October 25, 2006

Low Tidings

High Wire Act at the Coffee Station

Like most working people, I make the trek to the store to get coffee on my way to work every morning.

Most places have gone the self-service route, which is fine with me. Like the other zombies, I wordlessly head for the coffee station, efficiently get mine the way I like it and head over to the cashier to pay.

Those of us who are regulars know the routine — starting from the left, you grab your cup and the top. Next, choose whether you want sugar or not, and if so pour it into your cup. Next, choose from hot water (for tea), decaf, or regular, all of which is dispensed from large stainless steel coffee makers with spigots. Finally, choose from among skim, regular, or half-and-half milk (or have it black).

The unsaid rule is: keep it moving. We are working people, and we need to get to the job.

Lately, however, this habit, which has become almost a tradition, has been violated by a new generation of coffee drinkers who, frankly, are mussing up the works for the rest of us. We've all observed the "Hey, Put a Little Coffee In That Sugar Guy." You know the one. He gets his empty cup, and begins to violently shake sugar into it. Meanwhile, the line is getting longer and longer. You realize this poor slob is trying to make a meal out of this thing. When he finally gets around to putting coffee in it looks like a Slushie.

We've all had to deal with "Wrong Way Charlie" who fills his cup up, gets to the milk, and when he's all done, reverses fields and heads back for the container top. Meanwhile, he steps on the toes of the 43 people who are right behind him blindly moving forward.

Ever see the "Serial Stirrer?" You know this guy — the line comes to a halt as he feverishly stirs his concoction, for what seems like hours, creating a whirlpool, which turns into a vortex and inevitably ends when he spills some on the counter.

Which brings me to the "drains" on the counter. They are stainless steel, and they have slits, and they appear to the world to be a legitimate place to pour excess coffee — except it is all a mere illusion. Thus, when some slob dumps his burning hot java because he's overfilled his cup, it will simply run off the counter and onto the pressed pants of highly paid executives like myself.

But the worst imaginable scenario confronting a coffee drinker on his way to work is the dreaded "Construction Guy With Shingle."

This poor guy gets sent from a construction site, the order scribbled onto a shingle in pencil. Fourteen surly guys yell out what they want simultaneously: "Coffee with one sugar and cream," "Decaf black," "Tea with lemon," "Coffee with half and half." The gofer writes as fast as he can. When he gets to the coffee station, he pulls out one of those gray cardboard trays and lines up the cups.

The guy starts filling the cups, but he can't read his own writing. Then he puts sugar in some, milk in others. But he forgets what he put in which, and now he realizes Surly Gus, the roofer, is going to rip him a new one because the coffee tastes like piss. Beads of sweat form on his forehead as he begins the unsteady walk from the coffee station, with 54 of us who have been standing there glaring at him waiting to pounce on the coffee spigots.

He is moving one-hour-a-millennium, his knees shaking, hot coffee spilling onto his white knuckles as he grips the gray tray, which is collapsing and contorting. Then he remembers the other side of the shingle.

Three buttered rolls, two bagels with cream cheese, a jelly donut, four Devil Dogs, and a nine-grain muffin for Sven, the interior designer.

He has to shuffle to the back of the store for these items. There is no place to put the tray down.

We all know the truth about these trays: "It will take a Flying Wallenda to successfully balance that tray from the coffee station, through the checkout and back to the truck," I whispered to the others on the line. A few laughed, but most didn't get the reference.

Karl Wallenda put his high wire act together in 1922 and became famous for the seven-person chair pyramid he perfected with his adopted son, Mario. Such was their grace they were dubbed The Flying Wallendas.

I watch the laborer pile the eatables on top of the coffee and begin the painful, slow journey of winding through the narrow isles toward the cashiers.

The Wallendas luck ran out in Detroit, Michigan in 1962. That year, while performing the pyramid in, the front man on the wire faltered and the pyramid collapsed. Three men fell to the ground, killing two of them (Richard Faughnan, Wallenda's son-in-law, and nephew Dieter Schepp). Karl injured his pelvis, and his adopted son, Mario, was paralyzed from the waist down. It could have been worse Karl gripped the wire with the toes of one foot to break his own fall and simultaneously extended both arms and the other leg three family members grabbed a hold of his limbs and saved their lives.

The laborer is in agony, the hot coffee seeping through the cardboard, the muffin perilously perched on top of the Devil Dogs and donuts, in turn piled on the buttered rolls. He's almost home free when the electric door whirls open and a group of teenage girls rush in, all talking on cell phones. They brush him, and the tray collapses.

Other Wallenda tragedies occurred. Karl's sister-in-law, Rietta, fell to her death in 1963, and his son-in-law Richard ("Chico") Guzman was killed in 1972 after touching a live wire in the rigging. Maybe they should have changed the name to the Falling Wallendas.

Nonetheless, Karl decided to go on. He repeated the pyramid act in 1977. On March 22, 1978, during a promotional walk in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Karl Wallenda fell from the wire and died. Oopsie. He was 73 at the time.

The next morning I see the laborer at the coffee station again, with another shingle and more scribbled orders. This time, he piles the bagels and rolls in his jacket pockets and makes it out OK.

Mario Wallenda, though a paraplegic, wants to do a sky cycle stunt — an electric two-wheeler that he rides across a wire suspended high above the ground without a net. His wife accuses him of wanting to go in a blaze of glory. He says it's his job, the only thing he knows how to do.

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