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Good morning.

Written By: daveski on December 28, 2008 3 Comments

I’m on the way to the Modern Language Association’s annual conference in San Francisco. Decided late this morning to go to a session on the 2007 MLA report on for Foreign Languages, where I know I’ll be able to meet a few fellow Berkeleyans. But I’m not ready to think about things so serious yet.

I get off the bus in downtown Berkeley, 6 minutes before the BART train is scheduled to arrive. I don’t have a ticket. Do I have time to get a coffee? Last night was a late one and my mind is still in bed.

Peets is a block away and across the street. I think I can make it. As I approach I notice that they still have the Christmas wreath and decorations on the door. How many people will be there at the conference? It’s my first MLA.

Inside, the tables are typically full. Random background noise. I head directly to the counter and stop in front of Barista A, who is arranging pastries in the display window. My mind is empty. I just stand there.

After a few seconds, he asks me: “Can I help you?”

“Can I get a small coffee, please?”

“Sure,” he says, eyes still on the pastries. Maybe another almond croissant here, a muffin there?

Meanwhile, Barista B sees that A has his hands full, and says to him over his shoulder while walking over to the coffee. “That’s OK, I’ll take care of this one.”

This one, I think. Hmmm.

“Would you like room for cream in that?” he asks.

“Yeah, sure.” I think about saying “Just a little,” but I wonder if it really makes a difference. People are always saying “just a little”, and it always seems to me it’s mostly to assuage their conscience about injecting calories into their caffeine. Blahhhh.

Barista B fills the cup and then, while turning around, appears to notice the difference between “room for cream” and “just a little room for cream.” He dumps a mouthful or so down the drain and swivels to the counter, setting the coffee down and taking up my $20 bill in one smooth motion. Our eyes don’t meet.

“Three, four, five, ten, and ten is twenty” he says as he displays and counts out the change for me. Still no eye contact.

“Thanks a lot,” I say as I turn away, toward the counter with milk, napkins, etc. I wonder if the train has left North Berkeley station already.

Then, suddenly, the encounter is turned on its head.

“Thank you,” he says, the sarcastic tone of his voice penetrating my ear as I walked, pulling my head back toward him. He was bent down behind the counter arranging something.

“Good morning!” he continued, speaking to himself, lowly but audibly, in a voice that mocked, chided, resisted…me?

“Good afternoon! Good evening!”

As I heard these words I realized it had nothing to do with me. That was the problem. It might as well be afternoon or evening, because it was all the same. And they’re all good mornings, aren’t they? Hours of training and thousands of customers later, these words might as well be the almonds in the croissant, the label on the milk, the logo on the napkin. They’re just…there.

I think about saying something to him, trying to reclaim a bit of humanity from the encounter, trying to create for a brief moment a shared understanding of the ways in which our language and behavior are banalized, hollowed out by being scripted and performed in the service of megacorporate double lattes with soy. What was his name, anyway? It was there on his nametag.

Then I look at my watch, and the thought passes quickly. Probably only 3 minutes left ’til the train gets here. I finish putting milk in my coffee, put on the lid, and walk out.

A few steps out the door I pass a bearded man standing with his hat on backwards, worn-out jeans, empty cup in hand.

“Spare change? Can I get a little help today?”

“Sorry buddy,” I say, and rush toward the station.

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3 Responses to “Good morning.”

  1. Usree Bhattacharya on: 28 December 2008 at 7:06 pm

    One of the first things Ma asked when we moved to Rochester, NY, for a couple of years, was why everyone was asking her to have a nice day. My family had lived in England and Holland previously, so it wasn’t her first time outside of India or in a place where such greetings are a norm. But there was something incredibly “synthetic, manufactured” she said, about the phrase “Have a nice day” that grated on her nerves. In the two years we spent there, she would give a forced smile but never respond to that comment (I feel compelled-).

    In Delhi, there is little conversation beyond the immediate transaction or small talk between a cashier and a customer, or generally between any two strangers. We don’t “perform” politeness in typical “Western” ways. Having grown up in that context, I don’t see that entirely as a bad thing. It keeps us “honest” in our civility.

    That’s not to say there aren’t many layers of politeness strategies embedded within the language (Hindi); in fact, when you meet and converse with someone-even briefly, in a business encounter-for example, somewhat similar to French and German, you have to address strangers as “Aap” (the formal pronoun), not “Tum” (the informal pronoun) or “Tu” (the intimate pronoun). The verb will be conjugated in the plural to reflect “respect.” But there will be little beyond the “Hunnji, aur kuch?” (Yes, sir/maam, anything else?) to open the conversation, followed by a tallying of what you’re buying, and then a brief total, and a “Thik hai” (Ok) to wrap up. I am obviously generalizing, but this has been my experience…

    There are many words that lose value in their (over)saying. I guess I would rather they were not said at all…

  2. Usree Bhattacharya on: 13 January 2009 at 9:20 am

    I thought of your post as I read this. Check it out.

  3. daveski on: 14 January 2009 at 7:06 am

    Very cool little piece. “Enjoy your life” sounds like an insult to me by default…I guess it could have a more positive meaning as well, or at least neutral, like softening the silence.

    One of the most perfect blends of free will and predestination that i ever saw came on a little black notebook I saw in Korea many years ago. Maybe I’ll write a proper post about it sometime. It said in capital letters across the front of the notebook,

    “Have a wonderful destiny”.

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