Strangers or Spiders

“What did you do?” the little man sitting at the table in front of me asks, slightly accusingly.

I point to the light that was flickering, which I turned off to avoid someone in the cafe having an episode.

“Mmm, I kind of liked the light on…”

A passive aggressive balding man with a big book. Good, god. I can work with this. You be you, bathe in that erratic flickering light. I’m going to take you in and spit you you out as a character. You inspired me this morning.

One year ago today I flew off to California. A year later I am back in Kansas with a different swagger but a similar focus.

I’m waiting for these certain opportunities to come to me, and when they do, I’ll know what they are. Right now, I am settling into the big city for a little while, and keeping busy. Driving more than I ever have in my life, making coffee for strangers that are becoming friends, and finding stability and consistency in chaos, a skill I was determined to fine tune during my year on the road.

No one ever really asks about my year in California, and when they do it’s almost too big of a question to answer. So I don’t talk about it, I don’t think about it, but I can feel it in my muscles everyday. I can feel the presence of a vagabond family that vibes with my restless runner’s legs.

I went out for drinks last Thursday with a former coworker from Manhattan. We laughed like old times, and talked about traveling the world like old times. Allie told me about her summer working in the Dominican Republic last year, and I told her about California and the Arctic.

But mostly what we talked about was the present, and I was shocked by the nest she’s made with a new full time job making phone calls with insurance companies.

“I don’t love what I do, but I have to say, I do love the sense of security it provides. Specifically the benefits…”

She gets health insurance, dental, a healthy paycheck that is helping her pay off her student loans. And she thinks she might be able to do this forever. And I respond automatically, telling Allie that my goal is to get her out of the country by the end of the year.

Immediately after I say this, I realize this goal is more for me than for her.

Similar to my stoner friends that get insecure when I don’t want to get high with them, so too I need people to fly away to keep myself flying.

We downed a few flights of beer, shared artichoke dip with pitas and mused on people and places. A little tipsy, we agreed this was really good for us both to feel alive again. I was just getting to know people in town, and Allie hadn’t really been out in the city since she moved here. She confided she hadn’t really met anyone she liked at work, even though it is a huge corporation. We parted ways, and promised to make this a weekly thing, which doesn’t mean much because we both like to imagine we have wings.

This morning, the third customer of the day, stuffy L.A. businessman with a hip hairstyle graying around the edges comes in. He’s in town for a few weeks to revamp K.C. “Kansas is not so bad. All you gotta do is find a good coffee shop.” He signs his name on the receipt, does not tip for his four shot americano as usual and sits down to crunch on his granola while I pull his shots.

Today I tried out some conversation with this self proclaimed big time player, and told him I spent the year working around Sacramento.  

“Ohh…”

I want to go to this mythical “L.A.” and see just how much fun everyone is having there. Because I bet they are pretty similar to my friend Allie and the people here- staying in their boxes, afraid to step out but also sinking in boredom within.

Today I came into work at 6 am, but think I can probably start coming in more like 6:30. Or get rid of the shift altogether. It’s a little spooky downtown in the early hours of the morning, and I just generally don’t like to be in areas that are unpopulated.

I filled up my world map mug with coffee, and started in on the day. I placed my black and white composition notebook by the espresso machine, and filled in the spaces inside with observations on the quiet morning.

A few minutes later, an adorable and awkward 13 year old boy comes in and orders the chocolate chip muffin that he has consistently bought for the past week. I ask why he’s always up so early, slightly worried about him.

His name is Boston; braces, a dark skin tone of Indian or Pakistani descent, the beginnings of teenage acne on his forehead, a breakthrough smile that is almost too big for his mouth and a genuine excitement at the prospect of the chocolate chip muffin I hand him.

He tells me he goes to school down the road, and he started riding the bus last week. As proof, his collected metro cards spill onto the counter as he grabs three dollars for his treat. He tells me, with further prodding, that he gets off the bus at six in the morning, and has to run for about an hour to get here before school starts.

I think about how I never had to do this when I was 13. I think about how I am 24 and scared to be outside in the early hours by myself. I want to adopt this kid and drive him to school for the rest of the year.

Later, the new girl comes in. She hovered over me all morning yesterday, pulling her sleeves up to make sure I saw her tattoos, and gauged earrings. She was like a brick wall to try to talk to, just like all the other girls that work at this coffeeshop. I pegged her about 19 years old, and was pissed off the rest of the day that I had the same job as a teenager.

Today however, she casually drops the fact that “learning to drink coffee” was about the only thing she got out of her four year degree. All of the sudden I am all questions.

“You graduated college?”

