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Bird’s Nest In Your Hair

Chapter Twelve

Diana had a date with Keith. It was a coffee date; nothing for her mom to get too excited about, let alone Diana. On Sunday after the RCIA meeting they were walking out to their cars when he asked if she’d be free for coffee some time during the week. Laura had cancelled their weekly lunch in the hospital cafeteria, so Diana had Monday free. And for all the differences she suspected she had with Keith, he didn’t seem like the type to rush things, and she felt safe. Anything more than that – dinner and a movie, or even lunch – would have felt like too much. They decided to meet for coffee at a local Starbucks right there on Eastlake. It was within walking distance for Diana, just a couple of blocks away from Queequeg’s.

It was pretty clear that none of the other catechumens socialized outside of their weekly meetings, which in itself now seemed a little odd to Diana. A dozen or more strangers met once a week to talk about some of the most meaningful events in their lives, or at least most of them did. Diana was still as reluctant as ever to give up much of her own life, which she realized in all likelihood had everything to do with Keith’s invitation to coffee.

When she got to the shop Keith hadn’t arrived yet, so she took a minute inspecting the items for sale on the shelves opposite the counter. Mugs of all shapes and sizes, coasters and other coffee paraphernalia, all of it with the name Starbucks emblazoned everywhere across the front. What percentage of the profits came from selling all this stuff? Was it more or less than the percentage of profits generated by the sale of paraphernalia 10 years ago? 20 years ago? It had to be more, and it was probably much more. At Queequeg’s all they sold were T-shirts, which to Diana seemed somewhat more in keeping with a role that any self-respecting restaurant or coffee shop should be happy to maintain. But what, really, was wrong with selling as many mugs and coasters and CDs as possible? Obviously there wasn’t anything illegal about it, but Diana stood there and couldn’t help but wonder whether there was something vaguely wrong about it. Does it matter that more and more money is made from pushing brands than from pushing products, whether the product is coffee or beer or a line of clothing? She thought there was something wrong. Not that it had an adverse effect on the product. In fact, Diana had for a long time greatly preferred Starbucks coffee to almost any other brand, although she had noticed that some of the other stores out there – Tully’s, Seattle’s Best Coffee, Pete’s –they were now just as good. And they pushed their brand name as well, although they could hardly match Starbucks. If anything, all this marketing (along with whatever forces that worked in concert with marketing) had probably led to an overall improvement in the quality of the product. Whether or not this rate of improvement would continue was an open question, but thus far the trend had been towards success at every level.

She also wondered what kind of effect all this marketing had on the rest of the world. She’d heard, of course, that Starbucks had endeavored to be an exemplary company in other ways as well. Equal benefits for partners of employees – even part-time employees, same-sex partners included. Several charities were well within view: a coin jar by the register for victims of Cerebral Palsey; and on the wall there was a poster for a Latin American child sponsorship program. A number of shelves had been given over for ‘Free Trade’ Coffee, beans packaged in different colored bags and originating from poverty stricken regions where everyone who worked to supply the beans was paid a fair wage. No sweatshops wanted, or even tolerated. All for the good. With what could she possibly quibble? Well, advertising is a kind of mind-control, isn’t it? Debatable, at best. People are free to choose what they want or don’t want to buy. It’s true that some people become such voracious consumers that they spend themselves into debt, sometimes badly into debt, but this could hardly be the result of advertising alone. Certainly other forces were at work. Nor was Diana a person that was in any danger of falling into debt. She couldn’t exactly say why all the marketing bugged her, not exactly. But it did. She wished she’d insisted on another place to meet.

She was standing there looking at the Free Trade Coffee and contemplating the ascendance of brand names and its effect on individual freedom when she heard Keith ask her if she was having a tough time making a choice.

She turned around, and since he hadn’t said hello, she responded without greeting, “Yeah, there’s just so much to choose from – all of it labeled Starbucks.”

They ordered their coffee (she an iced soy late with a lot of sweetener, he a drip decaf), and made their way over to a pair of plump chairs in the corner. When they had both sat down he picked up on her remark by recalling an episode of The Simpsons in which a member of the family walks into a mall and every store has been converted into a Starbucks coffee shop.

“And just think, this used to be an adult video store called Purple Video,” he added. “So I see Starbucks as a step up. A couple steps up.”

“Yeah, I remember. I thought business was booming there as well,” said Diana.

“Videosyncrasy started carrying adult films just up the street a couple of years ago, and now with mail order DVDs they just couldn’t compete,” said Keith.

