Coffee Break

A late October sun hasn’t entirely overcome the morning’s frost, although there is promise: only thin wisps cloud a cerulean sky. Most here on the city’s stained sidewalk wear the unornamented jackets or coats in which they came to work. Two exceptions wear patterned sweaters that might be seen waiting for a ski lift. Many wear hats.

Apart from the newcomer, they know each other as the usual 10 o’clock assemblage, albeit most are strangers drawn from various floors of the high-rise by addiction to tobacco with their coffee. A handful routinely come out to make personal phone calls; a few, craving merely outdoor air, stand farther apart. They exchange faint nods with anyone who looks up to note their emergence, hardly more recognition than if their eyes had met at bus stops or elevators or boarding lounges. With dour New England reserve, even the smokers rarely share a light.

The newcomer’s suit is clearly the work of a good tailor: a dark herringbone, single-breasted, two-button with narrow lapels. He wears a bold blue-and-white striped shirt with a white collar, and a collegiate rep tie, copiously crimson. He stands out not only sartorially, but in posture: tall, erect, shoulders militarily back.

He is perhaps in his mid-30s, square-jawed, a handsome head of blond hair not hidden under a hat. His blue eyes sweep the little flock, ready to smile at anyone who meets his gaze, but none do. Undismayed, he extracts a long-stemmed briar pipe from his breast pocket and a plaid-patterned tobacco pouch from a side pocket, loads and tamps the pipe, flicks a silver lighter and exhales an initial staccato of cumulus clouds.

The regulars assess him, hiding their glances behind their own exhalations of cigarette smoke and breath-steam, then looking down as though engaged in Rorschach tests of the chewing gum blotches hardened into the sidewalk. The men may resent his good looks, surmisable affluence and commanding presence. The women are suddenly, unexpectedly conscious of how they have dressed this morning.

Some in this inchoate congregation wonder if he has come on a management mission. Surely in the executive offices there must be a smoking room, an exception to the company rule that drives most of them out here in all kinds of weather. Perhaps he has been sent to study how much time is lost. That would be unfair, some muse (perhaps anticipating a challenge), because their nicotine- and caffeine-fueled bursts of productivity are immeasurable.

Despite the dearth of conversation, it is hardly quiet: There is a light mutter of automobiles, and sparsely-occupied buses shift gears with noisy farts. Most sidewalk smokers take no notice of traffic sounds, tuning them out as though rolling up car windows.

That is harder for those who have come out to make phone calls. Most stand apart in deference to their neighbors. “Hello, Mama?” A smile, as though it were a videophone. “How are you?” Mama must be hard of hearing. Others wear sophisticated gadgets draped from their ears like rock stars; if out of earshot they appear slightly deranged, staring vacantly into the street, lips moving as though talking to themselves, leaving tobacco-smoke contrails as they gesture.

The next covey begins to appear as the 10 a.m. contingent drifts back to work, leaving the newcomer with his pipe. On her way in, though, a woman from shipping — blue-haired, old enough to be his mother, born to a Southern ease with strangers — casts aside her acquired New England reticence. “Oh, I just love a pipe!”

“Thank you, I do too.” A big smile. “Have a good day.”

The younger women, having paused on their way to the door, attentive as a basket of puppies, regret their own restraint. They go back to work imagining ways to start a conversation if he comes again on the morrow.



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