My barista leaned over the counter today. "What do you think of the MSNBC host who said she hoped it was a Tea Party member rather than a Muslim who set the car bomb in Times Square?" His colleague at the cappucino maker edged closer to hear what I had to say. "Well," I replied, "I wish it was someone from the Tea Party. It actually kind of makes me sick to my stomach every time I hear it's a Muslim because I think the large majority of them aren't radicalized and it just gets more difficult for law abiding Muslims." My barista rolled his eyes and got back to work. My barista and I have been sparring politically for a while now. It has become a regular occurrence.
Standby for the great irony here. My youngish, handsome barista who drives a sporty car (he says he married well) is wildly conservative. Not what you'd expect. Consider your barista. Hip? Trendy? Teva Sandals? Mine is a supporter of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party and is sick of all these bailouts. Me? I'm the middle aged suburban mom in an upscale Denver suburb, as liberal as they come, who believes government has a financial obligation to its people and coming to the rescue is necessary now and then. His eyes light up when he sees me come in for my daily nonfat dry cappuccino fix. "Vicky, what do you think of this? Vicky, can't wait to hear your opinion on this one. Vicky, how are you going to feel when your taxes go up? Vicky, come over here. I need to ask you about something." Politics is part of my coffee ritual now.
At first I was a bit surprised by his forwardness. I couldn't imagine our discreet back and forth was good for business or that his company or customers would approve. After a particularly intense exchange, which lasted about five minutes and had his colleagues calling him back to work, I got downright uncomfortable. We were discussing President Obama and Congress and health care reform. He made sure I understood that my taxes were going up and soon my income would be shrinking. I didn't articulate my position succinctly. Race came up. I walked out of the store replaying the discussion in my head. I talked to my friends about whether I should say something to him or stop visiting. After thinking it through, I came to the conclusion that this exchange is good for both of us, but in measured doses. Kind of like one cup of coffee a day. After all, discussing politics at the local coffee shop is what we do in America. Right?
A while back I was listening to NPR and there was a discussion about Melinda Blau's book Consequential Strangers. These are the people on the periphery of our lives that matter. They are not friends or colleagues, but rather the people who we intersect with over the course of our lives that have an impact nonetheless. They are the lady at the bank who greets me when I come in, the woman I sit and talk to on the airplane, people I've never met on Facebook who intrigue me with their posts. Our interactions make a difference in my life. My barista is a "consequential stranger" and even though I think his politics are strange, I walk through the world more knowledgeable because we talk out our differences. He knows what I drink, greets me by name, has my coffee ready before I get to the cashier and now he knows my politics and I know his. I doubt we're opening each others minds or mellowing each other out. Most likely we're just agreeing to disagree and entertaining the staff. I'm hearing about the Tea Party with my cup of joe. He's hearing what I like about our President. We're not shouting each other down or holding up signs. It's rather civilized. Like meeting over coffee.
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