the bully top

Back when I was still living in the UK, I would have never dreamed of spending an entire afternoon working on my laptop in a cafe. Places like Starbucks or homegrown coffee chain Costa are places to go, pay slightly too much for caffeinated beverages, leaf through a book or newspaper, then be on your way. They’re not for doing your homework or earning a living.

Thanks to the birth of WiFi and ultra-light laptop computers, however, the sight of people commandeering tables for hours on end is no longer such a rarity, and I, it has to be said, am one of them. Which is where I witnessed an unusual little episode involving a grumpy old man with a comb-over, his quiet, sweater vest-wearing friend, and a young woman who may or may not have been a matcha-drinking guardian angel.

The following words were typed into an electronic computer machine by a slightly immature man who comes from Liverpool in the UK. It contains the kind of words your mother probably taught you never to say and ramblings about hipsters. If either of these things upset you, assume the recovery position and honk like a goose until someone can come and close the tab on your web browser.

I’m not really sure when it happened, but at some point in the last couple of years I started to frequent coffeehouses to write in. In the past, I’d sneer at the laptop-toting cappuccino quaffers in Starbucks and assume that they were somehow mocking me, rubbing their relative success in my face (at that time I possessed neither a MacBook Air nor the cash to splurge on a drink large enough to nurse for the time it took to write an article of any real length) and embodying everything that I hate about the developed world (the aforementioned Apple computers, thick-rimmed glasses, skinny jeans and intentionally dishevelled hair). If, on the rare occasion that I had scrounged together enough pennies to buy a cup of black coffee and found myself sharing the same space as them, I’d secretly hope that they’d spill their drinks over their computers, saving the world from another pretentious blog entry about a band you’ve never heard of, wool caps, home-made jam or such bollocks. I’m small like that.

I’m also, it seems, incredibly fickle, because without realising it I have myself become one of those very same idiots you see in coffee shops, tapping away at a MacBook Air (yes, through a series of unforeseen events I now even have the ‘correct’ brand of computer), smirking at witty Facebook posts I’ve written and occasionally stroking my stubbly chin (facial hair is a must). I’m always sure to pay for the space I’m stealing with frequent coffee purchases, and I draw the line at the chunky glasses and skinny jeans, but I’m definitely one of those people now. Hate me if you will; you couldn’t possibly loathe me any more than I do myself.

Anyway, one day last week I wandered into a branch of Doutor–a Japanese coffee chain ranking somewhere between Starbucks and Denny’s on the scale of coolness–positioned myself in a corner, and with my cafe latte flanked by a croque monsieur and a wedge of baumkuchen, settled in to do some writing. The place was absolutely packed, and I’d only been able to secure myself a table because I’d spotted a woman beginning to pack her things after taking what looked like an urgent phone call and hovered close enough to appear aloof to anyone who was already enjoying their coffee but still scare off any would-be challengers for the seat when it opened up. The little victory had woken a strange enthusiasm in me (like I said, I’m small like that) and so I resolved to make the most of the fact that my arse was in contact with a seat and to get through as much work as I could before my laptop’s battery died.

No sooner had I begun, however, than a loud voice made me start. Looking up, I saw two men who looked to be in their mid-to-late sixties shuffling between the rows of chairs and tables, each carrying a plastic tray with a single cup of coffee on it. The first man, who sported a gloriously long yet woefully ineffective comb-over, looked decidedly annoyed and was glowering at those who were already seated and slurping on their various beverages.

“What the hell is this?” he barked at his companion, a slimmer man with a head of thick, slightly curly grey hair and wearing a blue sweater vest despite the 29-degree heat outside. “This is ridiculous! There’s not a single empty table!” he protested loudly.

The coffee slurpers around me looked up at the man as he began a mini rant about customer service, his friend looking increasingly embarrassed and frantically looking around for a place they could sit, presumably in the hope of subduing the man as swiftly as possible. For a split second, I considered advising the men that, during busy lunchtime periods such as these, it is advisable to get a seat before ordering food or drinks, but the man already looked about ready to lynch someone, and I felt that he might not take too kindly to being given a lecture on how things worked by the foreigner in the corner.

The comb-over man continued to fume. Despite it being plainly clear that all of the tables were occupied, he made a point of marching to the far end of the row and looking around, his movements over-exaggerated as if performing a skit for a group of small children. Finding that his eyes did not, in fact, deceive him and that there were no tables to be had, he whirled around and stared at his friend in the blue sweater vest, who in return offered up a sympathetic smile and parted his lips as if about to speak but did not. Suddenly, the comb-over caught sight of something, straightened up, and launched into what I can only describe as a scene from a stage adaptation of a Dickensian novel, with him playing the role of enraged schoolmaster.

“What’s this!?” he bellowed at no one in particular, tapping the back of any empty chair beside him. The young woman sitting on the opposite side of the table to which it belonged removed her earphones and looked up at him, then around her, clearly wondering what the hell was going on. Before she could open her mouth to ask, though, the man had already turned away and was striding towards a young man dressed in a suit who also sat alone at a small table for two, the seat on the other side of it vacant. “What’s this!?” the man boomed again, thumping the back of a suddenly very fragile-looking wooden chair. “And this! And this!” he barked, now powering down the row, touching every vacant seat he could find.

On closer inspection, though, the chairs he had tapped weren’t entirely empty.

