Tales from the Heart of America


The Christmas Jerk

- By Scotte Burns

Pulling into a Starbucks near home, I leaned the bike over onto its kickstand and creaked my leather-clad, shivering, but still smiling self into the java-scented warmth inside, looking for a grinder. Surprisingly, though they do sell a few coffee beans around the place, they no longer sell the tools with which to render them usable. No grinders. My minor annoyance must have shown on my face more keenly than I thought, as the barista was quick to apologize, suggest a nearby kitchen supply store, and offer a discounted drink. Thanks dude; it's nice to know that service isn't completely dead. By way of assuring him that I wasn’t really angry over their grinderless-ness, I took him up on his drink offer and tipped heavily. I even tried making small talk for a moment, a mode of communication that is neither natural for me, nor well-executed. It must have worked, though, because he became my friend in the moment and crafted a damned good cup o’ joe.


Stepping over to the fixin’s - all those multi-colored packets and carafes of various java-customizing products - a fellow already standing there poured off some of his drink into the trash can before going about the business of seasoning the thing. Now, when I need to dump out ice or make room for coffee fixin’s, I take my cup back to the counter and ask it to be done in the sink. At the very least, I’ll go to the bathroom and use the sink there. Dumping it into the wastebasket just means that one of the folks at the counter, mostly retirees and young minimum-wage peons trying to work their ways through school or past car payments, are going to catch those cold, sticky dribbles on their pants and shoes when they empty the thing. “That guy must be a real jerk,” I said to myself in the snarky inner voice I reserve for negative color commentary regarding my fellow humans (particularly when driving a car in traffic.) Then, the “jerk” glanced over as I attempted to pour a splash of nonexistent half-and-half from the empty decanter. Someone else had drained the thing and then left it empty on the counter for the next person to deal with. Apparently, trashcan-coffeeman wasn’t the only jerk visiting Starbucks that day. 


Before I could further properly curse the thoughtlessness of others, though, he laid a hand on my shoulder, lifted the carafe from my hand and said, “Here, let me get that for you.” Taking it to the counter, he asked the barista for a refill, leaving him with both a big toothy smile and a dollar tip. He delivered the freshly filled creamer to me, then wished me a wonderful day, as if he really meant it! As he exited, holding the door open for a beleaguered-looking couple and their trio of surly teenagers, too engaged in their smartphones to say thank you, I heard him humming. I knew the tune:


Come and meet those dancing feet,

On the avenue I'm taking you to...

Come and meet those dancing feet,

On the avenue I'm taking you to,

Forty-Second Street.


I hadn’t heard the song or thought of that musical for years, and it put me in mind of my father-in-law. A lover of the theater, a pretty fair Red Skelton impersonator, and a Vaudevillian at heart, John lived for a little song, a little dance…

We still miss him, and thinking of him at Christmastime surrounded by his grandkids made me smile in that place inside that needs it most in all of us.


The entire episode lasted only moments, but as I enjoyed my now cream-and-sugared, steamy, Guatemalan goodness, I thought about how quickly I had judged the Starbucks “jerk” through his one observed fault, rather than in the fullness of his character, and how much we sometimes think we know about people through simple, single acts like pouring a bit of coffee in the trash, or changing lanes inauspiciously. As humans, none of us are perfect, and our imperfect moments are often committed in the presence of others. Someone nearly always sees us do the stupid sh*t. (It’s usually family, and they have to put up with us. The person you find who will do it by choice and tell you they love you for it afterward? That’s the one you marry.) Awareness of our foibles and flaws will never eliminate them, of course, but the attempt to at least limit them is part of what defines our characters over time, as does the ability to forgive the imperfections of others. There is nearly always a shifting balance, imperfect and malleable, in who we are in relation to the world. Cause and effect, dark and light, Yin and Yang - coffee and cream - so much of our lives and perspectives seem to be half this and half that...


...Well, no. On second thought, that’s not it, exactly. There is something else.


It isn’t really a balance, because that sounds like trying for equal parts of one thing and another, and being half bad isn’t good. So, if we know that there is both good and evil potential in us, jerk and saint, and we still strive to be as good as we can be, we aren’t really seeking a balance, but just the proper measure of things. Rather like pouring just a dribble of cream into the coffee for flavor; because an equal balance of cream with the coffee would be gross.The more goodness we choose over the badness that inevitably happens when we are imperfect - when we are being the jerk - the better for everybody. Even owning our jerkiness, apologizing and learning from it, becomes a part of that measure.


I pondered all this over a perfectly measured five-shot Americano (nectar of the very alert gods, by the way) thanks to my momentary friendship with the barista and the gift of a Christmas Jerk’s kindness. Both were simply the most recent of many welcome offerings I receive from my fellow flawed humans at Christmastime and others, too few of whom do I properly thank. I think that’s because those little acts between us are common but often fleeting, and therefore easily taken for granted in the roar and press of days - kindnesses like a discounted coffee,  “here, let me get that for you”, and the little tune that had me smiling over memories of John...and a little seltzer down your pants. hehe.)


The Christmas Jerk reminded me that there is kindness, worth, and humor between the folds and flaws in us all, and that it feels good when appreciation and gratitude become attitudes and not just adjectives, especially around Christmas time. It was too renewing a moment not to share, so I told my new barista friend to put the smartphone teenager’s Mom and Dad’s drinks on my app, as I took a corner seat to enjoy the looks on their faces when they received the gift. It really wasn’t from me, though. Some other jerk started it.


And if you were that fellow, please accept my thanks for giving me something very precious this Christmas season…A little hope. And from one jerk to another, I forgive you.


Hey, that felt pretty good too!

© 2014 - 2019 by Love in America

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