Thank god. I breath a sigh of relief, and find myself surrounded by my peers again. My lost, millennial lovelies that were promised the world growing up, and are all working as fry cooks and bartenders now.

She’s from Lawrence, but went to college in Dallas and just moved to the city. She tells me, without sarcasm, that we are living the dream here. Getting a barista job in Lawrence is like applying for graduate school. And living in the “big city” has always been the dream, right? I agree. We made it, I say. Now we’ve got to figure out what’s next.

Last night Ben and I went to a Black Lives Matter book signing by Jamala Rogers, an activist who works with young people in St. Louis. She read passages from her book, America is Ferguson: Roots of Rebellion, and opened the floor to community comments.

The reading took place at the only library in Kansas City named after a black woman, Lucile Bluford, who was a famous local journalist denied entry into the University of Missouri’s masters program eleven times based on race.

Jamala stated that she specifically chose this library to hold her book signing at because of the black history, and how the community should take pride in this library and the predominant black community, not avoid it with academic airs citing “safety concerns”. The library is on Prospect street, and she said if black babies were there, why should grown adults not be there trying to figure out how to create more equal opportunity in America?

Jamala talked about the source of violence in black communities, stating that the violence manifested in today’s young people or color is a direct result of the environment of oppression they grow up in. She named the condition as ptsd, stating the way young black people in America are acting out, violent or not, is completely appropriate to what they are enduring. We as a people need to take the blame off of the people lashing out, and put more blame on a society that creates a hostile environment for certain populations to grow up in.

Jamala touched on the fact that the US has the highest prison population in the word, coming in at two million, and the US also has the highest child incarceration rate in the world.

A  man recently out of prison shared that the manifestation of ptsd in prison is purposefully ignored, and is not factored into sentencing.

Just as our prisons don’t take the blame for shaping people into who they will become, neither does our culture as a whole take responsibility for the people we create through our institutionalized racism.

At the end of the book talk, Jamala introduced one of the members of the audience, a man who had just gotten out of a 24 year prison sentence, wrongly accused whom she helped to free. I stared at the man, and wondered where that smile was coming from. Five seconds of my life thinking about that wrongful conviction, 24 years of his.

The other day I went to a coffee shop to meet a fellow writer. I got there early, and sat down on the patio outside, planning to get some writing time in before we commenced discussing writing.

I had been interacting with people all day beginning the morning teaching my first English class to Burmese and Bhutanese refugees, then on to a poetry workshop with my grandma and aunt, and planning on attending an environmental lecture later that night.

Continuing with the flow, I sit down and as if on cue, a few minutes later a girl comes and sits down behind me, starting a conversation and soon telling me her life story.

The barista brings her out a tamale, and she begins talking about the parasites she got in India, and the twenty other countries she’s worked in. Later, she’s telling me about how she got really sick in Cambodia, came back to the US two years ago and lived on a Christian commune to heal. She almost died, she says, and I realize that this is probably one of her first times out in the real world in years. She assumes I am an evangelical Christian as well, and I tell her I am not. She says this is fine, she just assumes everyone is! I begin to back away as she points to the spiders around the patio, spiders spiders spiders! She continues to bring them up throughout our conversation, the topic keeps diverting back to the spiders. And slowly I realize that Kansas is not a trap, people are not traps. You come and go, take and leave, you are your own eight legged creatures spinning your own web, make it beautiful.

The saying, “they’re most scared of you than you are of them,” comes to mind, and I look at Natalie the evangelizer, and realize that we both need this interaction in our own ways. I remember once again that when you reach out regularly, you are generally met with a blanket of warmth. And when you’re not, when you get bitten, you realize that life goes on. Most spiders are not poisonous.

Carpenter and I went camping this past weekend, and I woke up in the middle of the night sweating with fear as my toe throbbed. I turned on the headlight and scanned the sleeping bags for the culprit, but found none. It was my toe creating its own pain, something going on with the nerves. There was no spider

When I first got to Kansas I ran into what seemed like an absurd amount of spider webs. While I determined spider webs to symbolize traps a month ago, I now see them as a reminder of our opportunity to create and interact. And that traps are usually in your own mind, not in the physical world.

SInce I’ve been back in Kansas I’ve started wearing deodorant every so often, and stopped writing as much,. I plan on wearing deodorant less frequently again, and writing routinely after work in this coffeeshop.

“From that day forward Siddhartha ceased to fight against his destiny. There shone in his face the serenity of knowledge, of one who is no longer confronted with conflict of desires, who has found salvation, who is in harmony with the stream of events, with the stream of life, full of sympathy and compassion, surrendering himself to the stream, belonging to the unity of all things.”

-Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse

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