The three-mile ride to Starbucks is a lot longer when it's cold and damp and I haven't regularly biked outside in several weeks. An eight-mile ride to Panera (sixteen both ways) was out of the question, given the probability of rain and the narrow window in which I was likely to avoid the worst of it.
At Starbucks, I ordered chai with no water, on the advice of a Twitter friend. It was very crowded at Starbucks, so I took the only empty table, a small high one in a corner, with a man at the adjacent table also using a laptop. We exchanged a few amiable remarks about the crowd and then devoted ourselves to our respective electronic devices. After five or ten minutes, the man left, and I had the corner to myself for a few minutes, until a different man approached. He said, "Good morning," in a friendly way, and offered his hand.
"Hi there!" I replied, cheerfully, because I am not adverse to a few minutes of random chitchat with strangers at a coffee shop. I shook his hand.
"What I am about to say will change your life!" he told me. He sat down, shifted to close and leaned back to look at my laptop screen.
My categorization instantly went from "friendly stranger" to "scammer." I am not one of those people who has been so conditioned to be polite that they will be nice to anyone, no matter the circumstances. I am fine with being rude. "Excuse me," I told him. "I am very busy." I changed the angle of my body and my laptop so that I could use it without him seeing my screen, and then I steadfastly ignored him. Or more accurately, did not visibly react to anything else he did.
He muttered something like, "Fine, I'm never gonna tell you", to which I thought great, please shut up and leave me alone. He continued to mutter at me for a few minutes, sitting sideways in his seat so that he could face me. Then he shifted to face forward, and started loudly telling a group of three women three tables away that someone had taught Jessica to be racist. I don't know who Jessica is or what she did that was racist. I am pretty sure that the three women he was ranting at did not know either.
At this point, one of the Starbucks baristas caught my eye with a look of 'do you need help?' and I tried to signal 'HEAVENS PLEASE YES' without actually saying anything or acknowledging Creepy Guy's existence. I was fussing with my bag to get out my headphones and iPod in an effort to get a bonus to my Ignore Harassment roll.
The barista leaned against Creepy Guy's table and told him, firmly, that he was being too loud, and he wasn't even a customer, and he needed to stop annoying the patrons.
Creepy Guy shut up for about five minutes. I had my headphones on by this point. I'd been trying to get some writing done but was making very little progress because DRAMA. After five minutes of peace, Creepy Guy decided he needed to talk at me again and started talking loudly and waving his hand in front of my laptop screen. I turned the volume up on my iPod. He touched my arm. I told him not to touch me again. He subsided for a bit.
Then he started fussing with the chair opposite his table. He positioned it so that it filled the space between his table and mine, and then put his legs on it, which had the effect of boxing me in between my table and his legs. I gave up on waiting for him to GO AWAY and left by shoving my table out from the wall so I could sidle past it. I sat down at a different table, because some spot of pride in me felt that, well, I'm not bothering anyone and I shouldn't have to be the one to leave. Also, it was sprinkling outside and I was hoping for a break in the weather before I left.
Creepy Guy remained a few minutes at the same table. Brave Barista approached him again, presumably to say "QUIT IT." Creepy Guy followed me to new table, tried to talk to me, touched my arm again, which got me to say "Don't touch me" again without me ever taking my earbuds out or hearing anything being said. Brave Barista had More Words for him, then went back to work.
A minute or two after that, Creepy Guy finally left.
After Creepy Guy left, Brave Barista came back to my table. "I want to apologize for that man -- "
"Oh bless you for finally driving him off," I told him.
"Yes, well, I'm afraid he's been around a lot lately and bothering the customers. We'd called the cops, and I was actually trying to stall him until they arrived so that he could be banned." Brave Barista gave me a little Starbucks gift card and apologized again.
I did a little writing. Maybe twenty minutes later, Creepy Guy returned to the Starbucks, but he didn't approach me. He talked to some other patrons and bought a sandwich. Brave Barista, whose name proved to be Dan, kept an eye on him.
I'd been tweeting about this whole episode as it unfolded, and I started to tweet "Why can't I meet weird strangers who are funny at the coffee shop, like Ursula Vernon does, instead of weird Creepy Ranting Guy?"
And then I stopped, and thought about some of Ursula Vernon's tales of interacting with strangers. Some of them are genuinely merely bizarre, and some are just funny. (There is really no way to relate the star-crossed love of a rooster and a turkey without it being funny.) But most of them are funny as much because of the way she tells it as because of what happened, and some of them are pretty awful once you take them out of the context of "Ursula Vernon boggling humorously at how is this actually happening to/around her." If I'd listened to what Creepy Guy had said, and if I'd had her gift for humor, I might have been able to showcase his rantings as "weird and funny" too, instead of "ZOMG WHEN WILL THE COPS FINALLY GET HERE".
So I commented on that fact instead. Ursula replied with, "Yes, but that's my coping mechanism for creepy things, so it's okay! We all have different coping mechanisms!"
Creepy Guy did come back to sit next to my table again. I don't know what he said, because I turned up the music as soon as he returned. He reeked of alcohol now.
Not long after, two cops actually showed up and bracketed Creepy Guy while he was sitting two feet away from me. I paused my music to listen as they took his name -- somewhat dubious on whether or not he was telling the truth about his name -- and told him he was banned from the Starbucks, and he'd better not already be banned from the plaza because if he was they were going to take him in. They escorted him out of the shop.
I would call this a victory for my "Ignore Them Until They Go Away" method, except that I had to leave myself ten minutes later, to dodge the anticipated storm.
But the thing that stuck with me from the whole incident was that realization about how the line between "funny" and "distressing" is in significant part based on your attitude and the way you tell the story. It also made me realize that I cope with awkward/uncomfortable/creepy by trying to ignore it and carry on with the thing I wanted to do. It's the same coping mechanism I developed in grade school to deal with bullies. In fact, Creepy Guy had NOTHING on the kids who harassed me in junior high. He wouldn't even be in the running. By childhood standards, this barely even qualified as an attempt at harassment. Twelve year-old me would be so jealous that this is the most obnoxious stranger I've dealt with this decade. SO JEALOUS.
I don't know how to tell this story so that it's funny, but I am thinking about that now. I don't think I have the right temperament to treat this kind of awkward/unpleasant situation with a sense of humor (never mind having the comedic gift to make it actually funny). Still, it's an interesting thought.