Diana laughed and wondered whether she shouldn’t actually invite Keith along to one of her lunches with her friend Laura. It seemed like they could find something to agree on after all, and no doubt they would both be more up front about their beliefs than Diana had been. Although it was a little odd to be talking about the pornography business to a relative stranger with whom she ordinarily spent Sunday mornings talking about the gospels. The bible-thumper seemed anything but a lecher, so she decided to needle him a little and asked how it was that he happened to know all this about the business trends for adult videos.

“Right!” said Keith, nodding right along. “Good question. A group I was with for two or three years before I came to St. Bosco’s was really into social activism, and we stood outside” – and here he nodded towards the window at the parking lot – “and protested against the location of Purple Video. There’s a middle school and an elementary school within three blocks, and the parents came out in full force. At least at the beginning.”

“You’re not a parent yourself, are you?”

“No, but I’m on their side. Definitely.”

“Did you feel like you had to take a side?”

“Not regarding this issue specifically, no. It seemed like a pretty simple question of right or wrong. I’m glad about all that we did, but in the end I’m not sure how much it mattered.”

“What do you mean?”

“We started out standing there all hours that they were open, but most of the people in our group had families. So it was pretty tough to keep the signs up at ten or eleven o’clock at night. And that’s when they did most of their business. Towards the end I got to know one of the customers. Well, not really know, I guess, but we’d nod to each other when he went into the store. “How you holdin’ up out here?” he’d ask on the way in. Then “See you next time!” as he walked back out to his car.” Keith gave hand signals to emphasize the greetings.

“It was sort of demoralizing.” Keith was staring out at the parking lot where he used to stand. “But strange – he seemed like a pretty nice guy.”

“Well, you helped put them out of business,” encouraged Diana.

“No, not really. I mean, I guess so. I’m glad the store is off the street, and I like the Starbucks well enough, but the fact is that there’s more porn sold than ever these days. Actually, there’s no need to sell it anymore. With streaming video on the web and sex sites posted online by your next-door neighbor, there’s no need to sell it. The wonder is that the porn movies do any business at all.”

“But they do?”

“Probably. I don’t know for sure.”

They sat there for a moment looking into their coffee, thinking about porn.

“So what happened with the group you were with?”

“They’re still around, and I keep in touch with some of them,” said Keith. “I even protested at a Planned Parenthood with them at Christmas last year. They do good work.”

“But there are groups like that at St. Bosco’s.”

“Yeah, I’m working on coordinating the protests.”

“But why the switch?”

“Well, yeah, I just got to thinking about it more. I started out conservative – politically, I mean. Where does the stand for traditional values come from? ‘Christians’ was always my answer. ‘But where do Christians come from?’ I’d wonder. What’s the story there? And then at another event, a march against abortion in D.C., I met some nuns who were there with the rest of us. Other than women who were there to tell their horror stories about their own abortions, I thought that they did more for the pro-life movement than anyone else. With a much different perspective. I talked with one nun in particular who taught theology at St. Martins college, and I couldn’t believe how well informed she was. She knew more than I did, and I thought I knew a lot. We’d been talking about the Holy Trinity and the Virgin Birth, arguing really, and all of a sudden I found I’d changed my mind. I told myself I’d go to a mass when I got back to Seattle, and I did. I’ve been going to St. John Bosco’s ever since. And I still keep up with the Sister Francis.”

“That’s quite a story.”

“Not really. Just trying to do the right thing. Protesting is an honorable and important tradition in this country.”

Diana took a long sip of coffee.

“So what about you?” asked Keith.

Diana had been expecting this and had been thinking about what she could say while Keith was talking about his work in the pro-life movement.

“Somewhat similar to yours, in a way. I think I understand what you mean about values.”

“Yeah?” readily nodded Keith.

“Abortion in particular – life and death issues in general. Often a devastating experience personally. Although I’m not sure how quickly we should go about making it illegal again.” said Diana.

“Yeah?” said Keith, beginning to be a little puzzled, and thought to himself that this might turn into an argument after all. He’d be able to play Sister Francis.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s gone too far, I think, but I’m not so sure how far I’d press the legal side of the issue.”

“Well, what would you do?” asked Keith.

“I’m just not sure I’d outlaw it entirely,” said Diana.

“But things just can’t keep going the way the have been,” protested Keith.

“I’m not so sure things were so great beforehand,” countered Diana, “and a lot of so-called traditional values are tied in with some values that I’m not so hot on –”

“Like what?” asked Keith, quickly.

