The Tie-Tying Drunk , The Cheap Dithering Kook , & Donny vs. The FireVaney

SEPTEMBER 28, 2001: Yesterday made the list of my top five worst days at work. I’ll tell the whole story tomorrow. I’m too tired right now. I’m going on something less than three hours of sleep.* Donny, the guy I worked with yesterday afternoon, is a stubborn son of a bitch. He also lacks common sense—which is common of stubborn sons of bitches. I got pushed to the edge yesterday—it wasn’t entirely his fault—but he did send me over. I worked a double and then some, without a break, during which two lunatics really got under my skin. One was a “guest” and the other was a drunk Donny should’ve left alone. I’ll explain tomorrow.

SEPTEMBER 29, 2001: Here’s the story—it’s a pathetic story, but it happened; and I suppose it sums up why I avoid coffee shops… 

So I’m scheduled to work a double, starting at six in the morning. It’s a typical AM shift at the Chicago Coffee Cadre (store #7) on the corner of Broadway and Aldine.

Donny clocks in at noon and takes over the espresso bar. Two hours later, when I make my first order-taking mistake of the day, Donny decides to rub it in. What was this inexcusable thing? I charged one of the “guests” for a large “Coffee Cadre Cooler.” She wanted an extra-large. Donny makes the drink that shows up on his screen, naturally. The “guest” isn’t happy. Donny fixes the order, then chews me out. But it’s not like I overcharged her. Maybe I misheard her, maybe I hit the wrong button. Maybe, before ordering, she didn’t check our selection of drink sizes. People walk into any coffee shop these days with the assumption that the drink sizes at Starbucks are the drink sizes everywhere. “Donny,” I say, “Give me a break, huh?” He stiffens his jaw, gimlets his eye, and shakes his head.

Something like an hour later I’m fielding complaints about the guy outside on the corner. He’s leaning on a trashcan, taking swigs out of a bottle in a paper bag. Every “guest” who walks in tells me he’s talking to himself. Ok, sure, he’s someone to steer clear of, and that’s annoying; but the corner is public property, and public intoxication isn’t illegal in Chicago. In fact, it’s illegal to make public intoxication illegal anywhere in the state of ILL. Thank you, beer lobby.

But then this drunk decides to stand in front of our windows and tie his tie. Moving from pane to pane, he repeatedly ties, unties, and re-ties. The herky-jerky motions of his fingers and arms intensify; the frustration in his face becomes comically grotesque. In fairness, none of our windows make for a good mirror. Or maybe this dude just sucks at tying a tie. (And if so, I can sympathize.) But here’s our dilemma: He’s facing the “guests” who are seated at the tables on our side of the glass. One “guest” props his elbows on the table and uses his hands as a visor. Others scoot their chairs away from the windows. The drunk doesn’t take a hint.

You know the saying: “Misery loves company.” If true, it doesn’t necessarily mean that misery attracts company, but rather pursues what it loves. Maybe, rather than being gregarious, misery is more like a viral infection.

Donny throws down the towel he’s using to wipe the steam wands on the espresso machine. He passes behind me and heads for the door. “Bad idea,” I say. He swats the air with the back of his hand like I’m a pesky gnat.

“Dude’s looking for an invitation.” That’s what I should’ve said. This sot isn’t putting on a show for himself. He’s not plastered in the middle of the day because life is just peachy.

Donny discovers the futility of reasoning with an alcoholic a little too late. The drunk follows him back into the store. He’s a big guy, this drunk. His forehead’s probably dinged more than a few doorframes. And now that he’s joined us, clearly he’s pissed in more ways than one.

“CAN’T I WAIT FOR THE BUS?” he says. 

The whole place, full and noisy with a dozen different chitchats, it goes silent. 

“You’re distracting the guests,” says Donny. 

“HOW?” says the drunk. “I WAS TYING MY TIE!” 

Keeping my distance, I tell the drunk to leave.

“WHY?” he says. 

