One of the difficult - but often entertaining - things about eating and conversing in public places is that I find it hard to mentally filter out the conversations that are taking place near me. (This is also why I don't like a tv on in the background.)
This means I get to hear a lot of conversations whether I want to or not. And while it's certainly helped flesh out minor characters in stories, it also provides a very interesting glimpse into the tenor of places and times. Life has a rhythm to it, and there's a certain set of pitches and tones that come with places, an expected range of conversational topics that define normal.
This weekend, Calmer Half and I went on a road trip. About noon, we found ourselves in a county seat, on the courthouse square. Not an especially big county or population for Texas, but not by any means one of the smallest, either. As I was desperately under-coffeed, we stopped in a nice coffee bar that we'd been in before. Lovely place, even if it'd be hard to get more hipster outside of Austin or Portland.
The kind of place where conversations often are about designer this and coding that, about somebody's book club or what the article in the New York Times said. Or how terrible it is to be in such a small town compared to the action elsewhere, but cant be helped. Solar this, wind that, the unfortunate reality of oil revenues, always absinthe never whiskey...
There was something wrong to the atmosphere, and it wasn't the baristas being in monogrammed masks. No, that wasn't unexpected, nor were the overly-artisan sweets (that were delicious. They do great food and coffee.) It was the subtle change in body language among the people sitting at the tables. It was in the lowered pitch in the conversational hum, the startling absence of the hipster nasal whine in the background noise.
It was the backpack slung on the seat near me when I sat down was pure military. In fact, the young man sitting next to his backpack was well muscled, ramrod straight spine, haircut clipped so closely I could see the scalp underneath below the ridiculous bowler hat that must have fit back before he gained 75 pounds of muscle.
Across the table sat two weedy late teenagers... they might have been very early twenties. And conversation was clearly that one of the gang had Gotten Out Of This Place via the military, and was catching up with his hometown buddies. The kind of kids you expect to see working gas stations and pizza delivery and trying to figure out what they want to do with their life. Indeed, one was contemplating joining the military like his buddy.
I sat, trying to be lost in my coffee, but pulled away from my conversation with Calmer Half by phrases that kept catching my attention.
"Man, the price of .223 is insane! I used to be able to find it for..."
"We're stockpiling supplies in case..."
"Yeah, she broke up with him, and you know how much it costs to get rid of the tattoo?"
"...against the principles of the constitution!"
If the hair on the back of my neck weren't already on end from the things leaking past the heavily censored and carefully curated national pravda, it would be now. Never, in my adult life, has the hipster nasal whine disappeared from a full coffee shop. And never has a low angry hum replaced it...
The last time I heard a crowd hit this low tone, they were on the verge of going from a mob to a riot, and I don't mean anything near as cuddly as the mostly peaceful protestors in DC. And this wasn't a crowd with any point or purpose beyond coffee on a weekend morning.
Stay safe out there, and I don't mean wearing any damn masks. I mean carry, and keep your head on a swivel.