“Well, like, birth control,” said Diana, “just to take one specifically Catholic value. But civil rights as well, for example.”

“But there were Catholic groups in on the civil rights movement,” said Keith. Diana thought about her friend Laura again.

“But I think you’d be surprised at how many conservatives – people who are conscious of their core values, not just the more politically minded – weren’t in on some of the progressive movements over the last century.”

“I suppose we would have to have define ‘progressive’,” said Keith.

“Women’s suffrage?” queried Diana.

Then it was Keith who decided that the tone of the conversation has gotten a little off track. He’d had so many of these talks before, all of them more or less the same.

‘Okay, I see where you”re going. But how do you square some of this with becoming Catholic?” asked Keith, bluntly.

“Woman’s suffrage? You’re kidding.”

“No, the other stuff, I mean.”

“I’m not sure, sometimes. I guess I focus on the sorts of things we’d probably agree on. The church itself. As far as issues go, the death penalty…”

Keith nodded again.

“Suicide also” added Diana.

Keith continued nodding. “Yeah, the situation in the Netherlands is getting out of control.”

“And as much theology as I understand. Unleavened bread and real wine, all the things we talk about on Sunday. The body of Christ on the cross – the crucifix, I mean. All of it seems more real than anything I felt in the few protestant churches I visited growing up. I think we probably agree on most of that.”

“Definitely,” said Keith. “Maybe I still feel a little uneasy around a crucifix though.”

“Well, I think we’re supposed to,” said Diana.

“Yeah,” said Keith. “That’s comforting.”

After an empty moment Diana asked what it was exactly that Keith did.

“Computer stuff,” he responded. An answer he seemed willing to let lie, which was more confusing than enlightening.

“How long have you been tending bar?” he volleyed back.

“Six years now, maybe a little longer if I go back to the bartending I did in college,” she answered.

“Do you ever feel, I don’t know, strange? About tending bar, I mean.”

“Should I?” Diana was genuinely surprised, although she had expected a different turn in the direction of the conversation.

“I don’t know, it’s just the environment and all…”

“Oh, I’m hardly an environmentalist!” she kidded. Then added with another laugh, “What do you mean? That it’s unchristian to tend bar?”

She saw that question stung him a little.

“No, not that. Not so much, anyway,” he backpedaled, “I guess it just seems kind of down-and-out.”

“Well, it is sometimes,” she said, thinking of the horn player with her clothes turned inside-out. “We’ve all been down and out now and then, I guess.” She realized she was being evangelized, and decided to turn the conversation back towards him.

“So where did you go to school for all that computer stuff? As you call it.”

“Community college, two years. It wasn’t too hard. What about you? You’ve obviously been to more than bartending school.”

“Is it that obvious? I went to the university years ago. Majored in Biology. I worked for a lab for a couple of years after school and then just kind of burned out.” This was the fairly standard answer for a period that had been a difficult one in her life. Actually, they’d all been difficult.

“Biology, huh?” said Keith. “So what do you think about evolution and all that?”

“You just love the hot button topics, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” he said, still waiting for an answer.

“Well I didn’t make it up myself, but yeah, it’s scientific. It answers a lot of questions.

Keith nodded amiably enough, although it was obvious he could have said much more on the subject. Her own answer didn’t quite satisfy Diana, for two reasons. One was certainly the issue of employment, which was connected to a history of problems she’d had at the lab. After she’d been let go from the company she’d reverted to the job she’d held while going to school, and she’d been at it ever since. But she really didn’t care to share even this much with Keith, whose interest in her life didn’t seem any more benign than his interest in religion. The second issue had everything to do with Keith’s question about evolution. She answered him as best she could, but the truth was that it had been an issue that had bothered her ever since she had thought seriously about joining the church. She would have talked about it further, but Keith didn’t pursue it. Perhaps he felt somewhat chastised for his earlier question.

Diana was somewhat relieved that Keith didn’t directly ask her how she felt about Jesus, a question she thought she’d overheard him ask one of the other catechumens in a private conversation during one of the breaks on a Sunday morning. He did ask if she planned to be at church on Sunday, the answer to which was of course yes, and soon after that, they left, with a promise to meet again sometime soon.

“Come by the bar anytime,” said Diana out in the parking lot, which was a bit of a parting shot, she realized. Whatever happiness she’d gotten out of her remark quickly evaporated as she considered it afterward.

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