“You’re disturbing the peace,” I say. Not my most original declaration, I know. I follow it up with another stock phrase: “If you don’t leave, we’re calling the cops.” 

The drunk steps closer. 
Of course he does. 
Misery loves misery. 

“DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” he says. 
Misery, it loves its own narcissism.

I dunno, maybe I give him a squint, shake my head, shrug my shoulders. Gimme a break, together—this drunk, Donny, and yours truly—we’re pumping enough adrenaline to fill up a Ford Super Duty. Probably, my mouth falls open a little because “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” is a question you do not expect to hear in the real world. “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” is such a hack question, it’s officially banned by the Writers Guild of America—unless it’s used in a comedy about amnesia. (I don’t know if that’s true. It’s an educated guess.) But instead of revealing his true identity, instead of enlightening me with the nature of his fame, the drunk storms out of the place. Possibly, the final insult was my ignorance of his stature. Then again, if you’re drunk in the middle of the day and waiting for a bus, how famous could you be?

A minute later, he’s back. 


I tell Donny to get the store manager’s card. 

“I’M A LAWYER,” says the drunk.

And me? 
All I’m gonna do 
is nod.

In the back room, right next to the computer, Manager Mick keeps his Chicago Coffee Cadre business cards on a hot pink dollhouse-size sofa. It’s a tiny thing, but it draws the eye. (Manager Mick has an interesting hobby. He customizes Barbie and Ken dolls without Mattel’s permission. He’ll sell you an anatomically correct Ken, for example.) So what’s taking Donny so long? I push the swing door open and tell him to call the cops. Donny just stands there by the desk and looks at me. Maybe I’m too much of a mumbler. “Call the cops,” I say again, this time with more articulative umph.

Donny finally picks up the phone. 

On the other side of the counter, the big drunk announces his intention to wait. I don’t raise my voice. It’s shaky, but under control. “Good,” I tell him.

In case he decides to lunge at me, I’m glancing about, furtively, for something within reach that’ll work as a weapon. Smacking him with one of the portafilters from the espresso machine would raise a nice welt. Given his height (and my lack thereof) I’ll have to swing it at him like a tennis serve. Maybe he senses my plan because, abruptly, he turns and departs—but not before uttering a gay slur.

Ten, twenty, thirty minutes roll by. Donny swears he dialed 911. “They didn’t show up the last time I called,” he says. The last time, some nut was banging his head against the window. “Cops steer clear of Boystown,” Donny says. I don’t believe him. A couple of cops stop by every morning. Their drinks are always on the house. This afternoon, though, we wait nearly an hour before one pays us a visit.

Manager Mick walks in ten minutes before the end of my double. Once he’s on the floor, I can pull my drawer, count it, and go home. Donny follows Mick into the back room, leaving me to ring up the orders and make the drinks on my own. But I can handle it; there’s no rush.

A kooky looking ringer for Bill Gates approaches the counter. That he looks like Bill Gates is the least kooky thing about him. In fairness, it’s possible that he’s a comic genius—this kook. But  I’m not in the mood for laughs, so I’m pegging him for a kook. (Incidentally, we also have a regular who’s a ringer for Mel Gibson.) Mr. Kook orders a large coffee and a slice of carrot cake. Only he doesn’t have enough money for both.

“Where is the nearest Automatic Teller Machine?” says the kook. Two blocks east, I tell him. Does Mr. Kook leave the counter? He does not. “Just a regular coffee,” he says. “And a bagel.” Then he adds, “With cream cheese.” Oh, but he has a revision: “Make that a coffee a large.” My fingers dance across the touch screen. After I pour his coffee, he says, “Decaf, please.”

