So, I stopped in at Peet’s this morning on the way to work. Behind me in line, I heard a conversation between two women that began somewhat like this:
(Bright, up-beat voice): You’re wearing a Cal Bears sweatshirt. Are you a Cal Bear? (Normal human being, I haven’t had coffee yet voice): No, I work there.
Now, at this point, I figured the first voice must belong to a reporter, or something, because I couldn’t imagine anyone else starting up a conversation this way. Bear in mind, this Peet’s is just a few blocks away from the campus, and probably most of its customers most days are Cal students. School-related apparel is rampant.
The bright, up-beat voice proceeded to ask the woman if she had participated in the recent walk-out. She said no. It was established in short order that the woman worked in administration (I’m inferring she was regular classified staff rather than management; I think I’m right about that, but I could be wrong.), and that while she felt she was getting shafted, she was mostly just glad she had a job.
The bright up-beat voice continued, still sounding entirely chipper or congratulatory, to summarize this to mean that the woman was “doing all-right” even though professors were losing their tenure. At which point the Cal worker explained that she was on the phone — I’m guessing she started a call primarily as an excuse to interrupt this conversation. The up-beat voice continued, at which point the worker basically said, you don’t know me, why are you talking to me, you need to leave me alone.
By now I’ve moved on from the register, and I turn back to see what’s happening. The Cal worker is black (which I’d guessed from her speech), and looks exactly like anybody who’s not really awake, and is not really looking forward to a day of work. By know she’s talking to someone on the phone, narrating what’s happening, and telling whoever is on the phone that the other woman really needs to step back.
The other woman is white, well-dressed, well-groomed, and carrying a trade paperback of some kind (maybe a textbook, maybe a novel; I couldn’t read the spine) and drinking coffee out of an absurdly tiny cup. I didn’t even know Peet’s had these; I’ve only ever seen paper cups and large ceramic mugs. I suppose it’s possible the woman brought it with her…
Anyway, now the worker is up at the register interacting with the cashier, placing her order, and helpfully pointing out that the woman behind her is crazy. She also turns to me and asks for confirmation, which I helpfully provide.
And the woman clearly was crazy. It would be hard to tell if you weren’t paying attention, because she certainly didn’t match the standard profile for crazy person on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. (Our crazy population is largely homeless kids, homeless older people, and really burnt-out hippies and older people who, while not homeless, are a bit ragged around the edges. Plus the fundamentalist rockers and the Hindu guy with the “Jesus is Satan” posters.)
Even if you could hear the conversation, you wouldn’t necessarily peg the white lady as crazy, because her voice was only a little off of normal, and none of the individual phrases she had used were necessarily absurd: just the way she had initiated the encounter, the way she persisted with it, and the level of her interest in this fellow human being.
I should say, up to that point, you had to be paying attention to know something was off, because around that time, she started narrating the conversation as well, largely under her breath, and in a less-bright voice. I couldn’t make it all out, but it had to do with how many people were staring at her, some kind of surveillance, and “it’s usually a black person.”
Happily, the incident ended shortly after that. I went out to wait for the bus. The crazy white lady followed the other woman to the condiment bar and watched her add cream, or whatever, but did not (thankfully) follow her out of the cafe. The Cal worker went off to her job, and the white lady just stayed hovering in the middle of Peet’s.
Now, I don’t know what either woman’s story was, apart from what I saw. I’m guessing the white lady has some mental health issues, and is maybe off some medication she should really still be on, but that’s a supposition on my part. Either she’s functional enough to hold down a job, or someone is taking care of her, certainly.
I don’t know why I found this whole incident so interesting, or why I’m relating it now, except that I think it’s very easy to have an image of our head of how people are supposed to behave, and who is supposed to have what problem, and sometimes those expectations can be quite wrong…