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Joseph E Bird

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meet cute

In the movies, it’s called a meet cute.

The boy rounds the corner and knocks the books out the girl’s hands. They bend down to pick them up and before they know it, there’s a spark. There’s an awkward, yet endearing conversation. She smiles as he watches her walk away. You know right then where the story is going. It will be – eventually – a happy ending.

That’s the movies. Let me tell you about my real-life meet cute.

It was in the coffee shop. No surprise, right? Almost a cliché in itself. But I like coffee shops. I’ll tell you why, but truthfully, if I have to explain this to you, you might was well stop reading right now and jump on over to check last night’s scores. The other day I overheard a co-worker tell someone that he didn’t like coffee, that he would have no reason to stop by the new coffee shop on the west side. I find it hard not to hold his dislike of coffee against him. You’re really missing the point, man. You don’t like coffee? Fine. There are options.

A couple of years ago my nephew spent the night at our house over Christmas. When he said he didn’t care what he had for breakfast, my wife started making oatmeal. We didn’t learn until he was finished eating that he had been lying. He should have said he didn’t care what he had for breakfast, as long as it wasn’t oatmeal. Too late. But the oatmeal he ate that morning was unlike any oatmeal he had ever eaten. If you take plain oatmeal, bland as it is, and add a little brown sugar, some raisins, apples and walnuts, topped with a little cream, what you end up with is a big bowl of oatmeal cookie. Who doesn’t like oatmeal cookies? My nephew sure did.

So, co-worker man, if the coffee is a little too bitter for your still-developing child-like palette, they can foo-foo it up (as my wife would say) and give you something sweet and mushy. But then again, going to a coffee shop isn’t really about the coffee. It’s about people. Seeing people, talking to people. Just being among other human beings.

But back to the meet cute.

This coffee shop is a relatively new establishment, just a couple of blocks from my office. I don’t always stop there in the morning because they’re not open when I usually go to work. It’s a quiet and peaceful place. Music is always playing softly. People doodling on their laptops. Quiet conversations.

It’s a Friday morning a week and a half before Christmas. I had skipped my early cup of coffee and I find myself at a good stopping point in my work at the office. The sun is shining and it’s an unusually pleasant day for December so I grab my coat and head out the back door and make my way to Main Street. I’m going to get a cup of coffee, maybe a muffin, and sit at a table by the window and watch people go by. I can just take off from work like that because I’m an important executive and I’m a salaried employee and I come to work early and stay late and if I want to take a few minutes for myself in the middle of the morning I have the moral right to do so. I also have so many weeks of vacation built up that it would be nearly impossible for me to use them all. For those of you who have a propensity for delving into a person’s psyche, this little tidbit about my inability to use my vacation time will tell you something about me, though I don’t think I would care to know what this tells you. Not that it matters. Let me save you the trouble of the analysis: I’m boring.

I get to the shop around 10:30 and stand in line for a few minutes and then it’s my turn and the owner of the shop says hello, calls me by name, and takes my order, a small black coffee. No nonsense. No cream, no sugar, no flavors, no steamed milk, no holiday blend. Because I’m a man. A grown man. It’s an ego-boosting construct, this notion that drinking plain, black coffee makes me any more of a man than the hipster in front of me who ordered a skinny latte with cinnamon and a dash of nutmeg. Clint Eastwood drinks his coffee black. Maybe. I don’t really know. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, this hipster, and I’m sure not all the world’s problems result from his generation’s socialist leanings, but I’m getting old and my time has passed and it’s the role I must play, the only other option being the teetering, out-of-touch relic from another time. But I don’t teeter (yet) and if I’m going to be an out-of-touch relic, I’m going to be a hard-edged Eastwood-type who the kids actually fear when I tell them to get off my lawn. That’s right. Black coffee. And one of those scones. Cranberry.

I’ve moved down the counter now, standing, waiting for my coffee. And my scone. The hipster stands to my left. He’s wearing a nice-looking jacket and a knit cap. A backpack hangs from his left shoulder. He’s texting on his phone, his fingers flying. He’ll take a table near the window, maybe my table, and pull a laptop from his backpack and begin to do whatever people do when they have a laptop in a coffee house. Facebook? No. He’s young. Instagram. Or maybe some other app that I don’t even know about. A young girl who looks like she’s fifteen but is probably twenty-five – I can’t tell anymore – shakes a can of whipped cream then squirts a mound of foam on the skinny latte with cinnamon and a dash of nutmeg and the contradiction of the skinny latte and the whipped cream is lost on the poor hipster boy. She hands him the drink and he goes straight to my table.

