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Behind the coffee cup

Published May 30, 2004

Coffee shops are not just places to drink caffe lattes. They are perfect spots for lingering, to read, to write or, best of all, to people watch.

Consider one afternoon I spent at a downtown St. Petersburg coffee shop. The weather was beautiful. The place was crowded, and many patrons had opted for the outside tables. I positioned myself inside, near the window, a perfect spot to watch people coming and going.

Near where I was sitting, there was a man being interviewed. He was in a wheelchair. His head was closely shaved. He was wearing a black T-shirt, on the back of which were the names of several widely known companies, local and national.

I assumed he was connected with some athletic group.

Earlier I had encountered this young man when I first arrived at the coffee shop. He was just ahead of me, and with ease and great aplomb, he graciously reached out and opened the door for me. He did it so quickly, I felt that he must be very comfortable with himself.

I only caught a few phrases from his interviewer such as, "Does it ever bother you . . ." and "You seem to be such an inspiration to others." When the interview was finished, the man in the wheelchair turned to leave. When his eyes fell upon me, he gave me a broad smile, and I smiled back. He looked so animated and seemed to have such a zest for life.

At a small table next to the wall, there was a 40ish woman with straight blond hair cut evenly around her head, as if someone had used a large bowl. She was wearing blue jeans and a long-sleeved, striped knit T-shirt. She was alone, and her right hand, curled into a fist, was propped under her chin. She was deeply engrossed in a paperback titled Writing Down the Bones. Every once in a while, she reached for her coffee with her left hand, taking a deep sip without looking up. A leftie like me, I thought.

In the center of the room, there were two women in their 30s and a little girl about 6 years old. They were in a deep conversation and probably were close friends or sisters. They had been shopping, because there were several plastic bags and a couple of fancy dress boxes stacked on the fourth chair around the table.

The child was drawing in a large notebook. When she paused to take a sip of her apple juice, she raised her notebook. Immediately, the women stopped talking and offered praise for her artistic work. When the little girl finished, she tore her art work out of the notebook and, smiling, handed it to one of the women, who beamed and thanked her. Suddenly, the woman's cell phone rang and after a brief conversation, she arose to leave. "It's been fun. Let's do it again soon," she said. Picking up a few of the stacked packages and with a quick kiss on the little girl's cheek, she was gone.

Outside the window next to me was a couple earnestly working on a project together. He had a large loose-leaf folder before him, and she was filling out forms. Occasionally, she peered over her sunglasses to look at him directly but returned to her writing as he kept on talking.

She was a beautiful woman with long blond hair. Her short, form-fitted, soft rose-colored top with spaghetti straps blended nicely with her long gun-metal skirt with a deep side split that revealed her gracefully crossed legs. Her companion was dressed in a handsome teal blue sport jacket and lighter slacks that complemented his dark hair, slightly graying at the temples.

Was he her boss, a colleague or perhaps a boyfriend? I wondered. He sat there watching her in silent admiration. Finally, she finished writing, pushed her sunglasses up onto the top of her head and handed him the papers. The man moved forward and covered her free hand with his hand. When she got up to go, she readjusted her sunglasses, picked up her purse and threw a long fringed scarf over her bare shoulders. She stood momentarily, looking at him with a smile. As she backed away from the table, she raised her hand slightly to wave goodbye. Through the glass, I could see him mouth the words, "I love you." She smiled again and left.

I hoped he wasn't her boss.

Inside, I observed a middle-age couple who must have arrived when I was watching the lovers outside. She looked lovely in a black-and-white outfit. Her hair was fashionably styled. It looked as if she had just been to a hair salon. Across the table from her was a large burly man, no doubt her husband. He wore a red plaid shirt and a cap with a black visor. They sat there in silence just drinking their coffee. Not a word passed between them.

She looked around the room rubbing her cheek thoughtfully, maybe envying the women seated next to them. They were dressed in ankle-length skirts and light-colored blouses, chatting in a foreign language, gesturing wildly and laughing heartily. The well-coiffed woman finally leaned forward to her companion and whispered softly. Maybe she wanted to see a movie. He glanced up at her for a minute, scowled and muffled a grunt in reply. Dejected, she whipped out her cell phone and abruptly left for the ladies room.

Just as I was gathering up my papers into my briefcase, preparing to leave, I noticed two young girls in their late teens, as attractive as neon lights. These cuties were wearing sleek black pants with black-and-white studded belts. Their pants, which hugged like a second skin, tapered down and disappeared into their fancy white boots. Their short jackets, one black and the other white, were appliqued with colorful patches and barely reached the top of their pants. One teen had purple hair, long white fingernails and a sprinkling of gold dust on her eyelids. The other was a spiked blond with black fingernails and silver dust on her eyelids.

The girls were trying to decide between an iced or a regular caffe mocha or maybe a caramel apple cider. They tipped back and forth on the 3-inch heels of their boots, looking at the menu posted on the wall behind the counter. The two young men waiting on them were more than eager to be of assistance, no matter how long it took.

They decided on hot chocolate.

After removing the backpacks swung over their shoulders, they sank into comfortable lounge chairs and put their feet up on ottomans. As I headed out the door, I noticed one of the waiters (I wonder if they drew straws) graciously bringing the girls their order.

Then, as if on cue, the music grew louder, and I took my leave.

- LaVerne Hammond, 90, writes a monthly column that appears in the St. Petersburg Times' Seniority section.

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