Coffee at By George

A cistern of boiling coffee foams in the basement of a library near Red Square on the University of Washington Campus. To get to the cistern, I find a free meter on the lower part of the University Avenue in the shade of a rhododendron that just started to lose its thick, pink flowers.

The flowers hang like empty leather gloves. I cross a pedestrian bridge over the wires of the electric trollies, past the pidgin smeared statue of George Washington staring vacantly through the iron scaffolding of the I-5 bridge passing toward the blue peaks of the Olympic Mountains. The cistern gurgles in a café called By George. Before I go into it, though, I stand in the massive square where students sun themselves on the cement steps. No one speaks today but on some days lunatics proselytize and as she or he picks their voice up and fills the cavernous brick space, it becomes muffled with straggling students who stop and listen. The coffee drops from the brass bucket into a paper cup and tastes the same no matter what blend. It tastes the same as it did ten years ago when I was a student. The gesture of retrieving the coffee from the cistern is good. But what is better is standing in line for the woman who has worked the cash register for more than ten years. I can hear her say to each person buying their foil wrapped Husky burgers, their fish sticks, their bruised pears — Have a nice day — as she hands back their change. I wait until the transaction. When she will say, “Have a nice day to me,” I will feel she means that I will have a nice day. She hardly looks at me, but her head, at each person turns slightly and she looks at what we have, she sees me with my two dollars. She says, “Have a nice day.” It isn’t a perfunctory have a nice day. Enjoy, she seems to say, the combination of myself and By George and whatever it that I’m buying a Husky burger, fish sticks, bruised pear, cup of coffee. When I visit the UW campus, even accidentally, I buy a cup of coffee from the cistern and stand in her line. The coffee is so hot that it takes the skin off the roof of my mouth.

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