Get away from there. I shout this across the room. In my head.

The girl hands me my scone in a paper bag and I’m waiting for my coffee, wondering why it takes so long to pour a simple cup of coffee. She finally hands it to me, my name illegibly scrawled on the side of the cup.

There’s a stack of napkins to my left. Had they been to my right, I probably wouldn’t be telling you this story. But they were to my left. I’m holding the scone in my right hand, the coffee in my left. I need my left hand free to grab a napkin, so I transfer the coffee to my right hand, holding it just with my thumb and index finger, the scone in the bag below the cup. Not a good grip at all.

And this is when it happens. My meet cute.

I didn’t see her come in. I didn’t know she had been behind me when I ordered. I didn’t know she had moved down the counter to wait for her order. I didn’t know she was standing so close to my right.

And I turn to go toward the front of the coffee shop, and before it even registers in my mind that she is there, I bump into her and my coffee falls from its high perch, tumbles toward her, hits the front of her coat – her beautiful white wool coat – and the lid pops off and the coffee flies everywhere and I watch as the cup empties itself completely, and a horribly beautiful, artistic, brown stain flows downward to the hem of her coat and drips onto her brown leather boots and finally puddles on the floor.

I hear gasps from the people nearby. Then the entire shop goes quiet, except for me, mumbling an apology, grabbing the pile of napkins on the counter.

She hasn’t moved, this young woman, save to hold out her hands, coffee dripping from her fingers. I start there, wiping her hands, apologizing the whole time, and when her hands show no more signs of hot coffee, I start on her coat, trying to soak up the brown stain, and I realize that I have to stop because my actions are highly inappropriate, even if my intent is plainly obvious.

By now the shop owner has made his way from the other side of the counter with a handful of paper towels and he faces the same dilemma I faced but he thinks more clearly and asks her to take off her coat which she does and he lays the coat on the counter and begins sponging up as much coffee as he can. It’s a losing battle.

She hasn’t moved.

I’ll see if I can rinse it out, he says, and without asking, he takes the coat to a back room.

She still hasn’t moved, but she turns to look at me.

She’s a lovely woman, much younger than I, though not so young that I shouldn’t notice her loveliness. She appears to be of Asian descent. And her eyes are filling with tears.

I’m so sorry, I tell her. I don’t know what to do.

The young girl on the other side of the counter hands me more paper towels and I kneel down and start to sop up the puddle on the floor. She takes a step back, allowing me to get to the puddles that have pooled behind her and I see the coffee in drips and runs on her boots and without thinking and without asking I start to wipe off her boots, first the tops of her feet, but they’re boots and they rise over her calves and again I cross that boundary of appropriateness without thinking and without any intention other than trying to right the wrong and clean up the mess and I’m on the floor where shoes have trod and spills throughout the day have dried into dark circles and crumbs from scones and muffins and cookies are scattered like microscopic boulders and my hands are getting dirty and the knees of my executive slacks are wet and gathering grime and I no longer feel like Clint Eastwood but more like Willy Loman and I feel the blood rushing to my face and now I want to stay down among the other shoes that I see gathered around because to stand will reveal my reddened face and expose my shame and confirm my humiliation.

But I rise to my feet and again tell her I’m sorry and she’s not quite crying but there are tears and she is sad. I take off my coat and put it on her shoulders because everyone else has a coat except her and she looks cold and lonely and though she probably isn’t, I don’t know what else to do. I tell her I’ll go check on her coat and I walk to the back of the shop where I imagine a food preparation area but there are only bathrooms. The door is open and the shop owner is trying to dry the coat with paper towels. It looks like the coffee has washed out but I look closer and see the stain, lighter, but still there. The shop owner has done all he can. I thank him and take the coat.

The young woman is sitting at table by herself, her own coffee drink in front of her. She moves it away from me as I approach, carrying her coat draped across my arm, holding it out from my body as if it’s a blemished lamb, because that’s exactly what it is. I shake my head. I lay it on the table and sit at the table across from her.

