Thursday, December 10, 2009

Two Coffee Shops

This is a story of two coffee shops located across the street from each other.

Both coffee shops had faced each other on opposite sides of the street for many years. One of them is called General Arthur’s, which had been named after a World War II veteran returned from the Battle of Midway in the Pacific theater who then took up the art of donut-making until his death from a heart attack. The other shop is Bradley’s whose founder had long ago sold the business to a new owner and then retired to the golf course, but the name of the place stuck.

Bradley’s has the look of a set decorated by a 70's housewife complete with a windowsill filled with fake mini sunflowers. General Arthur’s offered oak chairs with a lottery machine positioned inside the doorway. Both shops have glass counters where customers can admire a selection of donuts, scones, and cinnamon buns so that each morning they stopped at either General Arthur’s or Bradley’s for something to call breakfast before starting work.

The two shops across the street from each other are similar in mostly every way: they served the same kind of “to-go” food catering to office workers making quick stops for coffee and sandwiches or cigarettes. They exist in commercial harmony with enough business for both shops to be successful. However, there is one key difference between the two that is not obvious, even to most of the regulars.

"Did Zach come in already this morning?" inquires one guy of Bradley.

Everyone assumes that the proprietor standing behind the glass counter wearing his horned rim glasses and white apron must be the man behind the sign. But his name is really Forest Palmbo. "Yes," Bradley says. "Already got his Diet Snapple." And they laugh. Both men know that Zach will never deviate from his morning diet, and take comfort in that fact.

“So can you come tonight?” the man now whispers, taking his coffee and oat bran muffin as he hands over several dollar bills and waits for his change.

“What time?” asks Bradley, smiling at the next customer in line and ready to take his order.

“7:30,” and before heading out the door the man who works at the Private Industry Council a few blocks up the street turns and says, “At the usual.”

Around 4 p.m., Bradley unties his white apron and throws it into a plastic bin along with the others. This evening laundry service will replace them with five clean ones for the following week. This is Friday and Bradley packs all leftover pastries into several pink cardboard boxes, separating donuts from muffins from scones, his knuckles protruding like hills from white plastic gloves. After he tapes each cardboard box shut and wraps them together with twine, Bradley peels off his gloves and loads the package into the trunk of his car. But he won’t be finished for another hour until he wipes glass counters clean, this time wearing a fresh pair of plastic gloves, and removes crumbs from the two toaster ovens, readying coffee machines with freshly ground beans for the morning’s brew. Bread loaves back in the refrigerator, all luncheon meats and smoked turkey and lettuce packed away, Bradley takes one last glance at the store, shakes his head, locks the front door and gets into his Chevy. First he’s driving home to shower.

He shows up at a restaurant at 7 p.m., plastic ivy vines wrapped around four oak beams in the central dining area and also along the cash register where they abruptly stop.

Next appears See Dong. He’s one of those people who prefer to keep a safe distance from the center of action. On the other hand, Bradley is very involved with the event. He opens his pink boxes and carefully lays pastries on silver trays. The trays are on tables near the front of the room and are covered in white tablecloths. People begin to enter the restaurant. It is only open for this special evening’s event. Bradley removes a small brown bottle of something and pours a few drops over the pastries. He calls it his “day-old freshener.”

John Greuner, the man who spoke to Bradley in the restaurant, now moves toward the front of the room. He straightens his tie and brushes a few pieces of lint from his shirt, smiles at several people sitting down at a table nearby. He stops to talk with them. Dong has already positioned the trays above several warm lights and will return later to clean up.

Bradley tells Greuner everything is “ready.”

“Okay,” he says and straightens his tie like a man testing a noose. “Everyone sit down, please. We’re ready to begin.” A group of about 40 men and women find seats in front of a large white screen, all dressed in suits, mostly black, wearing name tags printed on large sticky labels.

“I bet you’re all wondering why you’re here.” People are streaming toward the seats now, holding coffee cups and munching on Bradley’s muffins. Of course, Dong has provided catered aluminum trays of steaming pork buns and vegetables coated with sesame seeds, already emptied by the early arrivers, unemployed workers who are excited by the prospect of a free meal, but he is no where to be seen. “The Private Industry Council, as you know, has been tasked by the City to develop jobs. You’ve been invited here today as prime candidates for the job development program.” Greuner stops for a moment and lets the news sink in, radiating goodwill and competence. Someone raises a hand but Greuner ignores it and continues. “The training program is fully funded by federal stimulus monies and lasts for six months. At the end of six, assuming that you successfully complete the program,” and Greuner licks his lips, “you will be fully guaranteed a job in your desired field.”

The man in the audience in the second row waves his hand again. Without waiting this time to be called upon he asks, “Are the jobs local?” He’s been out of work for the last seven months and hopes he doesn’t have to relocate to find work, which would mean moving his family. His kids are teenagers. Still, he can’t believe his luck. In fact, most of the people sitting in metal chairs look like they’ve just won the lottery, wanting to toast each other with their coffee cups.

“Certainly they are. Most of them are,” Greuner quickly corrects himself and glances at his watch. But then something strange starts to happen. The people in the audience start to shrink; shrivel is the more operative word. It’s as if all the water in their bodies begins to evaporate and what’s left is an outer layer that folds from their bodies in brittle strips, plastering the floor in confetti. From the back of the room Bradley begins to slowly pack his pink cardboard boxes and See Dong pulls into the parking lot with a vacuum cleaner stored in his trunk.

“Decreasing the unemployment figures meeting by meeting,” Greuner circles around to the back of the room. “That’s the way,” he says to himself, but loud enough for Bradley to hear. “Bit by bit.”

In a few years, Greuner heads an agency with a multi-million dollar budget. Bradley’s coffee shop is thriving. Each morning See Dong carefully layers fried eggs onto toasted bread. The owner of General Arthur’s can’t understand where all his business went and is considering filing for bankruptcy, but a number of his friends warn against it.

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