(Decaf is an abomination. If you don’t need to keep your eyes open, why are you drinking coffee? Sure, the smell of it is one thing, but the taste? If you’re drinking unadulterated coffee for “taste” alone, then clearly you have no taste. You’ve lost it. Or, you’ve been fooled by an effective marketing ploy. Unadulterated coffee tastes like hot strewn mud. You tell me: Which tastes better: black coffee or an Oreo cookie milkshake? I rest my case. Maybe all of your taste buds have been burned away by one too many cups of the boiling bean water. But back to my first encounter with the dithering kook…)

So now he doesn’t want the cream cheese because it costs thirty-five cents. He will take a flavor shot in his decaf, though. And I’m thinking: Is this guy trying to scam me? There’s a small ceramic bowl for tips in front of the register. If I turn my back, Mr. Kook could easily help himself to it. And with the tips he didn’t earn, he’ll have enough to buy around of single-serve cream cheese cups for every “guest” in the place, along with several slices of carrot cake. (It’s a large round cake with thick, generous slices.)

Tip money usually pays for dinner (cheap greasy takeout) for a few days. So I give Donny a shout. He kicks open the back room’s swing door. “Jesus,” he says when he sees there’s just this dithering kook (or criminal mastermind) at the order counter.

After Mr. Kook departs with his plain bagel and vanilla flavored decaf, I explain why I needed to keep an eye on him. “He’s a regular,” says Donny. Of course he is. Every time Donny works the register, I’ll bet that cheap, dithering kook regularly spends the barista’s tips on himself.

My double shift is supposed to be coming to an end, but Manager Mick isn’t ready to put in his own drawer. He says he’s got to run the deposit over to the bank if he wants to keep his job. He calls around for somebody to fill in. He leaves messages at every beep. No luck. Who’s gonna pick up on their night off? I gotta go, I tell him, I’ve got rehearsal. Although he’s very sorry, he doesn’t seem to understand that I’ve basically transformed into a hand grenade that is ready and eager to pull its own pin.

Oh, and here’s our cheap dithering kook standing at the order counter again. This time he wants the White Pages. We keep it in the back room. He probably knows that. I want to shove the effing tip bowl at his chest. But I bottle up the urge, along with damn near everything else. (I.e., groundless paranoia steeped in palpable self-loathing.)

Donny follows me back. “That’s three mistakes,” he says. Yeah, ok, since six o’clock in the morning maybe I’ve made three mistakes ringing up drip brew and espresso drinks. 

And there goes the pin, 
popping out all on its own.

I raise the phone book over my head and slam it down against the floor. “I’VE BEEN HERE TEN HOURS,” I say. “I HAVEN’T HAD ONE BREAK.”

And Donny goes, “It was a joke.”

Manager Mick tells me to have a seat and take a break. The evening rush hasn’t hit yet, so Donny can manage on his own. I sit for the first time since putting on my shoes this morning.

Antwan comes in early. I thank him, pull my drawer, and count it down. On my way out, I apologize to Donny, but he’s done speaking to me today.

SEPTEMBER 30, 2001: One more thing about the tie-tying drunk: I pointed out the fact that he was drinking alcohol in public—which is illegal in Chicago. He reeked of it from some ten feet away. “IT’S A SODA,” he said. And that’s when he left for good.

OCTOBER 23, 2001: Every time that cheap dithering kook is in the place, he walks up to the counter and thanks me for getting the phone book. That was nearly a month ago. I had left it on the floor. Donny picked it up and gave it to him. Nobody would ever mistake Donny for me. And whenever I’m working the register, that goddamned ditherer changes his order five times before I ring him up and five times after he pays me. At least somebody’s having fun.

*[5/30/21: The FireVaney of Then failed to explain why he slept so little. The FireVaney of Now fails to recall little beyond the endless ringing in his ears.] 

[5/30/21: The FireVaney of Then failed to provide the particulars of how exactly Donny “decides to rub it in.” The FireVaney of Now fails to recall little beyond the constant ringing in his ears.] 

[5/30/21: The FireVaney of Then failed to provide the particulars of his second and third, presumably minor, mistakes. The FireVaney of Now fails to recall little beyond the relentless ringing in his ears.]

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