I’m so sorry, I say again for what seems like the tenth time and she manages a smile and tells me it’s ok.

I’m really sorry. Eleven.

I’ll pay to have it cleaned. And I’m already thinking that I’m going to buy her a new coat because the stain is likely there forever.

She puts her hand on the coat and strokes it lightly. It was my mother’s coat.

The phrasing of the statement is not lost on me. It was her mother’s coat. Her mother has died.

I’m so sorry. Seventy times seven will not be enough.

I don’t actually remember her wearing the coat. Or her, for that matter. She died when I was a child.

I stop myself from saying I’m sorry again.

Old photographs my father had. The three of us. Mother, Father, me. Mother wearing the coat. I thought it looked so sophisticated on her. After she died, my father held on to all of her things. He died two years ago and it was all left to me. I found the coat in a trunk.

So, I’ve not just ruined a coat, I’ve ruined an irreplaceable keepsake. I’ve ruined the one connection this poor woman has with her mother.

I had it cleaned. Sewed some seams that were coming apart, and then just hung it in the closet. And this winter I thought it would be nice to wear it, to think of her, to let her live a little through me.

I’m trying to think of something to say, something other than I’m sorry, thinking there must be a phrase or an expression of remorse that goes beyond mere sorrow, one that puts me on my knees, not to beg forgiveness, because what’s the point in that, because it’s not about me feeling better, it’s about somehow finding words or actions that can make up for what I’ve done. But it’s done and can’t be undone.

I just shake my head. I tell her again I’ll pay to have it cleaned. I’ll buy her a new coat, I tell her, and I feel stupid as soon as I say it, as if a new coat would have the same connection to her mother. But what else can I do?

It doesn’t quite fit. She was a little smaller than me, apparently.

I’m silent, because there are no words.

It’s only a coat. It was my mother’s coat, not mine. I’ll have it cleaned as best they can. Then I’ll keep it in the closet. I’ll bring it out now and then, and think of her, but really, I have no memory of her to recall. Just a mother and father and a little girl in a photograph. That’s all.

She’s smiling now. A sad smile, but a smile nonetheless. She reaches for her coffee and I move her coat away from the table and lay it across the back of a chair. She laughs a little. We talk.

Her name is Janine. She lives in New York. She’s an accountant in town performing an audit of the local bank. She travels a lot and likes to explore the towns she visits. She’s traveled to Japan twice to visit the families of her mother and father, but there are fewer of them now, and in Japan she is a stranger in a strange land. And here she is, in a small town coffee shop, with a coffee stain on her mother’s coat.

She needs to get back to the bank.

I apologize again and I’ve lost count of how many times, and she assures me again that it’s ok, that I don’t have to pay for dry cleaning or buy her a new coat or in any way try to make things right. Because we both understand that I can’t.

How can you be so gracious after what I’ve done?

She offers no answer. She stands and realizes my coat is still around her shoulders.

I believe this is yours.

She hands me my coat.

And this is yours.

I help her into her mother’s coat. The front is still damp and she looks at the stain and sighs. It’s all I can do to keep from apologizing again. Instead, I thank her, and in the moment, I’m not sure what I’m thanking her for except that the kindness and understanding she showed to me was so undeserved.

We walk out of the coffee shop together, our conversation now just the usual chatter that people who really don’t know each other make as they’re about to leave each other’s company. The ordinary, the forgettable. Nothing witty, nothing charming.

It wasn’t that kind of meet cute. Meet truth is maybe a better description. She’ll go back to the bank, back to New York with a story to tell.

And me? I’m still here. Still drinking my coffee black. Still imagining I’m Clint Eastwood. Still working too much.

But this Christmas is a little different. I understand a little better. I’ve experienced grace.


This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

copyright 2018, joseph e bird

Ronceverte uncovered.

church 01An unusual church, perched high on a hill overlooking the small town Ronceverte, West Virginia.

IMG_0218The potential: Ronceverte’s version of New York’s High Line Park.

IMG_8198

A hundred steps to nowhere.

a birthday

sids birthday for web

“For through wisdom your days will be many,
and years will be added to your life.”


The photo is of A. S. “Sid” Morgan, maybe taken in 1973, maybe his 90th birthday.  I suppose I could try to count the candles.  If it was 1973, he would die less than a month later.

