Chicago Portrait no. 33: The Coat

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Same cafe as before. Same softly lit area where the woman I was so taken with had been sitting, but a week later, on a far more frigid day.

There is a man sitting in one of the overstuffed leather chairs with the flat sides. He’s middle-aged, white, bald, bearded, dressed in khaki. The couch is bare, invitingly bare except for a medium-toned man on a laptop, and on the opposite end of the couch, thrown askance and left to blot out one and a half cushions, is the long khaki coat of the first man, and a woolen hat and a newspaper.

I have been here thirty minutes and no one has claimed the space or the khaki coat. But then, I knew that this would happen. I sized this situation up the second I came in and went for my usual spot, only to find it occupied by some snowy owl person in starched taupe shirt, my second-favorite spot claimed by a coat of the exact same color.

I knew it. I fucking knew. There was no one in the bathroom. Nobody taking a smoke. It was not a space saved for the old man’s friend — it’s on the opposite end of the couch from where his chair is. I saw this guys blunderbus-like face, his lipless mouth and lidless, reptilian squinty eyes. I knew what the fuck was going on here. I fucking knew.

I didn’t watch it happen, but I can see it just the same: the white guy came in, nose red and splotchy from the cold, icicles of spittle caught in his beard. He snuffled and clapped his boots against the counter and stripped the coat off, a taupe layer peeled back to reveal nothing but more sad, starchy khaki. While bellowing to the barista for his drink, the man threw down his coat and hat, and settled into a chair two yards away from it.

“A coffee, black,” he probably said. Of course he purchased the cheapest thing. Probably retrieved two singles and a quarter from a leather wallet with a mallard duck on it, and just left it there on the counter like he was a cowboy in a film, or a gentleman in a smoky bar in an old movie.

“Do you have a card with us?” the barista probably asked. It was probably the girl with the narrow glasses and the braid. She’s not meek, but she seems considerate. Which is a curse of a virtue to have.

“Huh?” the man probably said.

“A punch card,” she told him. And maybe held one up, with the little red stamper that has the Chicago Grind logo on it. Probably she tried to explain how this, the most rudimentary of all customer reward systems, works.

He does not have a coffee card, though probably he has been given hundreds of them in the span of his long life. They all ended up in the pockets of his selfish fucking jacket, or littering the floor of the closet. His wife has probably thrown out 340 coffee punchcards from 200 different cafes throughout the Midwest. This man has been given this spiel, the one the barista is now giving, hundreds of times. Yet he has never heard of such a thing in his life. Because he never has even once listened to a service industry professional. In his life.

He does not answer. Chilly winds of social alienation gust in the barista’s face. She takes a bite from a cookie lying on a napkin on the back bar. A tiny drop of dopamine is eked out into her synapses. This is what she had to do to maintain her patina of perfunctory niceness.

His coffee is poured into a mug and left on the counter for him. He is called and is not moved to retrieve it. Another barista, maybe the Latino man in the hairnet, walks over and leaves it on the low table near the man’s feet. He grumbles thanks and lays into his paper. The unfinished pages are left atop the jacket, burying the once inviting spot on the couch.

Some time later (probably five hours, with at least one nap) I come in. Cold, anticipating a soft warm spot in a chair or the corner of the couch. I know I am not guaranteed one. I recognize I am not owed one. It is a Sunday and cafes are busy on Sunday and if I have to share a table with somebody who’s quietly working, that’s fine. That would still be a net win. A victory.

But this fucking asshole is claiming half the couch with his impractical tawny colored coat, not even anywhere remotely near his khaki-clad snowy pale BODY, and it has been half an hour, and no one is sitting there, and no one is asking him, and the desire to come up and cast the hideous bland beige thing aside is SO pOWERFuL but I know I won’t do it, because I am considerate.

That is a curse of a virtue to have.

I am so conscientious I hate everybody who’s not.

I’m so bitter and petty that I look for things to be pissed about and thrive in my motherfucking rightness. I was so good at debate I should have been a lawyer (but then again being a teacher still affords me hours per week during which I’m allowed to be pedantic, so that’s good).

I just want to ask this guy “Is anyone sitting here?” in a perfectly icy fuck-you soccer mom voice. And when he says no THROW that coat to hell.

Ohhhh please lord let somebody else ask him. Or let this cafe fill up to the brim so that people need seats and then, god, let me be your instrument of justice.

My mom is a very considerate person and has never said an overly assertive word in her life. My dad was an anxious argumentative prick. WITH THEIR POWERS COMBINED, I AM A FORCE TO BE MILDLY IRRITATED BY if you happen to transgress certain arbitrary societal rules on a day when I am caffeinated and have time on my hands.

In every crowded room in the world there is a man who likes himself and wants to talk and I HATE EVERY SINGLE ONE. If you are a man and you have opinions but you hate yourself, then you are fine. If you are a man who likes himself but is quiet and retiring, that is also fine. But if you possess both confidence and a desire to share your ideas with others, then watch what you do because you are terrible inside.

Women too. All genders. You may either have self-love or gregariousness, you are not allowed to have both. Confidence is a privilege just like any other, and it is rarely wielded responsibly. If you speak in loud, declarative statements and people tend to go quiet and attentive when you talk, thank your fucking luck and learn to shut the fuck up once in a while. If people do what you tell them to do, question whether it’s actually because your ideas are good. Hint: it’s not. I mean, your ideas might still be good, but that is not why people listen. It’s because you’re confident. Stop that.

Another ten minutes has passed and the coat is still there. It will always be there, a statue erected in recognition of this guy’s bland space-consuming existence. There is a veritable graveyard of artifacts lying in this man’s wake; slippers in the middle of the hall of his house; Civil War history books he bought with no intention of reading; Old Spice canisters applied in leiu of a shower; hats and gloves he forgot at the restaurant, forcing his wife to buy more; and that fucking coat.

That coat. That coat. That coat. It’s even claimed space in my MIND, where it will live forever, alongside all my other pet peeves and frayed final nerves.

Originally published at

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