tempest in a decaf coffee cup

My most awkwardly personal post so far.

For a monthly board meeting for work this afternoon – for every meeting we have – I’m responsible for getting the coffee, bottled water, donut holes, sometimes lunch.

I swung by the nearest coffee & donuts chain.  Along with a box of coffee, for this meeting for specific board members I also get a tea and a decaf coffee.  Not too hard: a box of munchkins, box of coffee, large hot tea, large decaf coffee.  Nothing in either.   The girl at the counter must not have trusted herself, because for the 10 seconds it was going to take her to grab the tea bags and pour the water in the other cup and then turn to pour the decaf coffee –

She wrote “BLACK” in jarring blue ballpoint pen into the styrofoam cup.  Into it, indented.

The thing is, the gentleman who gets the decaf is black.

Late middle aged, battered by medical issues the last few years but wiry and brilliant and  stongwilled, responsible for hundreds of employees taking care of thousands of people who need help, he is someone I’ve never really had a conversation with, but I hold him in high regard.  I hold all the board members, directors of social service agencies, in high regard.  In social services it is still traditional for even those in the highest positions to have begun doing the direct care work itself. And I think every one of the directors has.

The clerk put the cup down and turned to the tea – she had written “tea” on that one, as if the two tea bags tags she was about to drape over the rim wasn’t going to be enough of a mnemonic for her.

My mind raced, as it does, the 2/3s of my brain that’s packed with mirror neurons firing away at each other.  I worried it might offend him, or set off some bad memory.  That’s just the way my mind works.  I really have no idea if it would, even if he noticed it.

I might have been overthinking it.  But after the panicked 10 seconds it took for her to finish with the tea and for me to decide, I decided I’d rather look strange to the clerk.  I waved my hands a little, toward the cup.

“Uh, could you uh,  use another cup?”

She looked at me confused.

“It’s just- that.  Written, on it.  It’s for- Uh, just, if you’d… just use a new one…”

She turned the empty cup in her hand, saw I was talking about the word she’d written into it, looked a bit confused.  “Uh…”

She acquiesced.  Shrugged a little, a tiny frown, maybe at the waste – “Okay…” – and tossed the cup into the trash.

I thanked her, but she still thought I was weird.  Maybe she thought I thought it was ugly, or written too close to the lip.  Maybe she thought I was some kind of line-up-all-my-pencils neat freak.

Yeah, no one but me sees them, but I got a lifetime of mental pencils I try to keep lined up just right on the desk in my head.

But I was just making sure.

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One response to “tempest in a decaf coffee cup

  1. Sometimes stuff like that is just amusing.

    Like when my (black) husband and I (white) went to an animal shelter and picked out a tuxedo cat. The volunteer working there had to clear our adoption with her supervisor. Black cats are sometimes hard to find homes for because of superstition, and the woman was telling her supervisor (on the phone) that we were interested in this mostly-black cat. She had already spoken to us about the cat’s color before calling her supervisor. She told her boss, meaning nothing, “Oh yeah, they know it’s black, color doesn’t matter to them.” We thought that was hysterical, even moreso because the girl really wasn’t thinking about us being an interracial couple when she said that.

    We also brought in a stray that a neighbor had been feeding. She had called the cat “Blackie.” I said we had to change the name “since that doesn’t really work in our household.” The neighbor didn’t get the joke, even though we’d lived next door to her for over a year.

    So I guess what I’m saying is you never know, unless you know the person really well, but in some cases it’s just funny. And if you’re not sure, better to err on the side of caution 😉

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