fish-out-of-water syndrome

I was standing off to the side of the counter, waiting for my medium decaf coffee with steamed two-percent milk, when she approached the cashier. The coffee shop is one of those where everyone inside looks a bit alike--blessed with riches, either financial or intellectual or fashion-forward, with the same glasses and hair products and Cambridge zip codes. If they have tattoos, they are the friendly kind that bespeak peace or butterflies or anyway nothing threatening. But this woman looked nothing like everyone else there. She read the overhead menu nervously, and she spoke with a booming voice.

"CAN I HAVE STEAMED MILK IN AN ICED COFFEE?" she asked the woman behind the counter (and, by dint of her volume, everyone else in the vicinity). The cashier was friendly and explained that the hot milk would likely melt the ice, which is why most people prefer it in hot coffee. Together, they went over the options on the menu and eventually arrived on a decision.

It reminded me of situations where I was painfully aware that I was that thing that doesn't look like the others. Whether it's at a party or a bike rally or a macaroni-decoupage-scrapbooking class or whatever. Like the time we were eating in a restaurant, and the menu was all in some language we didn't speak, so we scanned for something--anything--that looked familiar. When the waiter came around, Burton pointed to the thing he'd decided on--just for the sake of an example let's say it was grilled whole trout, encrusted with tortilla chips and served with avocado, cilantro, and lime sauce, over a bed of jasmine rice, with a side of zucchini. Burton looked up at the waiter and said, "I'll have the [insert foreign word for lime sauce here], please." And I said, "I'll take the encrusted."

You'd better believe the waiter looked at us the way the $200-jean-wearing coffee patrons looked at the steamed-milk lady. But we've all been there. And I say you have to be able to laugh at yourself--and fast, too, before everyone else beats you to it.

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