As Christmas approached, I began to realize that the coffee row leeches were actually starting to become more and more territorial in my bistro. Not only were they completely unapologetic about never spending a penny on food, but they became increasingly agitated at the prospect that food was now a part of what they perceived to be their coffee shop. In many ways it was as though they felt I had rented the concession in a public facility, such as the pool or hockey arena, and that the seating area actually belonged to them because they were tax payers.
I studied them closely, taking note of every weakness I could observe. Their behavior definitely followed the pack psychology model. The alpha couple was Earla Hueber and her husband Gord. They were the only couple to be seated side by side. The remaining couples were separated by sex, with the men sitting in a line on Gord’s side and the women in a line on Earla’s side. They pulled as many tables together as necessary to keep the subservient couples separated along these lines.
There were fourteen of them, plus one male singleton that drank hot chocolate rather than coffee. When present, he sat at the far end from Earla and Gord, serving as an androgynous divider between the gender lines at the end of the pack. Apparently his abstinence from coffee made him an unsuitable mate and therefore no threat to the coupling behavior of the rest of the pack. It was rare for the entire group to come in on a single morning but Earla and Gord were always present.
This configuration wasn’t at all suitable for their more human behaviors, however. Since the men and women were seated in lines down each side of the tables, with partners facing each other, the easiest lines of communication were between matching couples. Humbuggers, however, form very strong gender lines when it comes to idle chatter and gossip – making the lines of communication very difficult as people tried to chin wag to the left and right, up and down the gender lines.
If a man in the middle of the row had something to add then he had to lean forward and speak to Gord. If his contribution was deemed worthy, Gord would echo it back down the line to all the men, who would in turn nod knowingly and produce pleasing grunts and affirmations. Communication amongst the women was the same, with Earla acting as the grand vizier of the worthiness of contributions. This didn’t allow for very free flowing communication at all. It seemed that in order to keep dialogue flowing smoothly they greatly limited the number of acceptable topics for each gender.
The men spoke almost exclusively about pick-up trucks and hockey, while the women spoke almost exclusively about baking, grandchildren, and couples – although not about couples in the group but, rather, couples within Humbug who fell short of Humbug standards. Listening to their chatter was almost enough to drive me mad. With Christmas approaching, the women spoke almost exclusively about baking in such monotonous detail that I thought I would have to kill them as an act of mercy and to preserve my sanity.
“Are you almost done your Christmas baking?” Earla asked the women.
“I’m done everything but the shortbread and snicker-doodles,” a beta female answered.
“Oh, well you should get your shortbread done first,” Earla directed.
“Yes, I know, because of the butter,” beta responded.
“You’re butter has to be just the right temperature.”
“I keep some out of the fridge in three different parts of the kitchen.”
“I keep some in five different parts of my kitchen at all times.”
“Five different places?”
“Yes. The temperature changes at different times of day or if it’s really cold outside and the furnace has been running a lot then that can change things too.”
“Well I hate mixing the shortbread if the butter is too hard.”
“It just doesn’t work if it’s too hard.”
”And it’s a lot of work, too.”
“You should get a good Kitchen Aid mixer.”
“You use a mixer?”
“Yes, I mixed by hand for years, but you can mix with harder butter if you use a mixer.”
“I prefer to just let the butter soften on top of the fridge.”
“Oh, it’s too hot on top of the fridge. All that heat coming from the back!”
“I had my husband take out the cupboards over the fridge.”
“So the heat goes up and doesn’t melt the butter?”
“Yes. Then I can mix by hand.”
”If you had a mixer you wouldn’t have to soften it so much.”
And on and on they went. Some days they could debate for over an hour over which brand of baking soda gave the most lift without causing bitterness. At one point, for three days straight, they went on and on about how a particular female teacher, who was new in town, had been spotted purchasing some short bread at the grocery store just hours before having guests in her home. The scandal couldn’t have been worse if she had been caught having sex with one of her students. I was surprised that the grocery store even sold shortbread under such social oppression, but then realized that perhaps single and unpopular people might be allowed to purchase it without ridicule.
The conversations of the men were just as inane. The most ridiculous development in the men’s debates came when one of the mouth-breathers, Dan, decided it was time to buy himself a new truck. Dan drove into Cuspidor, up to Edmonton, down to Calgary and as far as Medicine hat to find the best price. The Humbug dealership had offered him a decent deal, even before haggling, but he was convinced he needed to prove that he was willing to shop around in order to get them to move even lower on their price.
I’m not sure how much Dan expected to save on his purchase after the expenses of all of his travels – but then I began to realize that these travels were so exciting to him that the expense wasn’t even a factor in his decision. Dan absolutely loved the attention lavished on him by the men who listened to his stories of truck-buying adventure. He reveled in this attention like a schoolgirl whose bosoms had suddenly blossomed over summer vacation. Not once did he ever disclose the sale price being offered by any of the dealerships; referring only to the amount he had talked them down from the sticker price. His stories of giving ultimatums to salesmen kept the men completely enthralled and even attracted the attention of a few of the women - until Earla literally directed their attention back in line.
In the end, after four trips, he finally chose to make his purchase in Medicine Hat. Not only had he talked them down over $4,000 but he even made them bring him three cups of coffee in the time it took him to finish up the paperwork with the salesman. As he bellowed about the free coffee he had procured, and the respect with which each cup was served to him, he made sure to direct his voice at me. I looked back at him as he took his little passive-aggressive shot, but he never made eye contact with me. None of those cowards ever made eye contact when they took a passive-aggressive swipe at anyone. I was always amazed at how well they could direct their voices without ever laying their eyes on the person whom they were confronting.
