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We Are You

by Jack Phillips Lowe

part 1 of 6

“The public will believe anything, so long as it is not founded on truth.” — Edith Sitwell

“A heartbeat, it’s a lovebeat,
And a lovebeat is a good vibration,
Oh, a heartbeat, it’s a lovebeat,
And when we meet, it’s a good sensation...” — the DeFranco Family

My mind wandered, that’s all. That happens a lot when you’re in captivity.

“SSplehhk!” the old woman sputtered, coating the counter with a fine mist of dry-roasted Colombian goodness. “This is mocha crème! You know I ordered vanilla crème! Boy, are you retarded?”

“Not the last time I checked,” I replied, calmly. They hate it when you stay calm.

She glared at me through her bifocals. “I’m happy to hear that. I know you’ll understand me when I say I’m not paying for mocha crème or your sassy attitude. Get me a fresh cup of what I ordered, lickety-split, and I’ll consider not reporting you to the Better Business Bureau!” She pushed the cup back at me.

It wasn’t worth it, so I switched on my Super Salesman grin. “Yes, ma’am. So sorry ma’am. I’ll fix it right away.” But as I spoke, I shot invisible hate rays from my eyes into hers that, I hoped, would penetrate her skull and cause a brain aneurysm right then and there. Whiners — they were the worst.

Under the counter, I emptied the mocha crème and filled the same cup, “accidentally,” with vanilla crème. I also took care to mix it with milk from the four-month old carton I’d stashed in the back of the fridge just for these occasions. A twist of Ivory liquid added flare to this taste sensation. Cruel, you say? Right. Like I’m going to let a whiner push me around.

“Here you are,” I chirped, with my teeth flashing. “Fresh and hot and exactly to order!” I offered her the steaming cup.

The old woman snatched it from my hand, took a long slurp and licked her chops like a cat at a bowl of cream. “Acceptable. You know, I should phone your regional manager. I’m in a hurry tonight and your incompetence nearly made me late. Perhaps if you weren’t diddling in that tablet, you could do your job properly.”

The warhorse turned on her hooves and trotted out, leaving me to sponge off the counter. I almost made her “late.” Sure. Nick at Night must’ve been running a “Golden Girls” marathon. Couldn’t miss the episode where Rose gets her bunions removed. Whatever.

The sense of futility can hit you like a punch in the face. There I was, a young, intelligent guy surrounded by morons and wasting away in a dead-end job. Why was I trapped there? Why couldn’t I move on? Was I a lifer? Doomed to be an assistant manager — fat, gray and flirting with high school girls? Bob Dylan wrote a song about a prisoner dreaming of the world beyond the bars. If I could’ve remembered the words, I swear to God, I would’ve burst into song right there.

In my moment of desperation, there came a ray of hope. I happened to glance at the wall clock. It was nearly 7:00 pm Wednesday evening, our slowest night of the week. The shop was usually deserted by then. But I was okay with that. For the past two months, I had come to live for Wednesday evening. That was when my file in the cake, my governor’s pardon, my favorite customer came in — without fail.

Before my favorite customer, I’d been steadily losing my grip. After four years of college, the only thing my Journalism degree had won me was a job as a counter-jockey at Konafresh Coffee. A summer of café mochas and chai tea lattes left me retching. I’d dreamed of being Tom Wolfe. Instead, I was Dante, from “Clerks.” And I didn’t even have Jay and Silent Bob around to shake things up. Until I found a real job, it was the paper hat and the apron for me.

When Destiny pulls a no-show, you’ve got to prime the pump yourself. I got an Internet blog — if every semi-literate TV star could have one, why not me? I called it “The Lowdown.” It was a deluxe model, with one of those counter things that told you how many visitors you had, and a guestbook on which visitors could post their comments.

I filled it with rants about the horrors of being a coffee shop drone. I figured there were millions of people out there, just like me, who would appreciate my Telling It Like It Is. I mean, every generation has to have a voice, right? Why not mine?

After four months, however, I learned that my generation is the Silent Generation. In that time, my blog had only three visitors: some shill pushing Viagra; my 12-year old brother, who posted every obscene poem ever written in junior high school history; and Fazal, one very pissed-off guy from Qatar, who filled my guestbook with anti-American screeds.

You know the actor who played Wesley on Star Trek: the Next Generation? He parlayed his blog into a book contract with a major New York publisher. If I wanted to follow him, and I did, I’d have to widen my range of subjects.