This is the kind of photograph that inspires stories, spurs the imagination of a writer.  But Sid lived the adventures.  He built boats and floated down the Mississippi on hunting expeditions back in the early 1900s.  In 1926, he opened a museum that over the years became legendary.

You’d never guess he lived that kind of life from the picture.  He looks tired.  The house he’s in, once a proud mansion on the bottom land near the Kanawha River, looks tired. I was in the house many times as a child and the memories are still strong.  Unusual memories.  The smell of the soft, slowly decaying wood of the front porch, patches of tin covering the holes.  The feel of the air in the house.  Cool, until you walked into the kitchen and the gas heaters overwhelmed with stuffy warmth and lingering fumes. And the quiet.  Sometimes the house was full of people, full of kids, but I remember the times where it was only Mom and Sid, our family visiting quietly, the stillness of it all unsettling.

It’s gone now.  The house demolished shortly after Sid’s death.  Across from where the house sat is the massive John Amos Power Plant.  No hint of what happened there years ago.

But the stories are still there, just waiting to be written.

pack your bags and leave right way

Come for the scenery, stay for the food.

An Iraqi, an Iranian, an Italian, and two Americans.

Not the beginning of a joke.

Not the beginning of a tragic story.

Not the beginning of a world-changing summit.

Just strangers meeting in an Italian coffee shop in West Virginia, of all places.

Joe and Gloria, the Americans, trying gelato for the first time. They take their little dessert cups to the sunroom and wait for their coffee. It’s a cozy little room with seating that’s just right to encourage conversation, even with people you don’t know.

Enter Nadia and Ester. Young ladies in their twenties. We exchange hellos and other pleasantries.

Ester is outgoing; Nadia a little more quiet.

Gloria is outgoing; Joe a little more quiet.

So Ester and Gloria talk. Ester says she will soon begin working at the Italian coffee shop we are now in. Gloria inquires about her accent. Persian, she says, but everyone thinks she’s Italian because she currently works at a local pizzeria. She is from Iran. Nadia is from Iraq. They’ve been in the United States a few years, each coming under different circumstances. They met here and became friends.

Gradually, Joe and Nadia enter the conversation. They all talk about language (Farsi, Arabic, English, and Mandarin), they talk about work, they talk about coffee. They don’t talk about politics.

Until Roberto walks into the room. He can’t help himself. He owns this coffee shop and has worked hard to make it a success. He’s a successful business person. He’s a nice guy and is very, very outgoing. And he has a heart for the less fortunate. He expresses his heart in terms of worldwide political and economic philosophies.

The others listen, the others being the Iranian, the Iraqi, and the two Americans. Geopolitics is beyond their realm of understanding, really. What countries do is beyond their control. They speak of respect for individuals and love and taking care of your neighbor in need. That’s all.

Ester says she is blessed to be in America. Joe says America is blessed to have her.

Roberto would have gone on all night, spirited man that he is. But it’s time to go. Roberto is very pleased with the international exchange that has just occurred. Everyone seems pleased. There are smiles all around. Nadia gives Gloria a hug.

We’re different. We’re the same. We have different perspectives, but we all want the same thing.

Just to live a life with meaning.

This is what the world should be.


Editor’s Note:  This is a true story.  The names have been changed to respect privacy.

nantucket sleighride

Snyder Family 1 for web
The Snyder Family Band in St. Albans, WV

A warm summer’s evening in Small Town USA, and some of the best music you’ll hear anywhere.  And that, my friends, is no exaggeration.  There will be no bad video uploads from me to taint the amazing musicianship of this family.  Look them up yourself.  You know how do to that.  Or take a look at Zeb’s take on Turkey in the Straw.

But they’re more than just another bluegrass band.  Zeb introduced one number as a prog rock (progressive rock) that Samantha wrote, and you could definitely hear the classical influence.  And Zeb’s got more than a little southern rock in his soul.  I don’t know if the two write together, but their play together is so tight, even as they take turns with virtuoso solos.  And there’s Dad – Bud – in the background, the glue that holds everything together as he puts down the bass line and keeps the rhythm.  The star of tomorrow?  Yeah, that’s Owen, who at twelve years old has a stage presence well beyond his years.  Mom?  She shows up onstage in some of the old photos on the internet, but she’s behind the scenes now, doing what all moms do, I imagine, and that’s keeping everybody in line as she manages the group.

