Tales from the Coffee Shop (Part 1)

The end of a Rook’s life, the chess piece that is, often comes about when you set up the board and you decide to turn the board around. In this moment, if you don’t watch the corners of your board, they may pass over the slightly-too-narrow table at the coffee shop and the rooks will fall to the floor. When this occurs, the Rook’s parapets usually shatter (you know, those little wall-breaks on the top of the rook that make it look like a castle).

Every time I go to a coffee shop, I bring a chess set and a chess book with me. And every time, I have to guard my rooks against my carelessness. It’s been almost 15 years since I lost a rook this way; however, the inconvenience it brings is still so prevalent in my mind.

When I study chess, I’m sure people think I am odd. After all, most of the public thinks I am playing against myself – I know this is true because it is the number one question I am asked when in public with my chess set. Most people don’t realize chess books can be read alone, without an opponent. Or, perhaps, they don’t even consider that chess books exist.

On Saturday, December 28th, 2019, I was at a local coffee shop by 8:45 AM. I had a lesson at 10 AM and I wanted to ensure I got a good spot to sit where the sun won’t be in our faces. I also wanted some me-time to just read a chess book.

When I approached the table I normally like to get, there was a man already there. No big deal, so I sit at the table next to him. I caught some daggers out of the corner of my eye so my eyes met his. He looked down, annoyed.

He was in his late 50s to early 60s wearing a tucked in plaid shirt made of flannel, a brown belt that matched his worn shoes, and crisp just-out-of-the-box blue jeans likely received on Christmas. His cheeks had a lot of bumps on them and some minor scarring which suggested to me an acne problem in his youth. He had glasses and a laptop whose brand was not visible to me.

Prominently to his left was a stack of 3 books that were almost a foot high combined – thick hefty books. He was clearly working on something important to himself but the spines of the books were facing away from me and I couldn’t see his screen. I took his annoyance with my presence to mean I had either offended him or upset his world in some way that was encroaching on whatever it was that he was doing.

“Is it alright with you if I sit here?”
“Sure.” He glanced at my chess board and pieces and interrupted the expected silence after his granted permission “Wait… will there be a lot of people?”
“No. At 10:00 AM I have a lesson with a little girl. Her dad may be here but he won’t sit next to you.”
“Alright” he said looking back to his screen.

I went up to the counter to order my hot chocolate and breakfast sandwich. I don’t drink coffee – never liked the taste and I gave up caffeine years ago. When I returned, I could see the man’s disapproving look of my sandwich out of the corner of my eye. It was a sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich on a cheddar and some-kind-of-herbs scone. I decided it would be best if I ate it efficiently. Usually, I enjoy such things as I go through my chess book, leisurely. I figured if he disliked the smell, I’d just be quick about it.

Obviously, I had no control over him being offended at me being near him in a public place. I certainly didn’t do anything worth his scorn. But, I had it anyway I suppose. But, I wanted to know what he was working on. I figured that maybe it would give me some clarity into his situation. I could tell he wasn’t up for talking so I decided to walk down the hall, toward the bathrooms, which would allow me to read the book spines.

One book was a Bible, one was entitled “Luke,” and the other had a longer title about Baptism. I decided that his aversion to my presence was simply a territorial one in that he didn’t want to sit next to me (or me sit next to him). His reading material also did not suggest anything urgent to me. So, I remained.

I didn’t really want to move seats because, well, there is a reason I sit on this row every Saturday. The building is almost entirely windows. Windows to the East, North, West, and South (you can see the building in my featured image). Poor design if you ask me because the sun is rather brutal at various points of the day. This back wall is perfect because it is situated so that the coffee shop overhead menus cover half of the Eastern wall.

Once that was finished, I cleared my plate making sure to place the recyclables and dirty dishes in the proper bins. I sat down and began setting up my chess pieces. Since his wayward glances at me at various points laid the eggshells down, I decided to set up the pieces one piece at a time. This means I didn’t pour the pieces out making noise. In fact, it was silent.

