Whether I walk in at 6:30 or 7:00 or 7:12, there’s an old guy with a baseball cap leaning up against one of the large panes in the front. He adds a certain ambiance, I’d say. Maybe ambiance stirs the creative juices? One time, during one of his rare moments of consciousness, he mentioned to a regular passing by that he was worried about a car crashing through the window. You hear about that sort of thing, he said. They began to talk specifics—the crash patterns, the tables just outside tumbling inside before the car entered. Smashing into me, the sitting guy said. After a while, he folded open the newspaper and read over his glasses and didn’t move. He’ll be there tomorrow, I’m sure.
There are regular groups at regular tables of varying sizes. Most of the groups include retired folks. They reminisce about the previous day’s news, sports, race track results, their sons and daughters, food, flower beds, the weather. They share pictures, they gush. They share medical concerns and the results from tests. This is their front porch. I don’t hear too much whining. They seem to appreciate their relaxed schedules and seeing each other each day. Some of them are there seven days a week.
There are a few who are loud. There’s one guy with a scratchy voice that I would enjoy listening to if I weren’t trying to write. It sounds as if someone has a heel on his throat. Up until a few days ago, I’ve been able to tolerate him, but I’ve retreated to a different Panera. On the second day there, I heard that scratchy voice again! I turned, alarmed that the guy had followed me, which would have been unbelievable, but it was someone else. Now that might make a good story, a character who travels from one coffee shop to another…and maybe he acts differently at each site. There you go, a writing prompt.
I do look around at times when I need to stretch and scratch my head and wonder if any salacious meetings are taking place. More writing possibilities. But I haven’t seen anything suspicious. No reluctant touching or hushed exchanges. If two people are at a table, it’s usually some kind of business meeting. The worst is the guy who sits alone and conducts business loudly on his phone. Yes, it’s always a He.
I did see an interesting group one morning that I could write a story about. A group of young men in their thirties. Discussing business, it seemed. But then they bowed their heads, and one guy began a kind of sermon about strength and focus. One guy put his hand on the shoulder of the guy next to him. I imagined this group in ten years, in charge of a mega-church that grew out of this modest morning meeting…but ambition corrupts one of them and… Go ahead, write the story. It’s yours.
Most people sit alone, on laptops or reading a book. Some parents come in with their children. I can size up their parenting in about five seconds. One mom acted astounded today that her young daughter’s bagel had disappeared, which made me smile. I watched them amble out, having a fairly clear idea on that little girl’s bright future since she had someone in her life listening that intently.
A couple of times I’ve heard former student Daphne Willis on the sound system, which is always thrilling. Look her up. I guarantee her music will make you happy. The new Panera, by the way, has a worker who sings Mexican tunes as she mops.
On the way to Panera this morning, I spotted a lanky old guy with a grey mane on a motorized chair, smoking a cigarette and chugging along at a turtle’s pace. The next intersection would be about 30 minutes away for him.
Why I keep returning? The staff leaves you alone. Some days I’ll buy breakfast. Other days a single cup of coffee buys me several hours at a table without some manager hovering over me and urging me to move along. I do wonder what some of the regulars think of me, with my notebooks and wayward hair. They probably think I’m writing some schizophrenic rambling—about them. Maybe they’re right. Maybe they need to start speaking more softly.