“Thank you for choosing Tim Horton’s today, my name is Amy, how can I help you?”
Amy touches her headset and flashes me that smile that says, “I may have to take this drive-through order first, but I’d rather be waiting on you.” It goes with the tone of voice she’s using for the drive-through customer, the voice that says, “I don’t care if there are 10 people at the counter. Your coffee and donut come first.”
My understanding nod says, “Do what you have to do.” I’m a writer; she’s a shift supervisor, two professionals sharing a moment. Just another day at the office.
If I had a job, I’d have a real office. Writers don’t have jobs. We have careers: long periods of existential despair punctuated by occasional checks. I can only stare into the abyss of a blank page in silence or surrounded by white noise. I have neither in my house. The Glickman Library on USM’s Portland campus worked for silence until somebody hijacked my network password and got me suspended. Not even for downloading porn. Video games. How humiliating is that?
But when one door closes, another one opens; in this case, the door to the Tim Horton’s “over by Shaw’s” (there must be 20 Shaw’s around here, but say “over by Shaw’s,” Portlanders will know which one you’re talking about. Paging Stephen King.). It was new, attractive, free wi-fi, accessible outlet, doughnuts that tasted like love and Muzak that skewed heavily to ’90s dance party: white noise. Hello, Tim Horton’s. Daddy’s home.
Because this is Portland, I was on a first-name basis with the owner in days. Carol inspired me with her energy and an engaging mixture of apprehension and excitement about the business. She even gave me cognitive whiplash one day by pulling into the lot on a Harley, wearing full riding leathers.
The service is great, and the atmosphere behind the counter is a little like the kids’ table on Thanksgiving. They seem to enjoy each other and they seem to “get me.” When I demand out of the blue, “Maybe I do want a doughnut; is that so wrong?” Shannon flashes her million-dollar smile and rolls with it. When I deadpan repeatedly, “Hey, Joe, where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?,” because if an ancient musical reference is kind of funny once, the same one a million times must be hilarious, Joe rolls with it.
I’ve learned snippets about them in between refills – the Mount Holyoke grad who is saving up for her master’s, the graffiti artist who showed me some amazing examples, the guy who looks like he’s always between band practices. One of my favorites is in almost ecstatically in recovery – I’m not sure from what – and is just happy to be there, or anywhere. Collectively, they say a lot about America in the new millennium.
I’m more than a regular. Regulars are at the place; I am of the place. Even the people who are there every day, the African cabbies or the native Mainers who drive cherry-pickers, have a cruller, solve the world’s problems for a few minutes and head off to work. When I’m there, I am at work. That makes the regulars fodder, if only for my macabre imagination. Like the woman who comes in often, carrying the same tightly wrapped parcel. She seems perfectly nice. The package doesn’t really contain her dead husband’s embalmed head (probably).
For a while, an almost-but-not-quite-handsome man (he looked like Viggo Mortensen pulled from the oven an hour early; I called him Viggo Lite) tried to usurp my position. I knew they’d never let two people monopolize tables for hours at a time, and he was just some loser staring at his laptop. I was an author. Staring at his laptop. I had to hope Carol would appreciate that distinction. One day, he disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared, broken, no doubt, by my superior skill at inactivity.
Occasionally, I regret never talking to the regulars, like when I watch “Thin Maria Callas As Medea.” I named her for the opera star she resembles, including the bottomless reservoir of pain behind her eyes. You can’t really tell her age, but you sense her life journey has been a long one, and they have not been highway miles. She wields a well-thumbed, heavily noted copy of the AA Blue Book as she counsels a stream of women in various stages of getting their lives back. If AA’s rules didn’t prevent me from intruding, my own rules would. But it’s intriguing to watch this rising angel at work.
It’s just one small business. Similar stories are being played out all over the place. But I’m here, and I’m glad. And I hope Carol knows that her one small business is also a community, a 12-step sanctuary and sometimes even a muse.
Portland resident Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org