Every weekday morning before work I stop by a cafe in the Wall Street area before going into my office. It's a pleasant, clean, airy place that I enjoy and look forward to before going to my job.I always order the same thing – small coffee with milk (they've recently raised the price from $1.52 a cup to $1.63). I could, I suppose, vary my order (that is, getting a larger cup, or adding some croissants or muffins), but in order to make my transaction as simple and seamless as possible, I stick to my routine. The clerks and counter people know me so well, they sometimes get my order before I even say anything,I have loved coffee houses all my adult life -- they're a great place to relax, read a book or the newspaper, and people-watch.My morning coffee-joint is somewhat different since I'm pressed for time – I usually spend only 15 or 20 minutes or so there, which means my observations are brief and concentrated.Since I have patronized this cafe for so long, I see the same customers almost daily (other Wall Streeters following a similar routine as I).I never speak to anyone – indeed, everyone (the customers and employees) are complete strangers to me... and yet they're so familiar since I encounter them daily.Watching people, I wonder and speculate about who they are, what they do for a living, what their lives are like, and what they worry about?There is almost always this little old man sitting at the same table in the corner when I arrive. He has a bald head (covered by a baseball cap), a grey beard and he eats breakfast, while perusing the New York Times. I can't tell if he orders the same meal every morning, but I wouldn't be surprised if he did.He seems too old to still be working – so I wonder if he's a retiree who can't stand inactivity and keeps a disciplined routine to avoid going crazy? Might he be an eccentric wealthy man?When he finishes, he neatly places his paper in his backpack and silently exits – thus, he only “exists” in my consciousness for a few minutes every morning.Another customer is a little man I call 'Louie DiPalma' since he vaguely resembles the character of that name from the classic TV sitcom 'Taxi,' He, too, is a creature of habit – he always orders four large coffees (presumably for himself and three of his colleagues at work) and departs. I dislike getting behind him in line, since it always takes so long to fill his order.But, I wonder why he was chosen as a 'designated coffee-purchaser'? Are the other three people never willing to perform this task?Or (improbably) does he drink all four cups himself?Yet another customer is also a short man – a middle-aged fellow with greying hair and always neatly outfitted. He is quite elegant and austere, but he wears a grim visage. Is he unhappy? Angry? Bored? Or just very serious?He is very prim and proper – and never smiles.I know that many short men feel sensitive and inadequate over their lack of stature and seek to compensate through aggressive behavior – but this gentleman isn't like that. Perhaps he has resigned himself to his Lilliputian height and sadly accepts it.Then there is this overweight middle-aged woman I always see there. I suspect she is an officer worker drone and she always elicits sadness in me. Maybe she was beautiful and slender during her youth – but now has sunk into a dull kind of aging dowdiness.
I wonder about her – does she have a husband who loves her? Do men pay her any attention? Are such things even important to her anymore? What makes her happy? At what point do people give up their hopes and dreams and simply succumb to the grim monotonous routine of their ordinary lives?My favorite customer -- by far -- is an extraordinarily beautiful woman whom I see at this cafe periodically.She is a goddess -- tall, slender, with an angelic face, long dark-brown hair, sparkling almond eyes, a dazzling white smile and always attired tastefully and elegantly. She is I guess, what they call 'black Irish.' I estimate she is in her mid-to-late 30s – that is, on the brink of losing her beauty. One can tell that she spends a great deal of time in the morning 'prepping' herself, picking out her clothes carefully and applying make-up in a restrained, calculated manner.She is a stunning creature – and yet, I discern a deep sadness in her, even a kind of loneliness and isolation.Sometimes, beautiful women are extremely insecure (out of fear of what will happen when their looks fade, mostly, or because they suspect men judge them solely on their appearance).Nonetheless, she fascinates and charms me – I fantasize speaking to her, but never gather the courage to do so.I also observe the cafe employees, all of whom appear to be Hispanic immigrants, probably from México and/or Central America. I imagine what their lives are like and what they aspire to?I speculate they trudge at least an hour from the outer reaches on Brooklyn or Queens, or perhaps New Hersey, to a minimum-wage job (plus tips) in the center of American capitalism. They are unfailingly friendly, efficient, kind and hard-working.But, I wonder how they feel about serving Wall Streeters, some of whom are highly paid brokers, executives and attorneys with lifestyles that are light years beyond them?Do they resent their customers, or are they happy simply to have a job to provide for their families?What do they expect out of life? Do they hope their children go to college, get good jobs and move up on the ladder of society? Do they want their kids to eventually go to the other side of the counter – that is, become the customer, instead of the server?
The great American essayist Henry David Thoreau famously wrote: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. Thoreau may have come up with that line in a 19th century New England coffee shop.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.