An Indecent Encounter

Behind the coffee counter, Hyapatia seemed pained when I asked for my usual two pounds of Soho Blend. It took but a moment to find out why. Just as I mouthed “percoloator grind, please,” her tormentor reappeared. “Eks-kyewz ME !,” a lacquered young East Sider spewed. I blanched in shock as I wiped myself off.

Perched on Stephanie Jappy’s hand, three carats prismed the ceiling lights, blinding me momentarily to the poverty of her soul. My other senses faired just as poorly. The scent of a bitch in heat made me retch. A tiny bag of ground coffee, the remainders of some obscure beans, dangled from a silk-tipped right thumbnail and forefinger. “I’ve gotta GO, now,” she barked into her cell phone, “I’ve gotta DEAL with this IDIOT, Oh my GOD ! I’ll call you laaaater.” Her privileged squeal pierced the air like a slingshot ball as she snapped the clamshell shut with a resounding thwack. Nothing less than total surrender, an abject apology to this modern manor mistress, would suffice.

Peak experiences have been Stephanie’s birthright: in coffee, in men, in pre-school for her toddler daughter. Paper, scissors, stone, all day long and into the night, everything measured for value and status. Life’s obviously been one long bat mitzvah party, her Torah portion of the seven fat years…“I wanna thank my mother and father, and . . .”

Led back to Hyapatia’s station by a resolute Jamaican floor manager, Stephanie skipped nary a beat laying into the offending servant in the lingua franca of upper First Avenue. The accent of those whose shit stinketh not filled the air. Hyapatia almost melted with rage as a torrent of words assaulted the wrinkles in her tender, aging face. The sounds Stephanie let out with were so nasal they seemed to flow from an improper orifice. “You cannot possibly understand what embarrassment you caused me at dinner last night!” Gushing from her coraled lips, Stephanie’s outrage coated me like her spray-on tan. Mercy or understanding in her complaint ? What would be the point of that? Everything was about whom Stephanie desperately wanted to be, the next scene in the Movie About Me being shot over and over inside her head.

With the floor manager brandishing her cat-of-nine, and Stephanie Jappy about to take Hyapatia’s head off for a hideous infraction of New York’s Slave Code, 2010 edition, the field hand dared not speak a word. A mortal insult had been done to a customer’s existential well-being via a bag of unexpectedly weak-tasting coffee beans. Insult followed injury, and pain poured forth: “You told me this was a good strong coffee when I asked and you’re supposed to know ! What was I supposed to do ? I had twelve guests at my dinner table.” Suddenly, the whine became a shriek. “THE WHOLE THING WAS RUINED BECAUSE OF YOUR STUPIDITY, YOU KNOW.” I grimaced as I watched the coup de grace delivered. “I DON’T JUST WANT MY MONEY BACK. I DEMAND AN APOLOGY.” Did conversation flag mid-meal at that dinner party? Perhaps the seating arrangements didn’t gel.

Money and an absence of want coat the Upper East Side’s Yorkville streets like paint, but if one looks beyond the stylish clothing, listens with even one ear, one sees and hears the famine of the local soul. At the curbs and in the stores, orders are shouted to servants a generation older than their taskmistresses and masters, the rhythm practiced each morning with each thump of toned glutes on Equinox treadmills as personal trainers urge them on. “We give these people jobs and a way out of the hells where they came from.” Stephanie harried the manager as she led her to the rear of the store to confront the offending counter clerk. “They should be grateful, and learn how to listen. How dare that woman speak back to me that way!” You hear it everywhere, every day, in the gourmet stores, at the dry cleaner, in the ubiquitous nail salons. Lips purse, jaws tighten, tongues cleave to the rooves of mouths. Out comes a plague of misfortunate words.

Hyapatia stood her ground, her eyes bowed and narrowed to slits, a fog of furious disbelief swirling among us. Curt instructions were given about a store credit, and Stephanie and the straw boss marched off to the manager’s upstairs office den. The gulf between me and the clerk was unspeakable, but I could not hold my tongue. There was nothing right to say; mere comprehension would have to suffice. The stench of shame overpowered the oily Arabica around us. Loose grounds of self-respect scattered over the filthy floor.

It all seemed so Old Testament, and my mind surfed on wave-tops of rage. All I could think of was an eye for an eye, and in my mind’s eye I gave Stephanie Jappy her just reward, the slap resounding across her made-up face. Looking straight at Hyapatia, I blurted out what I’d imagined. I raised my right arm, then turned to glare at the departing vixen, half hoping that Stephanie would wheel about, mad game. I was spoiling for a fight, so sweet it would be. Visions of flying prosciutto and adenoidal screeches burst like Roman candles in my head. I aimed my full battery of Yiddish curses at this yakhne, this witch, this ignoramus, as she pushed past a senior citizen with a cane blocking the aisle with a peremptory glare in her impatient eyes.
Luck was not with me, though: Stephanie paid no attention. Hyapatia took no consolation from my anger. Why should she? I looked down to the floor so hard, my neck hurt. The coffee grinder banged and whirred. We went about our respective tasks, me essaying decency, she doing my polite bidding. Humanity resumed its place, pushing back the darkness, if just for a moment. We both wiped silent tears away.

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