Thursday, August 15, 2013

Give me the usual

Robbie and Ellen at St. Andrews Coffee House
PANAMA CITY — Recently, I left my hat behind after lunch at the St. Andrews Coffee House. That afternoon, I received an email with the subject line “CAPtive.”

The message stated: “We have your hat. Instructions for its safe return to follow.” A second email said, “Report to 1006 Beck Ave. between the hours of 7 a.m. and 2 p.m. Approach the skinny blonde and say ‘the usual.’ ”

Now, sometimes it’s nice to go somewhere nobody knows you. Just to walk into a shop or café and not be met by sentences that start with “Don’t you work for…” or “Aren’t you…” Usually those beginnings result in nice talks or tips for articles, but there’s always that moment of hesitation when you wonder what’s going to happen next.

Even so, the opposite situation has even more appeal.

For instance, as a family, we’ve visited Charlie Coram’s Place on 23rd Street enough times that the waitresses ask us if we even need a menu; they know how we want our burgers, what condiments we use, and if one of the kids orders Heavenly Hash, they know what extras to put on the side. They also take for granted that a certain number of people will be in our group, so they’re surprised when one is missing or an extra face joins us.

If you’re of a certain age, then you recall the theme to the TV series “Cheers” — after all, it was a top-40 radio hit at one point — and you probably understand the feeling that sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.

That’s what “the usual” means to me.

You don’t get a “usual” unless you’re a creature of habit. You have to go to the same place at about the same time every week and order the same item. (A voice in my head goes, “Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.”)

Some people like to change things up all the time. My experimentation ends when I find something I like, though I might be dangerous some weeks and have white bread instead of wheat.

Also, I don’t think you can ask to have a “usual.” It’s something that has to be bestowed. I just came in the coffee house door one morning and was asked, “You want the usual?”

And yes, I did. In fact, it was more important to me, in that moment, to know that I had “a” usual than it was to actually eat the thing.

In the past year, I had taken to eating lunch there weekly, often in the company of friends who join me to talk about books, movies, TV shows, writing projects, film making, zombies, or whatever else might come up. Our conversations must confuse and occasionally terrify people at other tables, but we’ve not yet had a complaint.

One such week, my friend Nick, hearing Ellen and Robbie ask if I wanted “the usual,” said he wanted to have a “usual” of his own. I told him it was possible, but more likely that his would be an “unusual.”

I had to say it before somebody else said it about me.

And one morning, I noticed that the ladies had set a missing place at the counter. One of the stools had been removed, and a plate was set there with specific condiments for a regular customer — who had died unexpectedly.

It was a simple gesture, and beautiful. I didn’t ask many questions, because the statement was clear: He was part of their lives, and he would be missed.

It’s comforting to know that such a connection is part of the usual around here.

Peace.

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(This was my column for PanamaCity.com and The News Herald this week.)
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