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Once a student at a university decided he’d spend a year studying overseas in a country he’d read about but never visited. He flew to the country’s capital, took a room in the dormitories—a view of the river—and immersed himself in its beauty, its difficult language, its argumentative and passionate people.
In the school cafeteria, the young man would often sit across from a fellow student he didn’t know and blithely start a conversation, although the tradition was that no conversations between strangers—strangers even to the same country—would take place during meal times. But his behavior, wide-eyed, seemed to shock his chosen partners into a kind of generosity, even effusion. Soon he had many friends who greeted him as he passed their table.
One morning he went out to buy some notebooks and decided, despite his budget, to treat himself to coffee at the counter of a little café. He ordered his coffee using the proper words in their proper order, but the proprietor claimed not to understand him, and twice the young man had to repeat.
The coffee came, the young man thanked him and drank it, and when the proprietor, a big man with black hair and a belly like a balloon, saw that he was finished, he demanded twice the price the young man had read on the tariff card outside.
“Wait a minute,” said the young man in his own language, forgetting where he was. “That’s twice what it says out there.” He went to his dictionary then, found the word for double, said it emphatically, then pointed to the tariff card in the window. All the while the proprietor held out his upturned palm.
“No,” the young man said, and stated the amount of money on the tariff card, and tried to say, again with the help of his dictionary, that he’d seen the man next to him, who had coffee no different from his, pay exactly what was on the card—not even a tip slid across the counter. Still, the proprietor held out his fleshy hand.
The young man shrugged his shoulders, reached into his pocket, and paid.
As he walked away, he felt shamed. First, to allow himself a spontaneous cup of coffee at all was extravagant—and second, in having paid double, he’d lost twice the money he never should have spent in the first place.
All day the incident bothered him, and when at dinner in the school cafeteria he got his tray and sat across from a pretty young woman who smiled at him, he said not a single word, deeply disturbed by what had occurred at the café.
Outside the cafeteria the young man saw some empty cardboard boxes, and on the way up to his room he took one, and in his room took a large pair of scissors and cut two equal-sized rectangles from the box. On one, in tall letters, in his own language, he wrote: PLEASE DO NOT GO INTO THIS CAFÉ. THIS MAN CHEATED ME. HE CHARGED ME TWICE THE PRICE I SHOULD HAVE PAID FOR COFFEE. I JUST WANT MY MONEY BACK. THANK YOU.
“What are you doing?” his roommates asked.
“Oh, it’s nothing. A private thing,” he answered, and they were respectful, left him alone.
The other rectangle took longer. He did his best to write the same message in the language of the country he’d come to, but he was unsure of the accuracy of his grammar.
Then he found a stick and stapled the sign together: his own language on one side, the country’s on the other, the stick just the right size for a handle.
The next morning he went to the café and stood in front of it with his sign, walking slowly back and forth as he’d seen people of his own country do.
The café was near a subway stop, the street busy, full with people hurrying to board their trains and go to work and make their money.
Even so, people slowed to read the young man’s sign. And though he was certain of the righteousness of his cause, he was hurt to discover that those who stopped to read his sign made with their mouth a little twisted hissing sound—a sound he’d never heard before—and walked on. And those who entered the café shook their head at him and looked down.
After two hours, the young man, weary, disappointed, went to his classes.
But the next day he awoke early and returned. He arrived just after the proprietor, who saw him pacing there with his sign and flung open the glass door and shouted something and slammed it.
Soon came the crowds along the sidewalk, again the hissings and tskings from a few, but now others—some of whom made those sounds yesterday—stopped in front of him and spoke, said things about the young man’s country’s behavior in a war long before he was born, its corrupt corporations, the sexual proclivities of its President.
To each of these the young man—by nature mild—simply shrugged, and it seemed that to spite him the haranguers would enter the café, whereas they might not have entered it yesterday. Soon the café was fuller than usual, and through the window the young man could see customers at the counter turning to stare at him as he paced—he could see the man with the belly like a balloon gesture toward him as he pulled the levers of the espresso machine or collected thick earthenware coffee cups from the counter.
For a few days this went on. The man’s business boomed; the young man was even spat at once, accused of inherent complicity in a distant bombing decades before.
But he stayed at it—went to his classes, studied, returned each early morning to the café.
Soon the novelty wore off—not for him, but for the patrons. Though they held rancor toward his country, they developed a grudging respect for him—the manifestation of which began in the diminution of their invective, then progressed to their actually nodding to him, then to their not entering the café on their way to the subway. Soon it appeared to the young man that the proprietor’s business was back to normal, that the boom days were over. He noticed that the proprietor, never having deigned to notice him since that first outburst at the front door, now glowered at him from behind the counter.
One morning, as was his habit, the young man arrived just minutes after the proprietor. The sky felt heavy—a downpour was predicted—and the young man hoped it wouldn’t rain, because rain would wet his sign.
It was still dark, there were no customers yet, and soon in the yellow light of the café the young man saw the proprietor in his soiled white t-shirt straighten, bang his right fist on the counter, go to the cash register, open it, scoop up something, slam the drawer shut, and come to the door. Then he yanked the door wide, shouted some words at the young man—words that in his language meant pig, money, luck, tossed coins at the young man’s feet with the motion of a habitual tosser of dice, and stood there at the door, his bare arms folded.
The young man wasn’t sure what to do. The money he’d asked for was there at his feet. I could reach down to get it and walk away, he thought, or I could infuriate him by pretending to have “found” some money yet keep pacing with my sign. Or I could do nothing. But I’d better wait, and I’d better think, because I don’t know what to do.
At just that moment a boy and a girl came down the street on their way to school, backpacks strapped shut with strips of leather. “Look!” they said in their language. “Money!” and each bent and picked up the coins and were on their way.
The young man smiled wanly at the proprietor, and the proprietor slammed the door.
Something changed that day. The rain never came, and passersby began actually greeting the young man—Good morning—children touched his sleeve, and the proprietor—whose business was merely normal—kept looking out and looking out. But that day, when upon leaving, the proprietor’s regular customers—usually mute, avoiding the young man’s eyes—looked at him and greeted him with formal civility, it seemed to the young man that perhaps the proprietor had told them the story of the throwing of the money.
Very early the next day the proprietor opened the door, stepped into the street, walked up to the young man, and put the requisite money into the his right hand. The young man lowered the sign, said Thank you, nodded his head, and went home.
I know this story is true, for I was that young man, and thirty years later I have returned to this city, hair half-gone, my own belly like a balloon, standing at this moment at the dented zinc bar of that very café, the old proprietor bent now, leaning from a stool in the corner like a figure in an old Daumier drawing, rising only when he needs to, slow in the body, slow in the eyes, a local student beside me telling me my own story, his version somewhat embellished. The story’s grown in the years I’ve been gone—I was tall and handsome, he says—and he uses some words I quickly look up in my old tattered dictionary—persistence is one of them—and now he looks at the proprietor and makes that same native hissing sound and says, He’s like a man whose air has escaped him, and he can’t get it back. And all the student wanted was an honest cup of coffee.