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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Standard That’s Automatic

Working in Coffeehouses Dept.: There’s a monochromatic consistency to the interior of a Panera Bread outlet that’s quietly reassuring, a panoply of earth tones on floor and walls, a gas-fired fireplace for a sense of House Ideal, yellow pendant lights to distract from the overhead floods, and wall-portraits of bagels and people eating bagels to remind you why you’re really here.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Sometimes it’s the only choice. In Amsterdam, near where I live in upstate New York, the coffee shop I’d frequented in recent years went under, becoming more of a restaurant instead. A delightful Polish eatery where the coffee was good and the wi-fi free, run by an Olympic bobsledding champion, closed its doors a few years ago. There’s little call here for the kind of place I seek, I suppose, although we’ll never truly know until we give ourselves the chance.

Like all successful chains, Panera has styled itself with as little threat as possible to the nervous, which characterizes the majority of chain-restaurant customers. This nation of pioneers lost its nerve a few decades ago, and seeks comfort in bland standardization.

So I’m passing the morning of New Year’s Eve with the dim simulacrum of a bagel before me, its expected chewiness softened to pabulum. I await my daughter, who is challenging herself at a nearby fitness center. I’m pretending not to be affected by the calendar’s end, one of so many symbols to which we attach measuring devices in order to feel sorrier about ourselves. Would we truly look forward to drinking ourselves into oblivion if we maintained a reliable sense of progress and self-worth?

The solace of standardization beckons. It’s not a question of whether you’re doing well or not, however the hell such a thing might be measured, because you are sitting among other similarly charged, similarly garbed on-the-road worriers, soothing themselves with caffeine and sugar. We unite in the comfort of the unsurprising.

It occurs to me to stop by a nearby table and wish its inhabitants a happy New Year. I would resist pointing out that it’s Anita O’Day on the background music track, singing “Drum Boogie” with Gene Krupa’s band. I would present myself as a sociable fellow, and they would return my pleasant wishes and ...

I’d possibly be encouraged into further conversation. After all, what would I do if someone were to address me thus? I would suspect that a request for money was to follow, or the dissemination of religious tracts, and once I determined that such wasn’t the case I’d worry about the intruder’s mental health and fear some prolonged involvement with the wretch.

Yet if it were truly a reasonably amiable soul, I would want to discover why the person had felt impelled to speak with me, and this would obligate me to reveal in return something about my own self, thus risking revealing the flaws I so busily conceal.

I remain fear-constrained, the perfect beige attitude to maintain in a perfectly beige environment. And then I overhear two workers commenting to one another as they prep a pickup: “That person was such an asshole.”

“Yeah. We’re going to see a lot of assholes today.”

Happy New Year!

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