I had a breakthrough the other day.
I was sitting in my favorite Kendall Square restaurant, Clover. When I say favorite, I mean F.A.V.O.R.I.T.E. In a busy week, I’m there at least once a day: The prices are reasonable, I can order on my phone, all the food is vegetarian, and it’s one of the only nearby places open until 11:00 PM. This place is freakin’ perfect (which is why I don’t mind shamelessly plugging it on the blog). BUT ANYWAYS I was just eating my breakfast bowl, minding my own business, when one of the guys working there comes up to me and says.
I look up and he’s holding this cup. So I’m like “Yeah, that’s me.”
And then he’s like “Yeah, you’re in here all the time. Well, we accidentally made this extra cup of coffee, and you order coffee a lot so I thought you might want it.”
So I got a free cup of coffee. But the coffee isn’t the point, it’s what the coffee represents. They know my name. They know that I order coffee a lot… I think I might finally be a regular at a restaurant here in Cambridge!
This might not be a big deal for some people, but it means a lot to me. Back home, I was a “regular” at a few establishments: a coffee shop by my house, another one right on Lake Michigan, a diner/grocery store with an amazing tofu scrambler. I knew the people who worked in these places. My ex-girlfriend and I would always hope to get this one waitress when we went out for breakfast, and I sometimes ran late to work in the morning just because I wanted to talk to my favorite baristo about the date he went on last night. When I moved out to Boston, I knew not to expect midwest-levels of friendliness. I frequented a few places because, y’know, I’m a lazy bean who doesn’t always cook and would probably sell her soul for coffee. But I didn’t become a regular, a true regular, until that guy handed me that paper cup. I’m a part of the Cambridge ecosystem now. People outside of MIT know my name.
Lately, I’ve been feeling emotionally homeless. I returned to the place I grew up over winter break, and I just… don’t belong there anymore. That kind of hurt. For my entire life I’ve had this vision of myself: Graduate high school, attend my state school’s honors program, become an electrical engineer, move back to Milwaukee, send my kids to the same high school. Never leave the Midwest. Never leave Wisconsin? Maybe move to Chicago (only two hours away) if I’m feeling adventurous. This was the way my life was always going to be… until I found MIT. Only a year and a half after discovering what MIT even was, this institution has dramatically and irreversibly changed the trajectory of my life. I wrote an email to one of my acting mentors in high school after Wisconsin’s admitted students meet-and-greet in April, and I compared that tiny get-together to “seeing color for the first time”. Imagine how black-and-white things felt at home after living on East Campus for a semester.
But then I came back to MIT, and as much as I absolutely love it here, I realized I still have a lot of adjusting to do; it’s going to take a long time to re-imagine 19 years of expectations. For now, I’m kinda just existing wherever the world plops me. At least I’ve been plopped in nice places, right? But anyways, revisiting my old haunts in Milwaukee was the first thing in awhile that reminded me of what “home” can feel like. Home is feeling a sense of belonging even in a nameless crowd. Home is where your absence would be noticed. Home is having an internalized map of a place: a favorite table or spot on the couch, that one menu item or home-made meal you treat yourself to every once in awhile, that place you always walk to when nothing makes sense and you just need to be somewhere else. I chose the road I didn’t have a map to. Even on my worst days I don’t regret that choice, but sometimes I can’t help but think about how much simpler life would’ve been if I’d never decided to leave.
So when that dude addressed me by name and asked me if I wanted a free coffee, I stayed for four more hours to do my homework. I felt comfortable, the kind of comfortable I once felt studying at Colectivo Coffee Roasters on Hampton Ave. Afterwards, I took a walk along the Charles river and ended up in this little park I’ve been to a few times. It’s right on the water, the way *my* park was back in Wisconsin. The more of these little habits I build, the more places I start “regular-ing”, the more I feel like my existence in Cambridge is actually my life, not just some hazy dream.
So thanks for the coffee, Clover. You’ve won a repeat customer.