This happened to me this morning: I went to a local coffee shop and ordered a tall coffee with room at the top for milk. Those are pretty much the words I used: "Tall coffee, room at the top." The surly girl at the counter, adorned with all sorts of odd piercings and tattoos, nodded.
Or, at least, it looked like she nodded. But when she put my coffee on the counter, what I got was a tall coffee with no room at the top. It was filled to the rim.
So I went over to the little stand near the counter where they keep the cream and sugar and I poured a little of the coffee out into the trash slot and splashed some milk into the coffee cup. I was halfway done when the girl behind the counter called out to me:
"Sir?" she said, voice pitched in irritation. "Um, we'd prefer it if you didn't pour coffee in the trash? If you want room at the top for milk, just tell us you want room at the top? OK?"
That's how she talked - every sentence ended with an upward inflection, sort of like how people talk to children or particularly slow adults, to make sure they're listening and taking in the lesson.
"Sir?" she continued, piercings and tattoos shaking with incredulous outrage. "Sir, next time? Just tell me to leave room? OK?"
So I did what I do when things like this happen. I sort of stared, frozen, into space. I wasn't sure how to handle this. My natural impulse was to avoid confrontation altogether and to slink out of the coffee shop and head to my car, and only then, in the fully-enclosed capsule of a BMW 540i, let loose with a torrent of fury at the arrogance and incompetence of the girl behind the counter.
I'd let her have it, all right. I'd unleash the full range of my powers of invective. I'd fire off a withering volley of insults and personality take-downs that would reduce her to out-of-breath sobs, begging for my forgiveness and swearing from this day forward to treat her customers with respect and deference and total attention. The next move, then, was mine: all I had to do was scurry out of the coffee shop and sequester myself in my car so I could wreak my dreadful - and totally imaginary - revenge.
I was still there, though, staring into space, when a much more emotionally together person who was in line behind me barked out: "He did tell you to leave room for milk. I heard him. You weren't paying attention."
Her gaze went from me to the other customer and back to me. At which point I sort of shrugged and said: "I did, actually."
Things got very quiet in the coffee shop. The girl behind the counter looked at me, then at the other customer, then back at me again, and then she stopped. And I prepared myself for what I assumed was an apology.
Instead, she turned to the next person in line. "Can I help you?" she said. As if to say: "You know, moving on. On to the next."
Which bugged me, of course, because at this point what I wanted was some acknowledgement that there was an injustice here - I had done my part; the coffee shop employee had not. And instead, I was the one who got the reprimand. And now I wanted an apology, and I wasn't going to get it. I was in the right, which doesn't happen all that often. I wanted my moment to enjoy it.
Not that I deserved it, of course. I had planned to slink out of there all along, to take my temper into the muffled silence of my car. The guy in the line who piped up hadn't stared into space, frozen and brain-locked. No, he made a statement. He saw the golf ball on the tee and took the giant swing, and now his ball was sailing along down the fairway and I was still fumbling for my club.
My little helper, the guy who chimed in, got his coffee and sailed out of the shop happily. He had expressed himself, and was now fully satisfied. I hadn't, and now I was still there, with all sorts of unresolved issues. The guy behind me had stolen my moment.
"Okay, then," I said with an edge to my voice. "Have a good day," I added, with what I hope was enough irony to convey that I really didn't care if she had a good day or not. But by that time, no one was listening to me. I was just a guy with a full cup of coffee blocking everyone's access to the cream and sugar. I was a guy who had missed his moment for one of life's little pleasures.
Five minutes later though, speeding along in my car, you should have heard me. I was terrific.
Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood