The Red Door
When a stranger becomes an acquaintance.
On the corner of MacDougal and 8th Street lies my local coffee shop, Stumptown Coffee Roasters. I say “my” coffee shop due to my unusual lack of sleep these past few months, so by the time it opens at 7 AM, it was just myself and Michael, Stephanie, Tracy, or Jim. I became a morning regular, and with that embarrassing honor brought many conversations with my morning heroes. Michael is a creative arts student at NYU who wants to become a poet, I call him my little Shakespeare as a joke, which he smirks at depending on his morning mood. Stephanie is a talented composer from Juilliard who is a year away from graduating. She wants to travel the world and inspire people through her idea of what music really means. Tracy is the oldest of the bunch, If I had to say, she’s maybe 39. She works at the coffee shop during the day for some extra cash and tutors high school students at night, molding the future of the world with each quadratic equation. Jim is a coffee connoisseur in the morning and master of spirits in the evening, crafting cocktails at Analogue, an establishment where I’ve unfortunately been seen at on countless first dates, usually wearing one of the three cocktail dresses I own. Every morning, my alarm clock goes off at 6:00 AM, leaving me enough time to eat some breakfast and get to Stumptown to catch up on the day's news, before catching the C train to Manhattan to start the workday. My eight hours of professionalism are broken down into four time-blocks of tapping into the minds of strangers, reminding them that life is best taken one day at a time. Which lately, I’ve been failing at; so much that the Georgetown degrees that hang from my wall seem to be more worthless with each day that buries me. I desperately needed a client to break out of their rut, or maybe I just needed to look into a new profession. My mentor & boss keeps telling me I’m doing fine, but I still somehow sense the disappointment in her voice.
It is Tuesday morning and the minuscule snow drizzles down slowly outside of my apartment, taunting me to stay in bed, whispering in my ear to reschedule my appointments for tomorrow. Laziness is my default mode, but unfortunately, in life, the contract of being an adult doesn’t remove the bills when requested, so I get up from the comfort of my bed, which I successfully built from IKEA. As I get up to begin my morning ritual – some mediation, followed by light yoga poses, continued by checking my emails and Instagram likes – I look outside of my apartment window to notice Michael walking up to Stumptown to begin his work day. Today, Michael is wearing his retro John Starks, New York Knicks jersey, which usually meant that his morning was rushed and had no time to eat cold pizza, for what I imagine is an NYU breakfast regiment. A half an hour, a shower, and a few email replies later, I notice my little Shakespeare on the cusp of completing his opening duties. It was the end of a morning routine that more often than not, brought a feeling of deja vu. Yet today, my routine is blemished by a man I see in front of Stumptown speaking with Michael. Other than myself in these last few months, no one else approached the coffee shop this early. The man from my vantage point wore a long black coat, a white button-up, dark navy jeans, and brown dress shoes. My educated guess was that he was lost and needed directions to wherever he came from (most likely the financial district), until Michael and the business casual intruder shared a laugh. I can’t believe you Michael , I say under my breath, as if he were cheating on me. They share a few more laughs as the stranger helps unstack the final chairs outside, and then Michael, my little Shakespeare, led the man inside the coffee shop at 6:50 AM. I feel betrayed, the coffee shop never let anybody in before opening hours. They even had a sign out front in bold letters - We open at 7, and only 7! I never received such VIP treatment. What was so special about this human to let him in the coffee shop ten minutes early. I waited nine minutes before heading downstairs to walk towards Stumptown because they opened at 7, and I followed the rules.
When I open the door I notice the gentleman with a large goblet of a black coffee and cream to the side. The ring from the front door signifying my entrance raises his head from his paper. He greets me with a smile, then reverts his attention back to his paper, to which his grin deepens from ear to ear. I’ve read the New York Times more moments that I can remember, yet I never had such satisfaction. As I walked by I caught a glimpse of the bold title from the article he was enthralled in - A Borough Brat, and Not Ashamed of It.
“The usual Bridgette?” Michael asks me, prepping an espresso shot to make a red eye with whip cream anticipating my usual answer.
“Yes, please. Thank You, Michael. How are you today?”
“I’m doing fine doc. It’s midterm time. So I haven’t had much sleep, but who needs sleep when you got dreams to fulfill right?”
“ahh yes, The very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream,” I say with my best imitation of the hand movements of a poet, reciting a Shakespeare line I believe I heard on an HBO movie, most likely dazing off to sleep.
“I didn’t take you for a lover of poetry doc!” Michael says while smiling.
“I dabble Michael, I dabble.”
The relationship between myself and the sound of the steam, the slurping of the milk frothing, and the smell from the espresso shot made me forget about the man with the newspaper, until he laughs as if he were alone. A strong, manly laugh.
“Hey who’s the new guy,” I ask.
“Said his name was Conner, you can grab a seat doc, I’ll bring it over to you” Michael says.
Stumptown provides a quaint setup to their customers, which allows them to be in their own space, yet intimate enough to make new friends. As I look toward where Conner is sitting, he’s a few feet away from my favorite spot - The table against the brick wall near the window, which gave me the natural light I desire. I wonder if sitting near him will make him feel uncomfortable. There were so many seats that would provide a good amount of distance for an individual not to be alarmed, but my routine was my routine, I had to follow it.
“Good Morning, do you mind If I share the space with you?” I ask Conner.
“Of course, please,” Conner says, expressing a yes with his hand out, palm up.
His smile feels like morning breakfast during the weekend. Bright and warm. His glasses cover for what I believe are light brown eyes, but can’t tell due to the slight glare of the sun entering through the front door.
“A red eye with whip cream,” Michael says as he lays down the medium-sized cup on the table.
“Thank you, Micheal,” I say.
