The Most Interesting Man I "Know"
There is a coffee shop in Des Moines that I love. For context I should tell you that I live in a western suburb and this particular coffee shop is located on the east side of Des Moines proper. Of course, Iowa’s capitol city is by no means the size of, say, Chicago. It’s still only about a 15 minute drive from my house. But I pass - and I want to get this number right - about 15 million other coffee shops on that drive. The coffee is good, but not great. The place itself is clean, but it is loud, and sometimes it can be difficult to find at place to sit down. There is food and ice cream too, the former being just okay and the latter being impossible to less than okay. (I would posit that even the worst ice cream is still pretty much okay.)
So, why would I choose to come here?
I have been to many, many of the coffee shops in the Des Moines Metro, but I always return to this one. I prefer it because the clientele is so much more diverse. I could easily go to one of the coffee shops just minutes away from my house, but I would get a generally uninteresting collection of people roughly my age sitting around talking about a) buying gold and selling pork b) what Meredith said to Dan in that meeting last Wednesday or c) the e-mail chain that has reached a length qualifying as “ridiculous.” They do all of this whilst wearing a style of clothing I am told is called “business casual,” which has to be one of the more oxymoronic terms currently in common usage. Inversion of those words evokes an image of man who sells Gap sweaters out of the trunk of his car.
And all of that is pretty much as boring as it sounds. So I come here for diversity. Here are the types of people I encounter most frequently at my favorite coffee shop:
1. Students: wearing gym clothes and wielding backpacks that are comical size. They mainline absurd amounts of caffeine while probably accomplishing less studying than was intended.
2. Couples: two people who appear to be romantically involved, which is best recognized by both parties starring at their phones instead of engaging in conversation.
3. A Club Meeting: usually 5 or 6 people (or more) who gather with a pre-determined and united purpose. Sometimes it is to discuss a book that they were all supposed to have read by now but everyone can tell Karen didn’t finish it. Sometimes it’s to talk about a part of the Bible that everyone was supposed to have read by now that Karen totally didn’t read. Most often it’s to have a private discussion about whether or not they should kick Karen out of the club.
4. The Loner: this one is kind of sad. I frequently encounter people in this coffee shop who are just sitting and flipping through their cell phones. They aren’t with anyone and - sometimes - they don’t even have a drink in front of them. I don’t know what to say about this type of person because I truly don’t know what they are doing.
5. The Off-Site Worker: he’s wearing the aforementioned “business casual” attire, has multiple electronic devices in front of him, and is still wearing a giant Bluetooth in his ear because no one has informed him that it is, in fact, no longer 2007. He may also vaguely resemble Tom Hanks when he got big in the movie “Big.”
But by far the most interesting person in this coffee shop is a man named Mark. Mark is probably in his early seventies and he is always here with another man of a similar age. Here are the other things I know about Mark:
- He claims to have once built a barn
- He often likes people’s shirts
- He says he always comes here on Mondays and Wednesdays (though I have just seen him and it is Tuesday afternoon)
That’s it. How do I know these things, you ask? To answer that question, I have to describe Mark’s routine. I have witnessed this ritual on probably half a dozen occasions now and it is always the same. He and his friend come in and order coffee in mugs. They sit down at a round table in the center of shop, upon which Mark will then place his Pall Mall cigarettes and a lighter. He will then get up and get a glass of water. This next bit is important, so pay attention. On the way to get the glass of water, Mark will find someone in the coffee shop, walk up to them, and say a thing. I phrase it that way because it seems as though he has a bag of sentences in his mind and just grabs one at random, regardless of context or perceived interest on the part of the person to whom he has chosen to speak. I’ll tell you more about what he says in a moment. After he says a thing, Mark gets his water and goes back to the table. He then pours a bit of water into his coffee (which somehow is the most peculiar part of this whole thing to me) and drinks it for a minute or two. He then gets up, goes outside to smoke, comes back and the whole process begins again.
