On Being a Regular

Perk or peril?

NUVO Magazine: On Being A Regular

The sweet young waitress who works the early shift at the café near my office now recognizes me when I show up for my breakfast coffee and pastry. She has become chatty, is solicitous when it’s rainy or cold, and occasionally slips an extra treat in my bag. It’s terribly nice of her, and I must stop going there at once.

The idea of walking into a place where everybody knows my name and they’re always glad I came fills me with profound dread. Why? Intensive therapy might dig up deeper root causes, but much of my fear of being a regular has to do with the fact that it always seems to get so damn complicated.

A couple of years ago, for instance, I lived in an area in northeast Paris that had its own brûlerie, a turn-of-the-last-century coffee place run by the grandson of its Russian immigrant founder, with a massive old grinder taking up much of the fragrant front room. All day long, a little coterie of the area’s coffee fanatics, many of them artists and writers, would meet at the counter to discuss the venerable neighbourhood’s latest gossip. The owner, who prescribed coffee to his clientele like a pharmacist (he would quiz you about your habits, and then pronounce his prescription) was gracious and friendly, passing us invites to events and art show openings by his pals.

All was well until I slowly realized that, despite the charm of the owner and his surroundings, his coffee wasn’t actually all that good. So after several months of weekly visits, I stopped going.

And for the next year, until I moved to another part of the city, I saw that goddamn brûlerie owner everywhere I went, his accusing face popping up on street corners, in local restaurants, at the newsstand where I bought my paper. (And don’t get me started on the saga of the newsstands, of going to one around the corner from my new apartment, directly and conveniently on the way to my Metro stop, until I got tired of the constantly missing sections and the crazy hunt for wherever the proprietor had stuffed the Guardian that day and switched to a better, more efficient place slightly out of my way. Now, every day is a march past the bitter glare of the first newsstand proprietor, outraged at my betrayal.)

My problem isn’t—I hope—that I’m just a big misanthropic jerk. I often appreciate the little human touches, especially in a big anonymous city like Paris, so full of bistros and shops that treat non-regulars as if they’re covered in fresh puppy blood. It’s that I get too involved in the first place. A bit of casual chit-chat with a waitress inexorably turns into an emotionally gruelling relationship. Sometimes I just don’t want to talk in the mornings, you know? Likewise, some days she’s going to be angry at all her customers. Feelings are going to get hurt! Better to keep my head down, or start going to another café down the street, where the waitress can treat me with an icy froideur that will surely never crack.