This is an odd question to answer in the days of the pandemic, but I can certainly answer it as from the before times*. And that answer is an unqualified yes.
I’m reminded of Sandra Bullock’s character in Speed (1994). At the beginning of the film, she gets on the bus because her car is in the shop and her conversation with the driver is one of familiarity and comfortable ease. When I first watched this, my initial reaction was bullshit. Not that she couldn’t have that kind of a relationship with a driver, but that a) she had the same driver several days in a row and b) that the relationship would develop that quickly.
Fast forward 8 years or so, to the summer of 2002, and I’m in London visiting friends. We decide to go to their local pub in Brixton to watch one of the England matches of that year‘s World Cup. It’s fun, we have a good time. Two days later, another match is happening, and we go back to the same pub. The place is packed and as we walk in, I’m greeted with shouts of “Hey Jaq!!!” and all sorts of greetings. The friend whose local it is gets completely ignored. He notes to me that he’s “been coming here for three years and nothing, you’re here twice and you’re everyone’s best friend.”
And there it is. That sums up my relationship as a regular in a café.
For me, I just like to talk, I like to make friends. At least briefly. When I worked at the rare bookstore, one of the things I did was take over the small talk from “looky-loo” customers. Since we were in a mall** with no door, there was no barrier to entry, and anyone could (and did) wander in. We looked like a museum, albeit one where everything was for sale***. One of the things I did was talk to those people who were (or who looked like they were) never going to buy anything beyond the $14.95 guide to collecting, but still wanted to have the experience of being treated well. Some of those people turned into high-end clients who had been turned off by the general attitude of some of the other salespeople who “wouldn’t get out of bed for anything less than a $5000 sale.” Some of those people I still talk to on social media. But that’s my personality.
Even when I worked at the regular bookstore, I would get in trouble for spending too much time with customers, making sure they got the books they wanted, or making recommendations based on conversations we had. I would turn people on to new books or music and for a brief moment, we would share a connection and both benefit from it.
When I moved to Lithuania, I would go out to coffee shops to write and within a few visits to any particular establishment, I would know the baristas’ names, maybe a little bit about them, and would be able to have a nice little bit of a chat before I got down to work. The benefit, for me, is that I get my coffee the way I like it, plus they trust me enough to try new things. This is how I introduced tea lattes to my local coffee shop!
At the same time, it provides a nice feeling of comfort when I walk in. It’s like Cheers, right? Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. And since I like to go to different places (like maybe there are places closer to home or work or more convenient for someone I’m meeting), it’s nice having an assortment of places where, in fact, everyone knows my name.
This isn’t a one-way street, either. When I was backpacking in 2008, I met a young woman who was working at one of the hostels I was staying at. I was there for a few days and since I didn’t really party much (and the wifi in my room was crap), I tended to spend my evenings in the lobby, writing or reading and hanging out with her. We became Facebook friends and a few years later, when she was applying for grad school, I helped her with her essays.
Somewhere along the line I heard that treacly axiom that a “stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet.” I think I bought into that early on and it’s informed my life. This isn’t a new thing, either. I remember a girl I dated briefly when I was 19 or 20, who broke up with me after a few dates. Her reasoning was interesting to me, especially back then. She said, “It’s not that you don’t make me feel special, you do, but you make everyone feel special.”
Except I don’t think I do. I think I just treat everyone like a person, with respect and friendliness. But I also think that has become a very rare commodity. So rare, in fact, that when you see it happening, it feels special. I don’t believe in the zero-sum game. I don’t believe that in order for me to win, you have to lose. Instead, I’d rather we all supported each other, that we all talked to folks serving us in restaurants and cafés, whether we’re there for the first time or we’re years old regulars.
Call me crazy, but I think that makes the world a slightly better place.
* Now, of course, I’m a regular at The Jester’s Brew, which is in my kitchen, and my relationship there is pretty damn awesome!
** a high-end mall, to be sure, but a mall, nonetheless.
*** including the furniture, which I did, in fact, sell once. I may tell the story at some point.