Yesterday I did my writing from a coffee shop called Covernotes, here in Newmarket, Ontario.
It was that kind of quaint Main Street coffee shop you often see on TV and in movies. The front glass windows could slide open, letting anyone sitting inside still have access to the fresh air and sounds wafting in from Main Street. I sat at a table right up front, facing the open window, and worked in a kind of nostalgic peace as I sipped my (very tasty) Americano.
The people who came into the place were regulars. They knew each other's names. They checked in with each other about this or that.
When I entered, a man named Matthew was sitting at one of the bigger tables with a cup of coffee and a newspaper. He had a severe look on his face, but I nodded and smiled to him. Later I heard him loudly ask for the time, and then say, “I better get my last cup of coffee and get going,” but he made no move to budge from the spot he was in. Shortly after I heard someone call his name and the two of them got into a long (and ill advised) conversation about religion.
Matthew, as it turns out, is mentally disabled. And he’s a talker. And a clinger. Once he started on a subject—Jesus, hummingbird bread, the weather—he was persistent with it. He talked to the point that the person at the center of his attention was practically chewing off their own arm to escape. But it was hard to be annoyed with him, when it was so obvious how happy it made him to talk. It was hard to finally have to shut him down, to get back to work yourself, when you realized that this was a conversation Matthew was actually going to value, even when you thought it was just minor chit-chat.
After Matthew finally left (“Well, bye,” he said before pulling on his coat and wool cap and marching through the door, across the street, around the corner) I managed to knock out more work myself, still soaking in the atmosphere of the small-town feel of Newmarket. But it was impossible to ignore the people of this place.
On at least three separate occasions someone would step in from outside, call the name of someone sitting inside with a cup of coffee and the ubiquitous newspaper, and then chat with them about family, about friends, about plans for later. It was as if everyone knew everyone else—something that never seems to happen in Sugar Land or anywhere else in the Greater Houston area.
There was a woman sitting at the table to my left—older, a bit heavy set, but dressed in nice winter clothing, despite the Spring-like day. She had a red ceramic cup with a tea bag dangling over its edge, and she was more or less staring out of the shop's window at the activity of Main Street.
A younger woman stuck her head in the door, leaning in from the sidewalk, and called to the woman. When the woman spoke, I heard a heavy accent that sounded Greek to me. And when the younger woman sat down I was treated to their whole conversation.
“A man in my building was kicked out yesterday and I’m sad about it,” the younger woman said, her voice a bit nasaled and pinched, and a bit timid despite the fact that she'd just barged in from the street and taken a seat.
“Oh? Why was he kicked out?”
“He got mad, and threatened to burn the house down, so they told him he had to go.”
The older woman nodded, as if this was something fairly typical, maybe of men in general.
The conversation went on, and I heard a few facts about this man and the younger woman. It was clear they had a relationship. It was also clear that the younger woman had a few problems of her own. She, too, seemed as though she might be mentally disabled. She had a sort of slow pacing to her speech, as if she was uncertain of what she should say, even though she was in a scramble to say it. She repeated herself often, and seemed uncertain most of the time. And finally, after relaying the story to the matronly woman to my left, she said she had to get going, and she was out the door without so much as a goodbye.
That sort of thing happened several times during the three or four hours I sat and worked in Covernotes. It was like sitting in on a character study from a Stephen King novel. These were the types of people you usually just read about in fiction or essays—no one ever really expects that they’re real.
But they are real. And so was this place. And, as a writer, I was eating up every moment and hoping for more.
One thing is for certain—when I fly home from Ontario on Friday evening, I’ll carry with me a wealth of new characters in my mental landscape.
Since being here I’ve met some of the most wonderful people imaginable. I've struck up conversations with complete strangers that were as engaging as any talks I've had with friends I bump into back home. I’ve overheard conversations that were charming and sometimes a little alarming. And I’ve seen humanity behaving in a kind but oddly simple way—right alongside a few bruisers who seemed oblivious to anyone else, and who clearly had overly complicated and painful lives.
I'm looking at you, guy who nearly ran me over in the Chapters parking lot.
I can say for certain, though, that Newmarket has fed the storyteller in me, and that's exactly why Kara and I have started taking trips like this more. There's story gold all around us, and I'm prospecting.