No one would possibly have been able to hear me setting up the board when this method is used. How do you do it? You pick up the top piece in the pile, otherwise the pieces would shift creating noise. Then, you slowly put the piece onto its square, slightly angled, so the felt under the piece, which holds in the weight at the bottom of the piece, connects with the vinyl chess board. Then, with a slight turning motion, you rotate the piece as you put it in place – silent as can be.

After setting everything up using this method, I proceeded to use this method to move the pieces as I went through my book. I figured if he was going to be unreasonably upset, I’d rather him be unreasonably upset with me than with chess.

Anyway, for a time, he was focused on his task and I was focused on mine. If there were any additional nonverbal slights from him, I missed them. Then, in comes an older gentleman – maybe mid 70s to early 80s. He was dressed very similarly to the man to my left, complete with freshly minted jeans, but he had a blue plaid shirt instead of red.

This man sits down with a younger gentleman, maybe in his early 20s. As I’m going through my game it becomes easy to overhear the conversation between these two, even when they whispered. They were only about 6 feet away.

Anyway, the older gentleman was clearly there to give advice to the younger man. Now, I didn’t hear the full conversation. But, when the older man got animated, I couldn’t help but to tune in while looking down at the chess position before me.

“How old is he?” the older man said as if he were about to draw a conclusion.
“He supposedly had a girlfriend at one point, but no one had ever met her.”
“Grades are fine.”
“Well, when I was sixteen, I was out with friends all the time. I was dating, chasing women. You sure he likes women?”
“We’re pretty sure, but times have changed – maybe not.”
“Hmm… What about his mother? She with anyone? Married?”
“She is divorced.”
“AH!!! I seeeeee.”
“Yea… not good.”
“You know… back in my day… when a woman was divorced, she would have to sit in the back of the church with the sinners. We would, as a community, ignore her. She’d be shunned because of what she did. Times certainly have changed.”

The young man had wide eyes as the older man said this; but, his eyes were emerging from a point of interest and a place of understanding that those must have been better times. “Yea, times really have changed if that is what we used to be able to do” he stated with a smooth confidence that his new knowledge would lead to some sort of greater understanding about the modern world. They made a few side comments that suggested to me that these two were not related but knew each other from the same church.

At this point, I began laughing to myself. Not an audible laugh, mind you. But, maybe a chuckle escaped me. If so, it might have been heard by the eggshell layer next to me. But, I honestly just don’t remember. I refocused on my chess moves at this point and ignored the old and young man for about 30 minutes.

Then, the older man stated “TRUMP! Yes, I like Trump.” The man’s voice went up suddenly like when you turn the volume up on the car radio when you were trying to turn the dial to a new station. It was sudden, and loud. “See… I like Trump because times have changed. I give him a pass on a lot of his sin because he’s right” the old man said to the enthralled young man.

I sat there baffled. Truly baffled. I suppose it is ok for Trump to have married 3 times but the woman from his story must be shunned by the whole community for divorcing once, and raising a kid on her own. The sexism on full display here was ridiculous to me.

While they never explicitly said it, it seemed that the woman was shunned for 2 reasons: (1) she got divorced and didn’t stay with whatever man was in her life and (2) she might be raising a gay son. At least, that was the word they seemed to dance around earlier in their conversation.

Just then, my lesson arrived. She sat down across from me and her dad sat to my right. Mr Eggshells looks up at this moment, before any of us said a word to one another, and scoffs. Then, he rose out of his seat.

He re-stacks his books, one at a time, giving each one about 8 inches of air time creating the perfect cover-to-cover slap for maximum noise without breaking anything. He hastily closed his folder, which sent 1 paper flying to the ground toward his left and the made a kerfuffle between his other pages as the air passed through each leaflet. He then slammed his laptop shut, and I do mean slammed.

You see, when you are dealing with an above average chess player, we notice little details. We aren’t Sherlock Holmes or anything; but, we are generally fairly logical people. You see… that last part was important… slamming his laptop shut.

Initially, I figured he was fed up and was going home. But, nope… he walks 10 feet away, maybe 15, and reopens it and puts all his stuff down on a new table. No one shuts a laptop to walk 10 or 15 feet away just to open it again and re-enter your password. With that shut, he gave himself away. If there was ever any ambiguity over our silent exchanges, he showed his cards and revealed his truth.

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