In Small Town USA, they don’t care if you run all over the place taking pictures.  And backstage is just behind the yellow caution tape, where I got a chance to talk to Zeb and Owen and tell them how much I appreciated their music.  A great night, for sure.  Check out my photos below.

Zeb and Samantha 1 for web
Samantha and Zeb
Samantha Fresco for web
Samantha sings.
ZEb Fresco for web
Zeb high up on the fret board.
Owne Snyder plays for web
Young Owen.  You know you’re good when you can close your eyes while you play.
Bud Snyder for web
Bud is the rock, in more ways than one.  Happy Father’s Day.

I wanna be a cowboy.

Sunset panorama in Durban

Are you a surfer or a cowboy?

What?

Are you a surfer or a cowboy?

Uh…cowboy?

Loaded question. Especially for me as a fifth grader from West Virginia, living in Houston, Texas. The wrong answer gets you in trouble. Gets you beat up.

Not really. At least not in the fifth grade. It was more of a starting point for a friendly argument. But what the heck did I know about being a cowboy or a surfer?

Cowboys are tough guys. Wear hats and boots. Eat beans by the campfire. Drink coffee in a tin cup. Ride the range on a horse.

Surfers are hip. Catch the wave and hang ten. Get all the cool girls. Tool around the beach in a dune buggy.

But in the fifth grade, I’d never ridden a surfboard.  Still haven’t. I had a cowboy hat and boots.  So yeah, I was a cowboy.

Tribalism. Even back then.

But there’s something about the cowboy lifestyle that’s still appealing to me. It’s simple.  Not a lot of flash. Lots of time for thinking things out as you do your job.  It’s the kind of life suited for someone who doesn’t mind being alone now and then. And the hats. Yeah, pull the brim down when you ride into town. And for the cowboy, love is strong and forever.

The fire had burned to coals and he lay looking up at the stars in their places and the hot belt of matter that ran the chord of the dark vault overhead and he put his hands on the ground at either side of him and pressed them against the earth and in that coldly burning canopy of black he slowly turned dead center to the world, all of it taut and trembling and moving enormous and alive under his hands.

What’s her name? said Rawlins in the darkness.

Alejandra. Her name is Alejandra.

— Cormac McCarthy, from All the Pretty Horses

photo credit: iStock Photography

zeb

This, my friends from around the world, is what Appalachian music is all about.  Not that I don’t love other music.  Just check out my Music page.  (Note to self:  Post some Foo Fighters, man.)  But everything about this video speaks to my world.  Zeb in his ball cap and his very non-millennial, non-hipster, Appalachian beard. The sled leaning against the wall.  The wood-burning stove.  Even the name.  Zeb.

And how can he be so good?  So easy?

The best part is Zeb Snyder and the Snyder Family Band is coming to my little town of St. Albans in June for the first ever YakFest.  Can’t wait.

the long walk

pier for web

There were a few people on the beach, walking slowly, their heads down, scanning the sand for surprises from the deep that always appeared after a storm. A yellow umbrella pitched in the sand near the surf caught her eye and though she couldn’t see, she knew there was an old man underneath, his skin dark and leathery from his years in the sun, his shirt – a short-sleeved button-up, despite the cool weather – bleached a pale blue. There was a tackle box by his side and an always empty creel, though surely he would catch something sometime. Surely. He would sit in his beach chair and smile anyway, as if he knew he were part of the scene, part of what the people from the city expected to see when they came with their pale flesh, soon to be pink flesh, to walk on the hard, grainy sands and evaluate their lives and make big plans that would carry them back to their tedious jobs and their monotonous neighborhoods with a feeling of hope that would last a couple of weeks, maybe three, before comfortable complacency engulfed them once again and relieved them of any responsibility of living a more meaningful life. And it always happened on days like this one, not in the bright of a too hot day where the heat and lotions and kids crying in the distance worked to produce nothing better than a brief nap, followed by a short walk to the water to cool the feet, maybe venture in up to the knees, but never farther. No, the deep contemplation happened on the overcast days where the obligatory roasting in the sun was excused and those with no inclination for inner reflection went to the mall, while those who still had hope went on the long walk to the pier.


copyright 2018, joseph e bird, from the novel Heather Girl.

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