December 3, 2007

Remainders: Henry Higgins in the Charlotte Airport

Speaking of Starbucks, I spent most of my time in Charlotte hiding in a corner table at Starbuck’s, enjoying a real Columbian coffee (in Germany they only serve Arabica), and making mental note of all the English conversation around me like I was some sort of modern-day Henry Higgins.

For the past several months English had been my private language and German my public language, and at first it was very difficult to get back into the swing of speaking English in public. I even began speaking German to the bookstore cashier when he asked if I wanted a bag, “Nein, keine Tüte, bitte,” I responded to the poor, perplexed high school kid.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to be nosy, but sitting in the corner, I couldn’t help hanging on every word of English I heard around me. I actually began jotting some of it down, as I often do in German cafés. It’s a technique my German teacher taught me for picking up colloquial speech and modern German usage: Just plop yourself down in a café and record everything you hear, then go home and apply a dictionary as needed. I can often understand most of what is said in German without the aide of a dictionary, but sitting in Starbucks, recording the conversation of the baristas and their customer, I realized how much I probably miss during a German conversation, just because I do not understand German cultural class differences and non-verbal communication the way I understand it in English.

Barrista’s #1 and #2 clean up the counter in a nearly empty Starbucks. Barrista #1 is about 17, clearly still a minor, and Latina. Barista #2 is African-American, possibly 17, possibly as old as 20. The lights go up as they continue cleaning, engaged in casual conversation.

Barista #1: Boy, my baby sure does cry a lot. I took him to the doctor the other day, and he said that he has the colick, whatever that means. Said it had something to do with gas, but didn’t tell me what I should do about it. Anyway, he’s with his daddy tonight, and I sure am I glad. I don’t think I’ve slept all week.

Barista #2: Uh, huh.

Barista #1: You know, ever since I got pregnant I don’t never talk to any of my friends no more. ...

Barista #2: Uh, huh.

Barista #1 thinks about her situation for a minute and then moves on.

Barista #1: So, you going to “Scary Movie” tonight with your baby-daddy?

Barista #2: Naw, he’s workin’.

Barrista #1: You wanna go with me?

Suddenly, a large, pink-faced, middle-aged white man enters the café. He is wearing a black suit and tie and carrying a computer case. He orders a Pumpkin-spiced Latté from Barista #1.

Barista #1: Ohmygod! Those are so good. You almost can’t even taste the coffee.

Businessman: Say, you don’t have much of a Southern drawl like the others. Were you born here?

Barista #1: Yeah, born right here in Charlotte. Why, how do I ta-alk? (She stretches out this last vowel like a handful of taffy.)

Businessman: Well, there now. I hear I now. (Smiles.)

Barista: Well, where are you from, then? (Wipes her hands on her apron; puts her hand on her hip. Smiles.)

Businessman: L.A. I was just here on business this week.

Barista: L.A.? You know what I love? "The Hills."

Businessman: “The Hills”? Well, actually, I live in Orange County, which is actually more like "The O.C."

Barista: Oh, I love that one, too. And "Laguna Beach." I wanna go there one day.

Businessman: Oh, well, you should. You work in an airport. Why don’t you just get on one of those airplanes one day and go to L.A. then you could look me up. (Smiles.)

Barista: Yeah, maybe I will.

And watching her smile and wipe up the counter as the businessman leaves, I actually think she thinks that she will.

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