I feel the need to pause here for a moment and defend myself, as I suspect many of you think it odd that I come here just to watch this man wander about. I don’t. I come here for other reasons altogether and he just happens to be here. A lot. I am also not in the habit of eavesdropping on his conversations. I know what Mark says to people because he always says it very, very loudly.
Here is a brief history of what Mark said today and who he said it to. Not one single detail of this has been made up. Not one.
What: “Well, this mental work beats physical work! I should know, I built a barn!”
Who: Two extremely attractive college girls who were so engaged with their textbooks, they weren’t even speaking to each other.
Interpretation: Initially I thought this was just good advice. But now, I’m not so sure. Mark seems to be suggesting here that mental work is somehow a) qualitatively better or b) qualitatively easier than physical work. As someone who actively avoids physical work, I resent at least one of those implications. Then again, the man has (supposedly) built a barn. So, I guess he would know?
What: “You need to find a way to take a break!”
Who: Three middle aged people who were eating lunch.
Interpretation: I found this especially cryptic because, to the outside observer, these people were already taking a break. Specifically a “lunch break.” Which begs the question: what does Mark think they should take a break from? Eating? The metaphorical, un-winnable rat race in which we all take part? This is some sort of new viral marketing for Kit-Kat’s? If so, I’m not sure it’s not working.
What: “I like your shirt!”
Who: Three different people - all of whom were female - on three different trips around the coffee shop. And no, they were not wearing the same shirt.
Interpretation: Had I the time or resources, I would gather these three women together, hire Tom Hanks’ character from “The Da Vinci Code”, and pay him to study those shirts until he found a common thread. (Pun very much intended.) However, since this would be expensive and also fairly creepy, we find ourselves at yet another impasse.
I have had one “conversation” with Mark. It occurred last winter while I was standing in line waiting to place my order. Mark was standing behind me and - for some reason - felt the need to say, “You sure are a good looking fella.” He then told me a joke that I am unable to recall, and that was the end of the conversation. When I returned to my table the girl I was dating at the time asked me if I knew the man I was talking to in line. I said I did not. I didn’t share the rest of the details of the conversation with her because I was honestly not sure it had actually happened.
At this point, you might think that Mark is a lonely - if not slightly unusual - older man who wants someone to talk to. And I honestly think you would be wrong. He is always here with that aforementioned other guy and, when Mark is not on one of his walk-about’s, they talk and drink their coffee. Furthermore, Mark doesn’t seem to want to have actual conversations with people. He just says a thing AND LEAVES. If you want to tell a better story, you might imagine he creates answers in his own mind; not unlike Tom Hanks talking to Wilson.
So what makes Mark so interesting? Is it how insanely cryptic his statements are? Is it how dedicated he seems to his regiment of coffee, shirt fondness, and cigarettes? Is it the fact that as I’m writing this Mark is wearing a t-shirt with a picture of a cat on it? (It’s a mug shot of a cat with the sentence, “The cat nip made me do it.”)
As odd as these things might seem, they are not what makes Mark interesting. This man is interesting because of his wanton disregard for the social contract by which most of us live our lives. And somehow by casting aside the commonly agreed upon rules of interaction, Mark is able to be more social than most of us. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen a pretty girl in this very coffee shop with whom I would love to strike up a conversation. But I never do it. I sit in my booth and try to think of something clever to say. Ultimately, the girl in question leaves and I sit and pretend to read until I get inspiration to write an essay.
But this problem is totally foreign to our friend Mark. He does not fret over what he will say to an attractive girl. He built a barn and, by God, she is going to know about it. Nay, she needs to know about it! I have been present for some pretty critical moments of patients’ lives; set my boots in Afghanistan; and played music in front of thousands of people. And yet - in my mind - all of that pales in comparison to barn construction.
Since I started writing this essay, I spoke to the girl sitting in the booth next to mine. I asked her if she had ever put ice water into her coffee. She said yes.
So at the end of the day, who’s to say what is unusual?