Over dinner one recent night, he told me a story from his time living in another, very different country.
“I would order meat from the butcher,” he remembered, “and have it delivered. The man at the butcher was hard of hearing, and he knew my weekly order because it was basically the same thing every time. Each time I called I’d yell what I wanted and he would yell my address back as a way of confirmation. He knew it was me, based on my order. ‘You know my order!’ I used to think, ‘so why are we doing this?’ But that’s just the way it worked there. Every week, the same thing.”
“So you wanted him to just know your order?”
“Well, sure. I did it every week for a long time. Rarely deviated, because then we’d have to yell back and forth and things would get very confusing.”
“But maybe the yelling and the confirmation, that was the ritual?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, he could have just known your order. But maybe that’s not what made it the weekly ritual. Maybe the whole thing, the fact that the interaction never changed, maybe that was what made it familiar.”
“Like sometimes it’s someone who knows your order, but sometimes it’s the way you do the same thing over and over again, with the same people in the same place. Those little regular things, those repeated mundane rituals. Isn’t that part of what makes a place home?”
In college I lived in a ramshackle house, although that description is generous. We rented most of the ground floor, where there were technically only two bedrooms but we arranged the house so three people could live in it. The official second bedroom was the room we rented out to strangers. The men we rented to — our collegiate attempt, forever unsuccessful, at finding some peaceful gender balance — were a varied bunch. There was the sporty, friendly guy, the only one we wished would stay but who left after a short spell to live with other guy friends. The nice graduate student who, unfortunately for him, was much tidier and more grown up than either my friend or I, and who also, unfortunately for him, had returned from South America with a terrible gastrointestinal problem. The punk rock doorman friend of a friend who quit all his jobs upon moving in so he could sell heroin out of and do heroin in our house, and whose friend would proposition me to join him and his pregnant wife in a threesome.
Then there was the graduate student in German, a bearded man who in retrospect I realize was a living, breathing archetype, a misunderstood fellow who needed to explain things at length for you to best understand them.
The German graduate student, who was not himself German, worked at a coffee shop making coffee. We did not yet then regularly refer to someone in his position as a barista. The cafés we frequented were primarily old standbys that had served students and radicals for decades. Latte art was not yet so widespread; if you were lucky, you might get a heart in your coffee. He was, to anyone who came in for a cappuccino, simply a guy who worked in a coffee shop.
One day, while sitting on wide wood railing of the front stoop, he came out to tell my friend and me about what had happened at work.
“There’s this guy who always comes in,” he said, “and every day he orders the same thing. Not just that, but he orders it in the same way. Each time he tells me exactly what he wants and exactly how to to make his drink, like I can’t remember or don’t know how to do my job.”
We sat, backs against the house, legs dangling off the rail, and we looked at him.
“So he does this, day after day after day. And finally today, I couldn’t take it anymore. He goes to tell me what he wants and how to make it, and I stop him.”
We grew quiet.
“‘I know how to make your coffee!’ I told him.” His voice rose an octave or two in indignation. “‘I’m an in-tel-LEC-tual!’”
For a long time I laughed at that, laughed at the ridiculousness of this particular protestation and proclamation. This — this! — was why the man’s ritual had offended him so much. It took me many years to admit I too would have been irritated at someone telling me what to do, but still I laughed at the chosen outburst.
It was not until after the story of the butcher that I gave much thought to the customer. He was, in all likelihood, someone who always gave instructions for everything he wanted or needed, at this coffee shop and at every single one. Perhaps he thought no one would get it right or thought he knew better than everyone, especially some guy who, as far as he knew, just worked at a coffee shop. Perhaps he was just an asshole.
But maybe for him there was safety in knowing no matter what, he’d have something familiar and unchanging. Maybe the interaction was part of the whole transaction ritual. Maybe the regular ritual of each person, the way you yell down the phone each week or order the same thing in the same way with the same guy staring at you angrily, maybe that’s what gives you something to hold onto. Maybe that’s how we make ourselves at home in the world, through patterns and rituals, regular routines, something so familiar and woven in to our lives that we only see it when someone cuts the thread.