‘One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others,'
- Simone de Beauvoir
Photo by Gold Coast Media Lab Helensvale Library on Unsplash
Un expresso, sur le zinc, alone, at the café brasserie up the street. To the left, just where Rue Notre Dame de Lorette intersects the Place Saint Georges. Seven thirteen and the sky is purple navy. The réverbères are still lit. Three minutes from the front door up the hill to the counter. Under my white coat, pajamas still on.
The quintessential serveur is quintessentially busy outside, setting the café’s chairs and tables in a line en terrasse. Within minutes those are wiped and ready. Within an hour they will be full. Not yet, though; it is too early still for the formule petit déjeuner.
Too early still for the croissant, orange pressée, avec café crème ou chocolat. Too early for the morning headlines before rushing into the métro. Too early for the sun to rise and to chase trains, purpose, buses, time. Too early for the anonymous footsteps of little people in big crowds.
It is too early, thankfully too early. Time is still sacred, and mine. The fresh stack of newspapers on the bar, to my right, is still minted and untouched. For as long as it remains unread, in this café, sur le zinc, the outside world remains folded inside. In mine: Un café s’il vous plait.
Time is suspended on the galvanized steel counter, for about a euro and twenty cents. For a euro and twenty cents, I am served a moment in stillness with myself.
Nothing to do and nowhere to be. The present tastes intense and earthy. Other senses spring to attention: a rich, pungent smell, faint steam, rising from the coffee.
A pair of hands comes to rest next to mine. It is served un expresso too. We share the counter, the silence of seven seventeen. One, two, maybe three sips.
A state of mind. An art of living in a world too big for survival. A choice, a declaration of freedom: this moment, my life is my own.
Then the pair of hands leaves some coins, the empty cup, and me sur le zinc and leaves. Taking a newspaper from the stack, rushing out the door, into the street.
I savour one last sip, last breath and then reach into my own coat pocket to pay, but
'C’est déjà réglé,'
I am told, to my surprise. A present from the stranger who left.
There is no one to thank but le serveur:
Serveurs do not smile. But he nods his head and I stand at the bar a while longer. He does not mind.
The stack of newspapers is still to my right, but their news does not interest me. They can keep their front-page stories of foreign policy and the economy. Their interest and exchange rates, their scoops and analyses, their horoscopes and weather forecasts. Their headlines of world records, mass casualties, great accomplishments and expectations. Their bigger picture of past and future, their verdict on what has meaning. I will read it later. Now, I have just been offered a cup of coffee.
For over a century, at the counters of cafés like this one all over Europe, a strange movement has been gaining momentum: strangers paying for strangers’ coffee. Ordering un expresso, sur le zinc, paying for two, and leaving. Sometimes even leaving coffees sospesi, pending, for the next guest.
The phenomenon is far too mundane to make headlines. Monetarily insignificant, anonymous. No value or meaning. It will not change the world,
and does not want to.
Strangers offering strangers the luxury of a moment in the present. Strangers simply telling strangers: I see you. And isn’t the coffee delicious.
Seven twenty-three, and mon chéri will soon begin stirring in bed. Soon he will yawn and open sleepy, smiling eyes. I want to be present for that.
A stop at the boulangerie on the way back: croissant nature et pain au chocolat. But first, from my pocket, a few coins on the zinc for the next stranger’s coffee.