Two weeks ago on a trek to Image Journal’s Glen East workshop, I pulled off the road at a welcome area to grab some iced coffee. But what I left with was much more than that.
The social commentary of the American coffee line could keep anthropologists busy until the next transit of Venus, especially at travel plazas, where everyone is just trying to get from one place to the next. We want a toilet, a caffeine fix, and then we want to get on our merry way.
But this coffee line was going nowhere fast. The three customers in front of me had not moved in twenty minutes, despite the fact that there were about seven employees busy behind the counter. To be honest, they didn’t look like they knew what they were doing.
The woman at the front finally snapped. “I’m been standing here for 20 minutes,” she said, “and you haven’t even taken my order yet.” Her earrings dangled furiously. A dash of lipstick dotted her teeth.
A tall teenager hastily prepared her coffee, fumbled over the cash register, and handed her the drink. “All I wanted was a cup of coffee,” she said, and her wedge sandals clipped across the travel plaza tile off to a car, off to who knows where, and who knows why she had to get there so fast that common courtesy would weigh her down.
When it was my turn to order, I saw why the line was taking so long. The two young employees at the counter, dark-haired, unsmiling, had what I thought were name tags from a distance. Scrawled in magic marker, they read, “I’m from Kosovo.”
Kosovo. The country that is often named in the same sentence with genocide, war, death toll. Who knows what losses they have sustained? And we, Americans on the go, tapped our feet in line, irritated at such a small thing as having to wait for an indulgence the rest of the world is rarely afforded.
These boys had come from a home country severed by violence, flecked with blood and hate. We were just concerned with one creamer or two.
“What would you like?” the tall one asked me in stilted English. I realized these boys were new to American money, they talked to each other in their own language, checking their math on this foreign coin before giving back each customer’s change. They were new to everything here.
Waiting for my coffee, I realized that we never know where anyone we meet on the road is coming from. Not everyone has a name tag citing their dark history, their private wounds, their stain of regret. Every stranger and neighbor with whom our lives intersect is a mystery. Sometimes they will tell us, I’m just coming out of a messy divorce. Or, I’m on my way to recovery from this addiction. But more often than not, they won’t. The refugees will appear silently among the put-together parents, talented artists, earnest students, and we may never know what pain they are trying to put behind them.
Maybe, knowing this, I can better infuse traveling mercies into this journey–at the travel plaza, and in the sprawling road ahead that is open before all of us.
When he handed me my coffee, I thanked him, a few English words I hope he understood.
This post is part of Prodigal Magazine’s Travel Stories series, read more stories here or add your own!