Most weeks, I spend one day in "Coffice Hours"--working from the Starbucks, ideally the patio (though I'll go inside if I need an electrical outlet or to get warm!).
It's a good change of scenery and the people are interesting. Mostly I read and write and update the website and answer emails and talk to people. Though sometimes I don't talk to anyone at all...you never know how the day's going to go.
A few weeks ago, it was a busy day on the Starbucks patio and every table was taken. A woman, casually but nicely dressed, medium build, walked through and stopped to talk to people, and when she got to my table I realized she didn't know everyone, she was looking for some help. She needed three more dollars to get a sandwich. Her sister had dropped her off downtown, with a borrowed cell phone, and gone to work. I didn't get to hear why she'd been dropped downtown--it seemed like perhaps she was going around putting in job applications, or maybe she was waiting for a train, I don't know.
In any case, a man, muscular and with a large number of tattoos, pierced ears, a muscle shirt and low-slung shorts handed her a cup of salted almonds and explained in patient patronizing tones how she needed to eat this protein and salt because it would be healthy for her and get the drugs out of her system, rather than asking for money for more drugs.
The woman protested that she didn't do drugs. The man asked why she had an iPhone if she couldn't afford a sandwich. Another man at a nearby table told the woman to go away or he would call the police.
One guess about the color of this woman's skin.
If I had gone to their table asking for $3, I suspect the assumption would have been that I left my wallet at home, or that my cash had blown out of my hand (it was a windy day), or that I'd just been caught short without my debit card.
I wanted SO MUCH to confront the man and ask why he assumed this woman was high, or dishonest, or deserved his patronizing scorn. I wanted very badly to speak up and defend her, and call out his racist assumptions and bad behavior.
But I didn't. And I am ashamed to say that. And I am further ashamed to say the reason:
Because he was a muscular man, with a lot of tattoos and piercings, wearing a muscle t and baggy shorts and half-tied shoes, and having shown himself to be a bit on the aggressive/belligerent side. It did not feel safe for me to confront him, any more than it felt safe for that woman.
He was white.
The woman left the patio. I don't know where she went, but I hope she came across someone who carried cash and compassion at the same time. I hope her sister had a good day at work, and was able to be supportive when she heard this story.
The man continued to talk, loudly, to his table mate and to the man at the next table, about her.
I continued to sit across the patio, simultaneously too angry and too worried about my own safety to do anything about it. Because assumptions play both ways.