The café girl

I like to do work in public places.  Fortunately, what I do these days mostly just involves sitting at a laptop, so I’ve dived head-first into the culture of laptop-toting café dwellers.  Although the café experience is something new for me, the idea of being productive in a busy public place is not: a year ago I finished (and that’s being charitable — I really did almost the whole thing there) a rather large project on a couch in the largest common room of a university residence hall.  Some have expressed surprise and confusion that I could possibly be productive in such a public, potentially busy, often noisy environment, but it worked for me.  At the time, though, I was driven by a rather singular desperation, and I had the warmth and good will of an entire building full of people who knew me, not to mention the support of a particular guardian angel.  In a café, however, I don’t know any of these people (although I’m starting to notice a few familiar faces as I become a regular of the scene), and they don’t know me.  So, I’m working in a roomful of strangers.

The interesting thing about strangers is that, well, they are interesting.  Specifically, they’re interesting in a way that familiar faces are not.  I know what’s going on with my friends, by-and-large; there is a rarely a sense of curiosity in a room of familiar faces.  Oh, there’s Bill.  Regarde, cést Michel.  ¡Veo Maria!  你好 Pete.  In a room of strangers, though, there is mystery and distraction.  I don’t know anything about these people, and the near-certainty that their lives are more interesting than whatever I might be trying to do on my laptop means that I pay attention to them, whether I really want to or not.

As I write this, the table next to me seats a group of apparent law students, discussing the potential property infringement to Mattel of an S&M-themed “Barbie” doll.  The issues, apparently, are whether such a product can be considered a parody, and whether it could potentially siphon market share from the legitimate Barbie toy.  The law students seem to be concluding that a product on store shelves designed to make money is unlikely to be meaningfully parodic, but that it is also really, really unlikely to attract the same target audience as a proper Barbie Doll (and is also really, really unlikely to attract consumers whom Mattel might some time soon try to entice with a similar S&M-themed official Barbie product).  As such, it is not a meaningful infringement.  That logic seems sound to me — I would be really surprised to find a Barbie in black latex with whips at my local Toys’r’Us.

I would be paying more attention to that fascinating conversation, if I were not much more distracted by the person sitting at a table about halfway across the café.  She’s beautiful.   Clear pale skin, expressive brown eyes, shiny walnut hair, and an alluring lithe body in a white summery dress — to be honest, not what I usually go for, but I can’t deny that she is lovely.  She has a classy, girl-next-door beauty that I’m finding quite charming.

She’s also sitting with some guy.  Frankly, it takes a while for me to even notice that he’s there.  A few small affectionate gestures tell me that they’re a couple though, and dash my fleeting thoughts of finding some reason to talk to her (which I would never do, regardless, but one always thinks of it).  It’s actually somewhat comforting to see that he’s, very roughly (and my sense of male beauty isn’t as refined as it could be, so it’s just an estimate) about as cute as I am, suggesting that in theory I would have a chance.

Regardless of her obvious unavailability (and, of course, the fact that I know absolutely nothing else about her), I still find myself sneaking looks her way, hoping for a few sustained glances without any impression of obsession or stalking.  It’s creepy, but harmless, especially since she ultimately isn’t making me forget my current consistent (non-café-girl) crush.  She really is very pretty, though.

However, it’s an interesting thing how, and other people have told me that they do it too, we tend to pick a person from any given group of strangers to focus on, and be charmed by.  I do this on the bus, in university classes, at restaurants.  I’m not particularly “on the prowl,” but it seems to be a natural, almost automatous move to evaluate the strangers in a room for their beauty (and perhaps that’s being naïve or euphemistic; perhaps what I really mean is sex) appeal.  And, again, I know I’m not the only one who does this, and in fact I suspect almost everyone does, but not all will admit it.

The real question is, am I noticing someone because she’s cute and appealing, or because she’s the cutest and most appealing?  What would happen if someone of more striking beauty, or perhaps simply a beauty more in-line with my personal tastes, were to walk in?  Would I forget about my café girl the same way I can no longer remember what the law students looked like, now that they’ve left while I was writing?

I think it says something about our sense of desire and perception of beauty that we tend to frame our preferences heavily in terms of what else is available.  I see this in bars all the time, where it is especially hilarious to notice people’s sense of “available” fluidly adapting to increasing drunken-ness.  Just a few days ago I watched a sober friend completely disregard a guy whom she would have found very attractive, except that he was clearly both in a relationship and a complete douche.  A few hours later, she was talking and flirting with him, and a few hours after that they left together.  The sex, for what it’s worth, was apparently terrible, although given how sloshed she was, I’m not sure it was as much his fault as she suggests.  Earlier, in a more sober moment of the evening, she had been talking to another guy, a friend-of-a-friend who at the time was probably the cutest single (and non-douchebaggy) fellow in the room.  However, as soon as she got drunk enough for “douche” and “in a relationship” to stop influencing her sense of availability, someone else shot to the top of the list and her focus shifted dramatically.

I wonder, sometimes, if this is a biological imperative, or if we’re all just shallow jerks.  I suspect it’s a little of both.

My café girl left; I’m already having trouble remembering what she looked like.  But, I’m really wondering how I didn’t notice this adorable redhead before…

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