Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Starbucks’ Battlefield of the Soul

A-Minus: 4 Months, 3 Weeks

I’ve sampled every Seattle’s Best, Starbucks, Barnes & Noble and Borders in greater Walnut Creek over the last few months while studying for the Professional Engineering exam. Yes, the library is quiet and there’s always a table, but the coffee shop has a vibe that I just can’t find anywhere else. I may be a pencil-pushing calculator puncher, but at the very least I can pretend to be a real coffee house intellectual.

Happening to land at Starbucks this time, I make the usual survey of the flora and fauna; 20 species of coffee, 5 members of the cheesecake family, and an assortment of unclassified cookies and crackers. None of it is kosher. After sifting through the chilled drinks I find a kosher brand of diet root beer. One ninety five. Walnut Creek has a 8.25% sales tax, but that’s only on entrées to be eaten in the store. I crunch the numbers while shuffling forward in line. Let’s see, eight percent times two bucks makes about sixteen cents. If I ask for it to go, they won’t charge me the sales tax. I’ll be sixteen cents richer when I leave for Israel in five months.

I reach the front counter and instantly snap out of my mental calculations. There she is, standing behind the counter looking prim and bright as sunshine, decked in her Starbucks apron. This one looks different from the others. She’s perky and chipper but modest, I wonder if…

“For here or to go?” she asks.

“For here.” Darn!

“You know, I’m Jewish too.”

I’m still reeling from my loss of sixteen cents, and now she’s really thrown me for a loop. How could she know that I’m Jewish unless… oh yeah, I wear a big yarmulke on my head and the last name on the credit card I handed her gives me away.

“Really?” I respond, “Wow.” A witty, sophisticated reply. Score!

“Yeah, but I’m not involved. I was stuck here on Yom Kippur. I don’t even know where any of the local synagogues are.”

Hmmm… she’s not observant, but it’s not her fault. She’s certainly not hostile about religion.

“Well, I’m involved with the local Chabad,” I inform her, ”Go west on Newell, under the freeway, first house on the left.”

Which is met with a neutral, “Oh.” She’s looking for small talk, not driving directions.

I swipe my debit card and punch in my PIN.


More awkward silence.

She’s smiling at me with those “Aren’t you going to ask me for my number?” eyes, and in a previous life, my next question would be, “Want to go out for coffee some time?” Which, of course, I would have to bumblingly retract since we’re already in a coffee shop. But I don’t do things that way any more. That’s the distant past, before I began the religious journey. I yearn to tell her about it. To download the last six years of my life, everything I’ve seen and learned, into her mind.

I wish I could tell her, “I think you look like a great girl and I would like to get to know you better. Here’s how it can work. First, you’ll find someone in whom you can confide, a Rabbi, teacher, or a trusted friend, and tell them what you’re looking for. I’ll do the same. Then they will compare notes and decide whether we’re appropriate for each other. I’m sure they’ll agree that we are. Then, we’ll go on three dates. But they won’t be the kind of dates you’re used to, in smoke-filled night clubs or dark movie theaters. We’ll meet in a well-lit hotel lobby or a busy café. And we’ll sit and talk. The first few dates, we’ll talk about nonsense, like what kind of music you listen to, whom do you know that I know, what do you do in your free time, and I’ll give you all sorts of useless information about my life too. Once we get a feel for each other’s personalities, we’ll decide whether we want to keep seeing one another which, of course, we will. We’ll start to talk about what we’re looking for in a life, in a family. And if all goes well, the engagement won’t last more than a few months. And the whole time, I won’t touch you. Not even to shake your hand. And by the way, you should know that in five months I’m moving to a country where you’ve probably never been and definitely don’t speak the language.”


I’ve gotta say something.

“Well,” I tell her, ”you should come by Chabad some time. Remember, it’s on Newell Street. We start at ten in the morning. Come by at noon for lunch if you want to skip the praying.”

I waddle off to the customer feeding area, where we, the valued patrons of Starbucks, squeeze ourselves into their miniature chairs, trying to keep our books from sliding off their miniature tables. I switch back into calculator mode, trying to lose myself in the exciting world of fluid mechanics. Calculate the lift experienced by a five foot by three foot wing with a ten degree angle of attack. What is the friction coefficient of a two centimeter lead sphere sinking through water? What is the velocity of water passing through four inch schedule 40 steel pipe with a 20 PSI pressure differential?

…and who is that sitting at the table next to mine but the perky cashier?

Focus, man, focus! I’m trying to look at the textbook drawing illustrating how to calculate the drag coefficient of water passing over a cylinder and not at the shapely legs protruding from under the table next to mine.

Her friend, a co-worker, slowly wanders in our direction until he’s close enough to start a conversation with her. I’m filled with a frustrated resignation, swishing the empty flavor of nutra-sweetened diet root beer between my teeth. Can you have competition for a girl when you’ve already quit the game? I drop the pretense and shamelessly eavesdrop. She’s on her break. She’s going to school now. She’s studying for her exams. And now she’s walking back to the counter, her break over, the chance I never really had now lost.
Self control is a great idea when you’re in the yeshiva, and the desire to fulfill a higher calling seems unstoppable after hearing a powerful speaker. But there are moments when I wonder if the commitment to Torah is really worth it, and there are times when my will feels as weak as Jello. But here, in the real world battlefield of a suburban Starbucks, is where the fight is. After all, who knows, maybe she’ll show up at Chabad. And I’ve definitely found my new study spot.