Still new in the neighborhood, trying to become a regular at the Roja Coffee Bar, nursing a double espresso to kill an hour slot every afternoon, I start to notice the way the barista scratches his cheek before every order he fills, the whuff of autumn air whenever the entrance door opens, a couple of pudgy laptop guys who seem to have made the Roja their office space, and a middle-aged woman—get this—who comes in at three every afternoon but not to buy coffee. That time of day’s pretty busy at the Roja, and maybe that’s what she counts on because she always walks in right behind someone till they’re near the not-free newspaper rack (who still reads the paper? coffee bar regulars). When she thinks no one’s looking, she helps herself to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Star-Ledger, shoving them into her bag. She looks around fiercely, pirouettes, and makes her way out.
I spot this dodge right away and for the next week size her up: mid-height but a little bent over, dressed nicely in a white suede coat over a sweater and slacks, designer bag. Her features are a little twisted as if she suspects everyone, even herself, but no worries about shoplifting—must think she’s entitled. Of course someone’ll pay for it, just not her. What I want to know is what gives her the damned right? They’d’ve fired me at the drugstore if I’d done that, and no, I’m not working right now, but it’s complicated. My wife and I have discussed it, and we get nowhere.
Second week, I can’t stand it anymore, clenching the table top so hard I’ll leave marks. The next time she walks in and starts to grab the newspapers, I get to within a few feet of her and call out, “What the hell you think you’re doing?”
She hurriedly stuffs the newspapers all the way into her bag and tries to leave. A few people look up.
I block the way. “Some reason you come in here every day and swipe half the newspapers?” I point to the rack with the prices listed. “You know they’re for sale, right?”
She takes a step backward. That twisted look. She pauses, moistening her lips.
I press my advantage, moving forward. “Well, what’ve you got to say for yourself?”
Out comes an explosion, as if she’s been corking it all this time and finally burst. “What are you on my case for you better leave me alone I’m just minding my own business it’s people like you should be locked up let me by or I’ll report you for harassment people like you are scum!”
Everyone’s eyes are on me. The barista has paused in mid-order. Even the laptop guys have stopped typing.
She sweeps out and slams the door. I put my hands up and appeal to everyone. “You saw that, right? She steals from here every afternoon! I thought someone should call her on it.”
The barista scratches his face; nods. “Yeah, that’s Jane. She’s not, y’know, quite right in the head. Her husband comes in every once in a while and pays for all the papers. It’s okay.”
“Oh.” I feel like I blundered into a high-bluff poker game and lost. “I didn’t know.” I pick up my stuff, leave the Roja, and will probably never go back. I walk the five blocks to our apartment, where my wife is due home soon, and when she comes in from work and asks how my day was, that’s when I start yelling.