“You’re welcome doc”
As I go to take my first sip, I can feel the eyes of Conner on me and notice the tightening and loosening of his jaw, as if words were trapped in his mouth demanding passageway. Is he about to say something to me, but I ignore communication and continue with my morning.
My Stumptown coffee routine consisted of listening to Michael Barbaro’s studious voice on the daily show podcast, reading a novel (which this month is To Kill a Mockingbird), compiling last minute notes and goals for the day’s clients, and receiving another red-eye for my travels. I use to make fun of the people that were creatures of habit, now I was the biggest creature walking in NYC. Does Conner have a routine? Will I be seeing him every day now? These thoughts maze through my mind as I pay minimal attention to the podcast, then no attention as Conner waves to get my attention.
“Hi, Do you mind watching my stuff as I head to the restroom?” Conner asks.
“Of course.” I said as I cringe at the use of the word restroom. I always thought of it like a 2 dollar word for a 50 cent activity.
I look over at his table to see his stuff which consisted of a MacBook Pro, a long black trench coat, an old-school iPod, a newspaper, and a brown journal. There is something about journals that I love, so much that my knees buckle from the sight of one, and my mouth salivates over the secrets in them. Meeting someone new was nice, but a journal was a feeling of unlocking a safe or looking into the mirror - there was nothing to hide. The sound of the bathroom door swings open. I snap my head over to look at his stuff to make sure he knew I was on the lookout.
“Thank you,” Conner says as he goes to sit down.
“You’re quite welcome,” I say, which I immediately hated myself for. A few minutes of silence went on as more individuals walk inside the coffee shop. The usual suspects. The NYU law students, the morning cab drivers, the midtown models, and the Greenwich village tech nerds. They all showed up at their respective times, undoubtedly following their own morning routine. The morning rush for caffeinated crack ramped up the number of customers, making the line outside the door and bringing in the brisk air. A strong gust of wind from the entrance darts through Stumptown. The journal, it caught my eye again as the strong breeze from the front door turns its pages. What’s in it? What secrets were left untold? For some odd reason, I had to know who this stranger was.
“Anything I should worry about?” I ask.
“Excuse me” he replies with a confused look.
“The newspaper” I point at.
“Oh,” he laughed. “I’m unfortunately the wrong source for all things important news, I’m reading the arts section”.
“Ah. I see…my name is Bridgette” I provide without him asking.
“Nice to meet you. Conner”.
“You new to the area? Never seen you around” I ask.
He looks at me as if he were getting interrogated, but then dashes that great smile that proved otherwise.
“Not at all. I live uptown, I was just in the area visiting my father.”
“Hardly, I age a few years every time I go and see him.”
We both share a laugh, a laugh that felt like we were now newly acquaintances.
“That sounds like my mother and me,” I say, beating myself up from my poor grammar.
“What do you do? If you don’t mind me asking.” He turned his body in my direction, anticipating a conversation. I look at my watch calculating how long of a response I can give. I only have 10 minutes to get my second cup and walk to West 4th.
“I work as a child psychologist, but also work in overall consulting in the psychology field”.
“Oh boy, should I stop talking now.” he jokes, or I think.
“Ha. I’m not that bad. What do you do?”
He stares at the newspaper he’d been reading for the entirety of the morning, then passes it to me.
“I’m a chef, and today I was featured in the New York Times,” he says proudly.
Admiration was the feeling that mapped through me, yet a sense of jealously lingered as I approached the last sentence of the article - the food is to die for. I desperately wanted that type of professional success for myself. I all of a sudden imagined Conner’s daily routine as not having any. He comes and goes as he pleases, cooks all night, makes appearances on Top Chef, travels the world, eats at five-star restaurants, and stays in amazing hotels with amazing views.
“Wow, that’s amazing! Congratulations.”
“Thank you. Now you’re the second person in New York that I’ve told, but unlike my father, you actually had something positive to say” he said in a joking manner, shrugging off his real feelings of disappointment I sense.
“Sorry to hear. I’m sure he’s still proud.” I say, trying to provide a glass-half-full outlook.
“I doubt it. When I showed him the article he just ordered me to hand him the remote. My father really never approved of-“ Conner paused to laugh “sorry, you probably get this at work, sorry.”
My phone buzzed on the table, a reminder - Second order of red-eye. It was almost time for work.
“Hey families, they can be tough, I get it.” I wanted to say more, but that’s all that came out, so I stared at my laptop pretending to do work.
“Second round doc. Have a good day.” Michael said as he set the coffee on the table next to me.
“Man he’s like clockwork,” Conner says as I get up to collect my belongings.
“He sure is. So, Hey umm, here’s my card. I don’t know, I’m sure you don’t need counseling. I’m not saying that you do. I just figured that if you ever needed to talk, which I’m sure you don’t - “
He laughs. “Is it that noticeable?”
“No. I’m sorry. I just thought you’d like to talk some more that’s all.” I set down the card on his table and told him goodbye.
“Thank you doc” he yells to me.
A few weeks had passed since I last saw Conner. I even asked Michael a few days later if he ever stopped by again, but he had no memory of him. It was Monday morning and the beginning of my ritual. A few yoga poses, email replies, and Instagram moments later, an alert from my laptop lures me back to my desk. An email from [email protected]
From: [email protected]
Not sure if you remember, but it’s Conner. The guy that may, or may not have needed counseling at Stumptown. That should ring a bell! Any-who, I was wondering if I can take you up on that offer. I’ve been having these dreams, or maybe it’s a nightmare. In any case, the dreams always end with the closing of a red door. I’m not sure what it means, it probably means nothing, but I can hear people talking on the other side of the door. Familiar voices, almost whispering.
Got some time?