa 1982, to hear. I’d say he used his “outside voice” to paint the picture for you, but I’ve always loathed that phrase:

My kid (mellifluously from dugout): Hey batter, batter, batter…

Parent in stands: Pardon me, but why does your kid talk that way?

Me: Oh, that’s just his outside voice — Robert Goulet. Be grateful we’re not playing indoor soccer. His inside voice is Gilbert Gottfried.

Anyway, Little Lord Fauntleroy was giving me an earful about how his classmates were making fun of his clothes. This was the precise moment when I recalled a book my wife wanted me to read, back when our first child was born. You know, when I didn’t find silly the idea of reading child-rearing books with titles like Words Hurt and Skinned Knee of the Spirit. I never did read it, but I didn’t have to in order to know that what my son was experiencing was bullying.

But then I thought a little further back to my own childhood, and the book that my dad didn’t so much write or read to me as reinforce every day of my life. It’s working title was something more like Nobody Owes You Squat, Son. My Suggestion? Wear a Cup. So I pulled a page out of the old man’s playbook. I told my boy to quit whining and put on the hand-me-down dress.

Truth? I was kidding. He doesn’t wear his sister’s hand-me-downs. It was more a “to me, from me” joke, served up just to pass the time. But I made a rookie mistake: I forgot about the woman in the gold hoop earrings. By this I don’t mean an unpublished Stieg Larsson manuscript, but Mrs. Roper there in line in front of me. My harmless wordplay raised eyebrows, specifically hers. This was completely an unforced error on my part.

With basic situational awareness I’d have remembered her vexatious presence, as the visual clues were everywhere. It wasn’t just her billowy robes, which cried out “my thirteen year old drinks wine at dinner.” It wasn’t the backpack slung insouciantly over her shoulder, even though she was middle-aged and nowhere near the Grand Canyon. It wasn’t even her spangly jewelry which if it could talk would surely say either “Montessori, Yes!” or “sure I’d date a glassblower.”

She tartly warned me not to buy into the false binary fashion construct, speaking with breathy impatience, like how you’d imagine Catherine Keener sounding trying to explain what she looks for in a role to your grandmother. A lot of thoughts ran through my mind as she dressed me down. The first thought, though completely unrelated, was bizarre: could a man be so charming, so utterly irresistible, that his mate would tolerate his habit of making the Marv Albert Yesssss sound at moments of intimacy? Perhaps. But he’d have to be like Daniel Craig-jacked in Casino Royale and Paul Newman smooth in Cool Hand Luke.

And then, more pertinent reactions. First, word choice. I understand all the words you said, just not in the order you said them. Your phrasing seems designed to impress Oberlin sophomores reading Derrida for the first time. Second, backpack accoutrements. Hey, Bear Grylls, what’s with all the carabiners? You summiting the North Face this afternoon? Third, and most serious, boundaries. Are you, a stranger, seriously talking about my parenting? Because here Otter and Boon from Animal House said it best: He can’t do that to our pledges. Only we can do that to our pledges. 

Of course, I didn’t say any of these things to her. I just did what I always do in this situation. I feigned confusion, looked down at my shoes and said Quiero flan over and over again until she got her coffee and left. Close call, that.