You see, in Japan, you’ll rarely see a person putting their bag directly on the floor of a cafe or restaurant. The reason for this is simple, and is the same one that people habitually remove their shoes when entering their homes: the floor, no matter if it has just been mopped or vacuumed, is considered a dirty, filthy thing, and making contact with it with anything other than the soles of your shoes is, for most, a bit no-no. When entering a cafe or restaurant, it is increasingly common for patrons to be provided with small fabric baskets or crates into which they can place their belongings. These baskets help keep customers’ shopping, handbags and other such luggage out of the way, but they also allow them to put them somewhere clean, that is to say not on the floor. In this branch of Doutor, even though there were no free tables, since a number of patrons were sitting alone there were a handful of empty chairs. And without baskets to put them in (shame on you, Doutor! Shame!), a few people had instead placed their bags on the chairs opposite them at their tables, presumably thinking that no one would come and sit there, as to do so would mean sharing a tiny table with a complete stranger.

Nevertheless, the comb-over was having none of it, and, frustrated that there were no tables, had seemingly resolved to kick up a fuss that a couple of the chairs were being occupied by anything other than human buttocks.

“Whose bags are these?” the man demanded, by now turning a colour a childhood friend of mine once described as ‘boiled shite’, “Why don’t you make some room!”

Apart from the sound of the shop staff moving around behind the counter and attending to a couple of people who clearly had no idea what they were letting themselves in for and were placing orders, the whole place fell silent. While two or three patrons hurriedly reached over and removed any items that had been sitting atop of vacant chairs, everyone else in the room fell under a weird sort of malaise and feigned having a sudden interest in the shop floor, except for one man who shuffled nervously in his seat and stared at his slice of pumpkin torte like it was a consolation prize for losing a loved one in a fire. The comb-over, meanwhile gave a grunt of satisfaction, and after commandeering one of the seats, plonked his tray down awkwardly on the half a table that the person sitting opposite him had until then been using, before gesturing to his flustered friend to sit in the other seat.

And so began one of the most awkward moments in the history of humankind, as the two ageing Japanese men, seated at tables some six feet away from each other and opposite complete strangers, had stilted conversations about the weather, horse racing and the fact that one of them was planning to replace the tatami flooring in his living room with laminate, while everyone else pretended that they were still enjoying their drinks and did not hate the man with the comb-over with every fibre of their being. Clearly sharing our discomfort, the man in the sweater vest took only a minor role in the conversation, responding mainly with non-committal murmurs and smiles and apologising quietly whenever his bully of a friend chided him for not speaking up.

This went on for ten minutes or so (needless to say, I had done absolutely no work the entire time and had instead tried to teach myself how to focus on objects in my peripheral vision while looking directly ahead so that I could discreetly watch the awkward pair) until the sweater-vest man announced that he, too, was having difficulty hearing what his companion was saying (this had to have been a lie since there was no missing a word of it), and suggested that they finish up their drinks and leave.

“What’s the matter with you? We’re not doing any harm,” the comb-over retorted when he heard his friend’s proposal. “We can talk as loud as we like – we’re only having a conversation.”

Sweater-vest smiled and retreated into his shell and the room once again fell silent apart from the clinking of crockery and a short screech from the milk steamer. You had to feel sorry for him. Comb-over was clearly a dick and a short-tempered bully, but from the way the two men talked it was clear that they’d known each other for some time, perhaps even related somehow, and Sweater-vest bore the look of a man who was used to being scolded and having to put up with his obnoxious friend, but was too nice to do anything about it.

What happened next, though, brought the first trace of happiness to Sweater-vest’s face that I had seen since he entered the shop. It was most likely an accident, but all the same I still like to think that it could have been the deliberate act of a fellow human being who could stand no more of the bullshit and spied an opportunity to redress the balance, even if just for a second.

With Comb-over still muttering about manners and seats and society going to hell, the young woman sitting two tables away from me who had been sipping ice matcha latte through a straw (when a girl’s especially pretty, we men tend to notice even their choice of drink) for the duration of the episode slowly packed up her belongings and, after checking her reflection in her smartphone, put her glass and straw wrapper on her tray. She then stood, shouldered her bag, picked up her tray, and sidled over to where Comb-over was sitting. Leaning in, she said to him with a smile, in some of the politest Japanese I’ve heard outside of NHK news bulletins, “Excuse me, sir. I’m sorry to interrupt your conversation, but I’ll be leaving now, so if you and your friend would like to move over to where I was sitting, you’ll be able to sit at the same table. That way you won’t have to shout.”

As she straightened up and moved to walk away, her bag slipped off her shoulder and onto her forearm, causing the glass that was standing on her tray for fall over, sending giant dollops of dark green matcha froth across Comb-over’s table and lap.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the woman said, hoisting her bag back up onto her shoulder and handing him a napkin from her tray before walking away.

Shocked but finally speechless, Comb-over sat dabbing at his crotch with the napkin, scowling. The air in the room suddenly felt lighter, and even the woman who had been forced into sharing her table with him looked noticeably more relaxed. The sweater vest-wearing man, meanwhile, simply looked over at his bully of a friend, wearing a huge grin and sipping on his coffee, finally, it seemed, able to enjoy it in peace.

Featured image Philip Kendall/RocketNews24