I’m sitting at my usual table by the window at the Panera on Washtenaw, sipping tea and revising my manuscript. There is a homeless man in a chair in the corner, his belongings stuffed in a ratty duffle bag next to him. One of the workers approaches him, and I brace myself for an eviction.
Instead, I hear this conversation:
Worker: “Isaac? What time do you need to catch your bus?”
Isaac, mumbling: “I have to be at the church by eleven o’clock.”
Worker: “So, I’ll come and remind you at 10:30, then?”
Isaac: “Yes, thank you.”
The worker returns to the counter where the cookies and muffins are stacked under glass. To her colleague she says, “I’ll set my phone for 10:30. That way both of us can remember, OK?” and the other woman nods yes.
On another day a commotion outside the front window catches my eye. A woman is frantic, screaming for her son, clutching at her head. Customers leave their tables and coffee and run to her, asking what’s wrong. But she can’t hear them. She is in her private world of terror–a parent’s worst nightmare: someone has taken her son, she is sure. She screams his name over and over, “George! George!” A man runs down the street calling for the boy; others scramble back into Panera, wide-eyed, searching for the missing child. The woman can no longer stand, and other women, strangers, hold her up, comforting her as best they can. Suddenly one of the regulars from Panera, the one who ran down the sidewalk, comes back into view. He yells to the distraught mother, “He’s in GameStop!” She folds to her knees as her child runs to her, unsure what is wrong. When you’re five, sometimes you just want to play a video game.
On an early spring morning, Panera is mostly empty, the breakfast crowd now on their way to work. I tap on my computer at my table by the window, typing word after word on paper, hoping a story will flow. Just after 9 a.m. the church ladies begin assembling, one by one, like soft lavender flowers winding their way into a bouquet. The ninety-year-old in charge commandeers three round tables and begins moving chairs together. I know better than to ask if she needs help. Soon more women arrive and drift to the tables, their canes and plastic purses slung over the back of their chairs. I assume their conversations will be of God or, perhaps, the ailments of the elderly. Instead the bits that drift to me are of Obama and Russia and the U-M basketball team. The manager comes over to their table with a tray of muffins and pastries. “We made too many,” he says, and shakes his head. Every morning that the church ladies are there, they make too many.
Days later Isaac, the homeless man, is back. He is standing in front of Panera, unsure what to do. It’s clear he doesn’t have money for a cup of coffee, and his integrity prevents him from simply walking into the place for warmth. He is not aggressive enough to beg, and I watch as he stands against the building, out of the way, eyes downcast.
Soon a man, perhaps a graduate student (judging from his neatly trimmed beard and black glasses), approaches Isaac. A conversation between them begins just three feet from me, but we are divided by a pane of glass, so I hear nothing. Isaac nods slowly, barely making eye contact, then follows the man into Panera. The man orders a bagel and coffee and softly tells Isaac to order whatever he wants. When they pick up their food, the man briefly and almost invisibly pats Isaac on the shoulder before he walks out. Isaac sits in his regular chair near the front, his ancient duffle at his feet, and begins to eat his lunch.