A World Apart

“Wallet, keys & watch”. I repeat this slowly, like a mantra.

I remember placing everything but that’s insufficient. Carefully I shoot my cuffs, revealing the watch face. Check my pockets – pull out my wallet and finger my keys. I need the physical contact, the link between half remembered actions and the present as confirmation.

I’m ready to go.

It’s 6:30 PM and the sun has long set. I’m walking down Keats Way and I scarcely notice the trees bordering the chain link fence, branches overarching the sidewalk. This is a path I take everyday, right down to the jaywalk from one side to another, so I let my mind wander. Pizza Nova and Second Cup – my destinations for the evening. I’ve spent the last few hours staring at my books; the wood veneer pattern of my desk has etched itself on my consciousness. I need a change of scenery. Confirmation that I’m alive.

Meat Lovers. Vegetarian. Ham & Pineapple. Deluxe. Mediterranean. Pepperoni. I eye the ovens and listen idly as the new employee is put through his paces.

“I need my receipt.”

“Asad, how do I print his receipt?”

I’m living large today and in a way I feel I need it. It’s been a long day. Thoughts from earlier creep into my consciousness and I shake my head impatiently, as if the physical action has mental ramifications. The new employee comes to my rescue.

“I’ll have a slice of that” I say, pointing at the meat lovers.

Calorie counting is a remorseless world, and I’ve made my sacrifices for this indulgence. No food since 1PM and no latte at Second Cup. The pizza or latte today, but not both. It’s a world of everyday choices bounded by a number – first 2000, now lower. I’ve counted for so long I can’t remember life without it. Sneakily, I suspect I’m overstepping my bounds for today.

I offer to pay by debit and in doing so, exhaust the new hire’s recently acquired knowledge. Asad is summoned again.

The door to Second Cup is always open, the rectangular metal sign jammed under it a guide to passers by.

X marks the spot. Here be salvation. Here be liquid manna.

I don’t go to Williams anymore – it’s only Second Cup now. I walk inside and my eyes adjust to the softer, diffuse lighting. The counter is only a few paces away and as I stand there, there’s a pang of temptation. “Latte”. The right hand sags slightly and I look down at the pizza slice. Numbers count upwards in my head, digits on slot-machine dials.

“I’ll have a large coffee”

“For here or to go?”

To go? Hardly. “For here please”. I am paying $1.75 to Second Cup for the atmosphere, in silent appreciation of a place I enjoy. It’s a world apart in Waterloo, my secret garden. Collecting my cup, I move towards the back. The high back sofas I’d used on my last visit were occupied. Two girls, their books strewn in the immediate vicinity were ensconced deep in the cushions, focused on their textbooks. Images from my last visit snaked their way into awareness. A cappuccino with fat-free on my side of the table, nothing on the other. Wooden stirring stick in my hands – brown against brown – mixing the foam. The other sofa.

I turn, pass them and walk towards the last table nestled against the wall. I don’t look back.

Pizza slice. Coffee cup. Newspapers. I take a seat and look at the chair across from me.

No one there.

I sit in silence and steam rises from the cup as I survey the store. Two girls talking in an unknown language to my right, the two girls studying, two women sitting next to me digging into a slab of cake and two guys talking in the front.

I know what’s missing. I know I can’t do anything about it. The day’s earlier events had sealed that avenue. I drag the now useless chair to my side; spread my newspapers on its seat. Slowly I unwrap the pizza, visually savor it, select the smallest piece and take a bite. Take a sip of coffee and open the paper. I want to forget today. Let the secret garden do its work.

Sip of coffee. Bite of pizza. Read a bit.
Lather. Wash. Rinse.
Repeat ad infinitum.

I sink into a pattern and the magic works itself. I feel open, relieved, alive. The background music dies down and a strum cracks the air, whip-like in the silence. A song starts and I recognize the notes, but not the voice. I make the connection – live music – and a smile takes over.

Suddenly, it’s perfect.

I sit there, read and listen. Close my eyes and listen as song after song rolls by. Oasis, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Vertical Horizon, Blind Melon.
All I can say
Is that my life is pretty plain

Blind Melon – No Rain. Leaning back, I lip synch silently with the guitarist, unembarrassed. Ever since hearing this song in the trailer for Sideways, I’ve remained a fan. The girl in the high backed chair makes eye contact and I suspect she’s bemused at my behavior. I’m not. She’s a fan of the song however and claps when it’s over. 10 minutes later she’s packing her bag and preparing to leave. Protected by The Toronto Star, I eye her soon-to-be vacated chair covertly. I plot my takeover.

