Encounter in a Café

Early in January 2020, before the Covid-19 pandemic rooted itself in the United States, when frequenting cafés still engaged a hefty portion of my time, a young woman, perhaps as old as twenty-five, asked me if she could sit at my table while she waited for another one to become available. I consented and we chatted for a few minutes to ground ourselves in each other’s life, then turned earnestly to our separate but equally important work, demonstrating that neither of us intended to disrupt the other’s plans. For me, this amounted to a courtesy, not a satisfying outcome. I wanted to continue our conversation, intrigued by her manner and aware that her choice to move into another’s claimed space in a busy café lay bare a certain confidence.

At sixty-nine and often told I resemble the comedian Larry David, I assume she chose my table because I appeared harmless and likely affable. Even at my age, a tiny thrill shivers through my body and seizes my mind when a young person asks me for a favor. A high school teacher for many years, I gravitate to the late-teen brain, an organ usually packed with questions and hypotheses about life and skilled in directing the body it oversees to appear nothing less than adult-like. My objective with teenagers and with those in their early twenties or even much older is consistent: to engage in a kind of dance – to step toward them to probe their values, interests, and objectives but also to retreat smiling, cha-cha-like, to offer them the freedom and safety to investigate me.

Sharing a table with this discerning young woman, I sensed our conversation would resume, that eventually we would return to our cha-cha, despite our noble agreement to silence ourselves, a decision made, I suspect, to avoid striking each other as impolite or encroaching on the other’s intention to establish a small table-top office for the afternoon.    

After a satisfactory period passed without either of us violating our etiquette of silence, I looked up. Observing her writing determinedly, my nosy, Socratic disposition prompted me to stride into a more connected and invasive dance – a conversational salsa – inquisitorially asking, “On what are you working so assiduously today?”

Her answer surprised me: “I am making a list concerning how to live my life.”

Even more curious now, I bowed slightly, clasped my hands as if in prayer, and begged, “Tell me more.”  

She said, “One question I have is this – How long and on what schedule should I meditate?”

I asked, “Is this a sort of 'self-improvement strategies' list?” She replied, “Exactly.”

Regarding meditation, she was trying to decide if she should continue meditating 30-minutes a day in one sitting, or if it would be better to spread it out each day over three 10-minute periods. “I’m making a list of the pros and cons for the 30-minute chunk each day and a comparable list for a 10-minute meditation, three-times-a-day,” she explained. After a brief pause, she queried, “What do you think?”

Recognizing her sincerity, I mused, “A good question. One way may be as good as the other, but I am in favor of the three-times-a-day approach.”  

“Why?” she inquired. 

“Because three times a day keeps the habit of contemplation front and center, analogous to the biblical injunction to pray without ceasing,” I preached. “In Islam, too, Muslims are expected to stop and pray five times a day at prescribed intervals, thereby keeping the object of their prayers, Allah, always on the tip of the tongue.”

She stared attentively, then dropped her eyes as if turning inward to scrutinize my recommendation.

Soon after this exchange, another table became free, but she didn’t take it. We agreed that we could work successfully at the same station, looking up from our work now and then to resume the dance. 

A retired teacher and school superintendent, Paul Graseck lives in Providence, RI. He plays clarinet in the Extraordinary Rendition Band, an activist Honk! band. A character portrayer, Paul in loincloth and wire rim glasses performs as Gandhi, generating interactive dialogues with middle school, high school, and adult audiences. Paul has written for Friends Journal, Kappan Magazine, and History Matters. Previously, he edited The Leader, a national professional magazine for social studies supervisors.

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