When Dan finally proclaimed that, after having signed all the papers, he demanded and received a full tank of gas from the dealership, the men almost fainted. His narration of his adventure had almost earned him a spot at the head of the table, and just might have done so had it not been for Earla. The men were so transported by the tales of his quest that often many of them perspired and actually rocked back and forth in their chairs as they gobbled up every single syllable. At this final revelation of a free tank of gas, however, many of them were overcome by the self-conscious expression of men who are prone to premature ejaculation. Some of them actually had to step outside for a cigarette.
I later learned from a woman who worked at the Humbug dealership that Dan had actually paid almost $2000 more than the initial offer made locally. This wasn’t the least bit significant to a single Humbugger, however, because Dan had talked the Medicine Hat dealer down $4000, gotten three free cups of coffee, and bullied them out of a full tank of gas. His relentless haggling tactics were lauded from the Humbug Bakery to the Humbug Credit Union. Even local business owners praised his accomplishments while failing to note that he hadn’t spent his money locally; an act that would have otherwise been considered treasonous.
While coffee row reveled in the success of one of their own, I switched to the cheapest brand of coffee grounds I could find. They may have just secured a victory against the automotive sector, but the battle they waged with me was just starting to pick up. They had taken due notice of my adaptation of their passive-aggressive ways and began to flex back with some passive-aggressive counter measures of their own.
Whenever I tried to get back into the kitchen to get ahead on prep work for lunch they would find some way to interrupt my work. Earla would sing out, “The medium roast is empty!” to get me to come and replenish the urn. As soon as I got back to the kitchen, washed my hands, and started doing more prep work, one of the beta females would sing, “Oh, the cream is empty too!” They would snicker as I refilled it and apologize for not telling me about it when I was brewing more medium roast.
They also began to interfere with food orders, constantly interrupting me when I was actually fortunate enough to be dealing with a food customer. When outsiders came in for food they would march right up to their table and ask, “Where are you FRUM?” Their ‘FRUM’ inquisitions were disturbing enough to keep most outsiders from returning. Whenever someone new entered they would turn and stare at the newcomer in unison with the hollow eyed, gaping mouth Humbug-stare. Occasionally this was enough to have the newcomer turn and walk straight back out. The hostility with which they stared down racially diverse customers made the Ku Klux Klan seem like boy scouts.
Lyle and his brother, Mike, didn’t actually sit in coffee row. As they were local businessmen – the sort of nobility that justified sitting on plywood thrones – they sat at their own table, only occasionally interjecting Humbug wisdom into the row. For the most part, they weren’t that invasive with my attempts to serve food but would still find ways to let me know they weren’t happy about it.
To retaliate, I began to press the members of coffee row very hard every morning for food sales.
“Regular coffees for me and Gord,” Earla would say.
“And what will you be eating today?” I would ask, sternly.
“Oh, we’ve had breakfast. Just coffee, thanks.” She would Lilt.
“Odd that you would eat before coming to a restaurant.” I would comment, handing her two mugs.
And so it went with each one of them, morning after morning. What I didn’t realize was that not only did Humbuggers have absolutely no sense of appropriate behavior but they also completely lacked any semblance of a conscience. I did note that they were getting ever so slightly more irritated with my hard sales pitches, however, so I continued as aggressively as possible.
I wanted to find a way to make the coffee unappealing, but I didn’t want to start repelling real customers along with the leeches. Lyle and Mike came in twice per day for coffee and they weren’t really that much trouble. They actually exhibited a little patience when I had food orders and averaged about 24 ounces of coffee each, which was within my pricing model.
I had already tried figuring out how to smoke out the weakest in the pack and made little headway, so I decided to focus on the leader of the pack. Earla was the alpha female and obviously the dominant partner in her marriage. Gord was likely only the alpha male because Earla was his wife and it was obvious that without her he was more of a gourd than a Gord. Taking Earla down was not going to be an easy task.
Since she had to redo her make-up every morning as soon as she walked in, she tended to use a lot of paper towel. I began removing all but three paper towels from the dispensers each morning. Within a day, though, she started carrying a plastic bag with her and I surmised she was bringing in supplies to assist with her facial scrub. At least I was saving some money on paper towel.
Their seating arrangements were completely static so I started smearing the black vinyl seat of her chair with a little shoe polish each morning. It actually took her a few days to figure this one out since, as alpha female, no one in the group had the nerve to point out her soiled pants when she got up. As soon as she figured it out, however, she simply began rearranging the chairs as soon as she came in. The beta females were forced to sit on the shoe polished seat in lieu of admitting that they had ever known about the prank; for to do so would implicate their culpability in having allowed Earla to be duped for several days unwittingly. In this way, Earla not only circumvented my prank but she also punished her betas. Touché!
I started putting a little dish soap in the bottom of a coffee mug at the end of the day and leaving it overnight. By morning, it would be dry and was barely visible and I felt I finally had a good weapon against Earla. The first morning that I handed her the soaped mug she grimaced a little after taking her first sip but instantly glared at me. I just smiled, knowing that she could never actually confront me directly. After that she made a point of switching mugs with Gord, who was apparently too stupid to know when he was drinking soap. I began soaping both of their mugs but she quickly adapted and started rinsing her mug out in the restroom. No one had the nerve to ask her why she took her mug with her as she re-smeared her face.
In the end I had to concede that round two was a draw.