So I spread the word that I was searching for cool characters with tales to tell. Customers ran the gamut from angels to devils and everything in between. I figured I’d be ass-deep in human-interest stories in no time. Look at all the material Hemingway scared up in bars, right? But you live and learn. Alcohol must be a stronger magnet for characters than coffee, because the pickings were mighty slim, I tell you, beneath that prefab roof. Take Phoenix, for example.

“Am I gonna be famous?” she asked. Phoenix, a cashier at a neighboring store, dropped in for herbal tea each afternoon on her way to work. “I thought that Interweb was a Big Brother-Nixon mind-control thing.”

“Not as far as I know,” I told her.

“If I become famous, will I become rich, too?”

“Well, I can’t guarantee —”

“Not ‘rich’ rich, just rich enough to quit Wal-Mart? You know, this night shift grind is killing me.”

“Maybe. It depends on your story. Did you ever know anyone or do anything really interesting?”

Phoenix put her hands on her hips and tilted her head jauntily to one side. “Does the word ‘Woodstock’ ring a bell?”

I shook my head. “Done. Not even retro-cool anymore.”

Phoenix pondered for a moment, and then snapped her fingers. “Back in the day, we used to get high smoking ditch reeds. Cheap, potent and legal.”

“It’s a human-interest blog, not High Times.”

Phoenix began fiddling with a charm that hung from her neck on a thin chain. It was a small black disk on which the words “HUCK FATE” were engraved in gold. “There was this one time, back in ’68,” she said. “Picture it: me and Jim Morrison at the Chicago Coliseum.”

“You knew Jim Morrison?”

Phoenix covered her heart with a hand and rolled her eyes, sighing. “Damn right.”

I opened my spiral notebook and grabbed a pen. “Were you his groupie? Did you two have a fling?”

Phoenix twisted a strand of silver hair around her pinkie. “You could say that. It was brief but... intense.”

I wrote that down. “Now this is what I had in mind! Tell me more.”

“Before the concert, I was hanging out near the concession stand, drinking a can of Old Style that I’d sneaked in. Jim came out to mingle with the fans. He was dressed all in black leather. God, was he dreamy!”

My pen flew across the page. “Great! What did he do?”

Phoenix leaned on the counter, closed her eyes and smiled. “Oh, I shouldn’t say. Maybe Jim wouldn’t want me to.”

“Come on, Phoenix, don’t leave me hanging. How else are you going to — possibly — get rich and famous on the Internet?”

I looked at her. If Phoenix had been Morrison’s groupie, I could see why. She sort of resembled the blonde on “Three’s Company.” Not Suzanne Somers, the other blonde, who played the nurse. If the nurse was twenty years older. And kind of wrinkled. Still, Phoenix wasn’t half-bad for her age.

“Um,” said Phoenix, “okay, I guess. I couldn’t get into any trouble could I, with lawyers and stuff?”

“Morrison’s been dead longer than he was alive. If it’s a bad story, it can’t hurt him. If it’s a good story, it’ll be another brick in the wall of his legacy. Either way, do you really think Jim would mind?”

Phoenix bit her lower lip and tapped the floor with the toe of one of the black Birkenstock clogs she always wore. “Hmm, probably not. He was a real gone cat.”

“Okay then. Jim sees you at the concession stand...”

“Jim looked at me. His eyes were totally black. He was stoned, see, which made his pupils get really big. He said, ‘Is that beer?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Gimme a sip.’ I said, ‘Far out.’ I handed him the can. He drained it in three gulps and tossed it over his shoulder.”

“Wow! What happened next?”

“Jim burped, slapped me on the ass and walked into the men’s room.”

I nodded, scribbling.

“That was it. The Shadows of Knight, who were opening for the Doors, hit the stage. I went in to see the show. Wild, huh?”

I could go on. I could tell you about the guy who, in a trendy restaurant, sat in a booth previously occupied by Michael Jordan —”The seat was still warm, G!” And you wouldn’t believe how many old Italian men in Farmingdale, Illinois just happened to be a “close personal friend” of Frank Sinatra. But I think you get the point.

Sometimes, though, the cliché-makers are right about getting what you wish for. On Wednesday night for several weeks, a genuine character had been dropping in. A character that, if I played the game carefully, I could use as my “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2008 by Jack Phillips Lowe

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