It is a beautiful day to be outside. With bright sunlight throwing the path before me into high contrast and a cool breeze threatening to yank the cane out of my hand as I walk, it’s the kind of day I revel in, a day where my concentration is wrenched from cautious mobility by a thousand pleasant sensory impressions, all warring for my attention. Luckily I am holding Kyle’s arm as we make our way across the deserted campus in search of coffee. A lone skateboarder hurtles past, made present by the rough grinding of his wheels on the pavement and the swoosh of air he displaces.
We pass under the large overhang that alerts me to the proximity of the campus Starbucks. Along with the warm siren smell of slightly burnt coffee, this drastic change in light is the most prominent marker of our location. Kyle and I enter Starbucks, and suddenly, we know why campus seems empty. Everyone is congregating in here. We take our places in the relatively short line and wait to place our order.
The girl standing in front of me orders her drink and the barista shouts to her colleagues behind the counter. Next, she asks me, “What can I get you?”
“Hi, I’ll have a tall caramel macchiato please.”
“Hot or cold.”
I hear her scribble something on a cup and she disappears behind the pastry case. I step up to the cash register and repeat my order to the cashier. She turns to the other cashier, a girl who apparently knows me by name, and asks about the price. The other cashier, whose voice is more equipped for the noisy setting, replies, “Give her this price, because this is my girl!” I grin.
The loud cashier, not the one assisting me, then says cheerily, “How are you doing today?” and I respond, “I’m GREAT, how are you?” I hear a barely-stifled gasp from behind me, followed by a chuckle. Kyle is trying desperately not to laugh. The girl who is standing to my left, in front of the loud cashier, mumbles, “Fine,” and hands over her money. I belatedly realize that this question was not intended for me. The loud cashier awkwardly stumbles through something like, “Oh well…I should’ve asked you anyway! Glad you’re great!”
By this point, my transaction is complete and my face is crimson. I hastily shove my wallet into my purse, grab Kyle’s arm, and head around the various obstacles (baskets and shelves of merchandise) to pick up my drink.
The awkwardness and embarrassment give way to an overpowering series of laughs. Kyle’s, no longer trying to be discreet, and mine, which has never been able to call itself quiet, fill the echoing space. A different barista calls out my name and my order and, still laughing, I slip my red crocheted coffee sleeve around the small white cup.
I am featured in an abundance of stories like this one. Sometimes, there is simply no way to tell whether someone is talking to me or to some other person, standing just out of sight. In cases like these, I can’t help myself. I assume they are talking to me and I deliver an ebullient reply. I’ve offered my order to the wrong clerk, thanked someone for a compliment that was not intended for me, and called a sincere “you too!” to someone who was wishing a good day on another person entirely. But since I’d rather respond than not, I think of these interactions as fallout courtesies – a little bit of good energy dispersing to recipients unknown. And it’s always a surprise for them, since they weren’t even speaking to me, so who wouldn’t love that?
The alternative, of course, is not speaking at all. Keeping totally silent until the person addressing me (if I am their intended addressee) says pointedly, “Next!” or “The girl with the red glasses!” or even more embarrassingly, “Emily!”
Then there’s the happy medium, “Are you talking to me?” I’ve been deploying this one a lot lately, especially in situations where the barista-cashier-clerk-server doesn’t know me personally. It works very well, unless they respond with a disdainful, “No” (shorthand for “I couldn’t be bothered”). Then a little part of me deflates and I think, “Well I wouldn’t want to have a conversation with someone so unpleasant anyway!”
Needless to say, these interactions make me extremely appreciative of the social situations where the person knows me by name! Just the other day, a professor of mine called after me in the hallway, and I spun around. It was so satisfying to know that I was the only Emily in that hallway and that the interaction was intended for me!
But not every interaction can be that way. So I’ve resigned myself to handing out a lot more cheery nuggets of socialization than were ever handed to me. And laughing a lot when my response, delivered to someone who wasn’t expecting it, causes them to freeze up in shame, terror, or confusion.