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Hot Coffee

Bothering the Coffee Drinkers (continued)

Although it had been a couple years since he swore off these types of shows, thinking they were behind him, everything quickly came back to Johnny Q. It was always the same, the little cafe in the corner of the bookstore, with the scattered tables and comfy sofa, the battered P.A. that got wheeled out of the backroom by the clerk at the counter, who also brought forth milk crates full of tangled cords. Once Johnny Q set the thing up, no mean trick because the bookstore clerk never had a clue and would always leave him on his own, the P.A. would hum and click and sometimes pick up police calls from passing CB radios. Johnny Q always positioned the two speakers on either side of his makeshift stage, positioning them on high chairs normally reserved for toddlers.

As Johnny Q began playing, he saw an all-too-familiar cast of characters trickling through the front door of the bookstore. Soon there would be a little girl in pigtails about five years old dancing in the front, smiling and running back to her mom who sat nearby, reading a copy of Redbook and generally ignoring both the child and the music. Next to her at the table would be her husband, face buried in a Something for Dummies book, rocking the two-year-old sibling, who was sitting in a stroller with pacifier stuffed into the mouth. They looked permanently distracted, these parents, and much too tired to clap.

Behind them, there would be a table or two of college kids, reading books and magazines they didn't want to buy, talking amongst themselves, sometimes louder than the performer, oblivious to where one song ended and another began. Despite their propensity to save money by not buying books or records, they always seemed to be sipping expensive triple lattes and double espressos and, between that and the conversation, were always too self-focused and wound up too clap.

Scattered here and there would be a couple 50-something men with grey in their beards and yellow in their sweaters, reading sports magazines, aimlessly licking their index fingers, turning pages, occasionally looking up with a startled reminder that there was music in front of them, finally awakening to their surroundings by the time the next song began, and, as such, they were usually too late to clap. These gentlemen were also the most likely to come up to him between sets and tell him about the bluegrass band they'd seen at some festival, mighty good pickers, they were.

There was always a single mom in shorts, looking tired but happy with a small child in lap, sitting together on the comfy sofa in the back. She'd read softly to the drooling offspring, glancing up occasionally for a weak nod or smile in the direction of the stage directly ahead. Her hands were full with book and child, and, as such, she usually just kept reading, occasionally quickly slapping a palm against the thigh in a vain attempt to clap, which was courteous, he must admit.

There was always a gaggle of customers of all ages by the magazine stands beyond the single mom, outside of the cafe area, leafing through this and that, pretending not to listen at all, polishing their cool, it seemed. They were definitely drawn by the music, though, because they would generally stand there the entire set before leaving, sometimes putting down a magazine long enough to throw out a few golf claps.

Finally there was always an elderly man or woman who would sit up front, with a hardcover book, usually something classic. Johnny Q would read the titles during the instrumental breaks in his songs, and more often than not, this person would put down Fitzgerald or Hemingway, make solid eye contact with him, eyes faded in color yet gracious in their manner. Invariably, these people always clapped the loudest.

And, sure enough, as Johnny Q looked out on the small crowd, while picking the tune that was receiving all the praise in consciousnesses beyond those of the coffee drinkers he was bothering, this is what he saw. He tried desperately to concentrate on the music he was playing. Because if he didn't, he'd start wondering why he'd agreed to do this show, and then the negativity would seep through his fingers, cause his hands to stumble and his mind to forget words to songs he'd sung a thousand times. It's difficult to play off a crowd that isn't there; it's worse than hecklers, he thought. At least a heckler gives you something to work with. But he wiped the thought from his mind, too. As he finished the song, blasts of espresso machine followed, and car engines revved in the parking lot behind the corner of glass behind him. continue

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