“The lawyer guy I met today, I know I’m not getting a job with him”

“Why not?”

“When I went there he had a 3 page itinerary that he said would take 20 or so hours to complete. I don’t think he’s…”

The women next to me discussed their employment situation, their voices intruding on my reverie. One of them gets up and fetches a plate for her companion.

“Dig in. They give huge slices here. It looks like half the cake.”

It does look like half the cake. I would like that cake. I resist. The guitarist starts playing Oasis – Wonderwall and the women’s conversation slips into the background. Both the girl and her friend wait for the song to finish before leaving and as soon as they do, I occupy their position.

“Hey – thanks for playing. You’re really good.”

“Thanks man.”

“How long have you been practicing?”

“About 10 years”

The ice broken, we talk. He’s from St. Catharines and we discuss practicing, music, chords and songs. We end the conversation with him asking me if I have a request. “Blind Melon – No Rain” I reply. Laughing at my choice he obliges and there, in my seat, I’m content.

Many people find it uncomfortable to talk to strangers. It’s an invasion of privacy, a piercing of the invisible veil in which we shroud ourselves in public settings. I often choose to violate that unspoken contract we’ve signed. It’s a delicate balance and for every success, every fleeting connection I forge, there are failures. But I persevere.

As the guitarist plays on, the table to my left is occupied by the server. She’s holding a pita and a cup of water. Two for two I wonder?

“Can’t stand the coffee anymore?”

“I pace myself out, I don’t want to drink too much.”

“How much have you had today?”

“One cup…”

It meanders – nothing deep, nothing meaningful – but I don’t want it to be. She’s in S&B, has issues with coop, works twice a week + weekends… We cover a range of topics including music on the job, her boss and more.

Why do I do it?
I couldn’t tell you if I tried. I’m Allen George and this is who I am.

The atmosphere at Second Cup today is different. It feels lighter, as if charged with life. I breathe in deeply, willing my body to capture the essence. The songs, the people and the atmosphere have all loosened me up. If my personality was a battery, this was the recharger. I’m thankful because I feel that tonight is special. This is different. I am different. Before I leave, I buy the guitarist a slice of cake to hold him for the night.

“Keep on truckin'” I say, and walk out the door.

Walking down University Ave., the looming engineering buildings to my right fail to dent my mood. Passing SCH, I make a detour into the university and uplifted, start singing. I don’t ask why and I don’t let go. Stammering at first, then gaining confidence with every passing note I continue. Off-key maybe – but dammit – I enjoyed it. I sing louder and the emptiness of the campus echoes. Throwing my arms out I laugh into the night.

Today the university is my playground.

I would definitely have embarrassed anyone with me and I wonder if perhaps, my erstwhile companion(s) would have preferred to avoid me in this mood. Every person I pass is a stranger in the night and shrouded in darkness I make no eye-contact, refusing to break my song or the spell.

In retrospect, the two songs I sang said more about what was on my mind than my other actions in that timeframe. Realizing this, I keep them private.

On the way back I pass groups of people. Some ignore me but my singing attracts the attention of one group and we stop, make sudden conversation and break off again. Drive by “Hellos and Goodbyes”. Jaywalking again, I ignore the headlights and notice instead the old man walking his two dogs.

“Good day Sir!”

He stops; his body language signals fear.

I smile, repeat my greeting and follow up quickly with a question about his dogs. Instantly his demeanor shifts. We talk. I scratch his dogs’ ears. I walk home. I’ve noticed a number of potential pictures on the way back and I intend to leave again, tripod and camera in hand. The blinking light on my answering machine catches my attention however, and curious I stop.

“Who would call?” I wonder out aloud. My question is answered seconds later as I hear my sister’s voice requesting that I return the call.

Her number. Where’s her number?

I scrabble around and realize that it’s in my email folder.

I check my email.
I pause.
I make two calls.

Putting my coat on again, I turn off the light. Closing the door I look into the darkness and feel the night air swirl around me. I’m not cold anymore.

Turning my back to the house I let the blackness swallow me up.

Allen Ajit George
November 7, 2004