I walked through the door into Sacred Grounds, anticipating the freshly poured hot coffee and egg and English muffin sandwich that was always waiting for me by the side cabinet. When I reached for it, the counter was bare – a shock wave raced up my arm. I looked behind the counter and saw two new faces serving the line of hungry, impatient customers; Terry’s calm, sweet, dimpled face wasn’t there, and neither was Sue’s. Then I remembered Sue had left to work full-time at her family’s business. I thought, Terry must be sick. I recognized Stacy from the afternoon shift.
I proceeded to get in line behind the assembly of unhappy customers. The door opened, and another customer lined up behind me. I turned to see if I recognized the face, but I didn’t. We waited while bagel order after bagel order was placed. The new girls were in over their heads, trying to heat the bagels, butter them, and make coffees and lattes, all the while wearing artificial smiles to stop them from yelling back at the cranky patrons.
Stacy clearly wasn’t used to the constant flow of breakfast sandwich orders. As more customers ordered, the other girl’s smile changed into a look of sheer desperation. They seemed to be responding to the demands of the morning crowd without a good action plan, and the wheels were coming off.
I turned to the guy behind me and said with a chuckle, “These girls are working hard for their pay today.”
“I don’t recognize the shorter one. She must be new—she has new girl written all over her face.”
He’s a regular, like me.
“Poor thing. The morning rush could eat her up. Tired, hungry people are at their worst before heading off to work,” I muttered.
“Well, some of you are! I’m just finishing work. I’m here to grab a coffee to keep me awake for a few more hours,” the man replied. He wore a canvas workman’s jacket and was dressed in navy blue from head to toe.
I was intrigued. “Oh, what do you do?” I would have guessed he was a mechanic, but his fingernails were too clean, so I ruled that out quick.
“I work for the fire department. I finished a twenty-four-hour shift, and now I have a day off. It’s a great schedule. We’ve been having quiet nights, but last night it seemed every fool was driving too fast and crashing their cars, and we had a couple of elderly people to tend to. It was a busy night. I’m beat and looking forward to a boost of energy.”
I liked this guy. He was friendly and relaxed, yet I sensed from the slump of his shoulders and the dark rings under his eyes that something else bothered him beyond being tired. I said, “As a little kid, I always thought being a firefighter would be a cool job. In fact, my wife Maggie’s father worked for the department in town years ago.”
“Oh yeah? What’s his name? I probably know him. It’s true what they say—we are like brothers.”
“Well, you may know his name, but you never met him. He died on a call a long time ago. His name was Bill O’Brien.”
“Oh, man, he was your father-in-law?” He had one hand in his front pocket and ran the other one through his hair. His expression changed. “The guys talk about that fire—it was a big one, massive and historic. It went down as the biggest and most dangerous fire in the town’s history, hopefully ever.” He gestured for me to move ahead.
Only two more people in front of me before I could get my coffee and head to work.
“So, you recognize his name?” I asked.
“Once a year we hold private ceremonies, more like moments of silence, within the department to acknowledge the fallen brothers in our firefighting family. The guys who served with the fallen members usually tell stories about them in the kitchen at dinner time. It’s how we keep their spirit in the fire station alive, and it helps teach us younger guys that a situation can go from bad to ugly in a second. I hope I never have to see what some of my fallen brothers had to see, but I’m prepared if I do.”
“Sir, can I help you? Sir?”
The man nudged my shoulder and pointed to the girl behind the counter. I hadn’t heard her. I was lost in thought, envisioning the camaraderie the firefighters shared, gathered around a long table eating pasta and telling stories of the great men who came before them.
“I’m sorry. I’ll have a medium black coffee and an egg on an English muffin, please. Oh, and whatever this man is having.” I pointed to the man behind me.
“You don’t have to do that,” he said, shaking his hands in front of him.
“Think of it as my way of saying thank you for your service.” I smiled.
The man placed his order next, and we waited for the girls to finish them.
“Thanks for the coffee, man.” He slapped my shoulder.
“Don’t mention it. We’re de-facto brothers, I think, right?” I said holding out my hand to shake his. “I’m Tim Barrett. It’s nice to meet you.”
“You too. I’m Will, Will Driscoll. And yeah, having a family member on a fire department binds people together. I appreciate this.” He lifted up his cup and took a sip. “Have a good one, Tim.”
“Yeah, you too, Will.”
After I left the coffee shop, I walked down the sidewalk. The long New England winter was giving way to spring fever. I side-stepped many people enjoying the warm morning air: quick-stepping commuters, mothers pushing strollers, and a few dogs on leashes pulling their owners along.
I replayed the interaction with the new guy, Will. He seemed to be a cool dude, in all senses of the term, relaxed and unfazed. It seemed fitting that he was a firefighter; he was calm to the bone. I would like to think I gave off the same energy when I met someone for the first time, but I knew the truth. It’s not that I’m not calm, it’s more that my actions are intentional. I think about how I’m going to act in a situation and predetermine what I will share and what I will say. I am always prepared with an escape plan if things don’t run according to my script.
Will seemed the opposite. I could tell he took what life threw at him and responded accordingly with a still, patient demeanor. He reminded me of a surfer—waiting for the ride of a lifetime. I imagined him sitting on his board out in the ocean, feet dangling in the cool water, chatting with the other surfers, waiting and watching for the current to churn up the water to produce the perfect C curl to ride, and then drifting along, gliding on the wave like it was glass before being deposited on the beach. Then he’d paddle back out to sit and wait to do it all over again. While he waited, he would share his recent ride with the other guys.
Even though I had to wait for my coffee and sandwich, my day was off to a good start. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t have met Will if there hadn’t been a line. Sometimes things happen for reasons we don’t recognize at the time and then discover moments—or years—later.
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