On Setting Boundaries: An Ode To Cafe Man

Stop hand

Words by Kate-Lois Elliott

I walked up to the cafe to try and read the menu. I had twenty minutes to buy and eat some food before I had to go and run a workshop in a school around the corner. I checked if there was a cash machine in the shop next door because I guessed that a small cafe wouldn’t take cards. I then went back to your menu to see if there was anything I could order that would be easy enough to eat that I could take it away with me.

You were tall, very tanned, you dressed well. When I walked in and saw you chatting about Call The Midwife to the locals, I thought you looked like a lovely person. I ordered a mozzarella and pesto sandwich, you finished my sentence and assumed I’d pick the panini, which I went with. I would like to state here for the record, that I chose this sandwich because it seemed like it would be mess free to eat on the road, not because it was the only boujie meal on the menu.

I paid and you gave me a few coins in change but no five pound note. I said, ‘Oh sorry I think I gave you a tenner,’ and your face went from one of passive tolerance to one of distaste and impatience. You snapped. I don’t know if you know that you snapped but you did, it was sharp, direct and confrontational. I replied saying that I was sure I’d given you a tenner whilst looking into my bag. I then remembered that I’d gotten change at the Post Office next door when I’d bought some Kinder Bueno’s to eat for after the workshop (depending on the group, the workshops can often be rather draining and a nice sugary pick me up afterwards is sometimes just the ticket.) ‘Oh wait, no I made a mistake,’ I said, but it was too late. The entire thing lasted about 10 seconds. Then the strangest thing happened, you said, ‘Yes well you should damn well apologise.’  I remember it word for word. I was shocked, but I apologised immediately.

After I’d apologised I sat down and then something even weirder happened. You started shouting a lot, in your very small cafe that had five customers in it. You shouted in your open plan kitchen to the KP about how I was wishy washy and you NEVER make mistakes, and then carried on shouting when you came back to the counter about how I’d apologised but still, I couldn’t get past you, you had my number. I sat there feeling very, very uncomfortable, yet still thinking of all the times customers have treated me like crap when I worked in the service industry, and trying to think of a way not to make your day any more stressful.

‘Um, excuse me,’ I whispered, ‘I can hear you talking about me and I feel really uncomfortable. I don’t want to eat here any more.’ You asked me why I asked twice about the tenner? You said that I should check before I start going around accusing people of stealing. 

‘Of course I would (hand on heart) never accuse you of stealing,’ I said ‘I only thought you might have made a mistake.’

‘Well you made a mistake.’ you said.

‘Yes’ I agreed. I waited.

‘Look I understand what it’s like,’ I said, maintaining composure and calm.

‘You were in here yesterday’ you snapped.

‘No I wasn’t… I’ve never been here before. I’m just here to teach in a school around the cor..’

‘You’re being dishonest’ you said.

‘Um, look, I don’t want my sandwich any more, sorry.’

‘I already told you the sandwich was going to be two minutes, it’s nearly ready, so you can just take it and get out of here.’

I looked for help to the old lady who had been chatting with you before. She mouthed ‘I don’t know’ to me and shook her head, nearly laughing, nearly.

Look, I get it, I was rude to the phone operator from Hello Fresh after the company called three times in one week. I told him to stop calling me, as if he was trying to steal my credit card information, sorry Tom from Cork, I hope I didn’t ruin your day.

But back to you cafe man. I looked you up and down, thinking. You’re angry - it must be my fault. Firm logic. I stood there in silence hoping that you would eventually calm down. You didn't. I was stuck in a stalemate, holding the sandwich that I no longer wanted in one hand, making silent help me gestures to the other customers with the other and all the while watching the vain on your forehead convulsing and the fake tan cracking on your skin.

You breathed into your apron, 'I would like you to leave' you said.

I left.

I spent the next day wondering what I’d done wrong. Why did I stay in that situation for so long? Why didn’t I just walk out? Why wasn’t I more firm with him, why didn’t I ask to speak to his manager? Why didn’t I call him out on his behaviour properly? Why did I just take it? In practicing extreme ownership of the situation I move to confess: I am a shit taker. I lap it up, other people’s problems. I am guilty of allowing this sort of treatment to happen to me, to feed my own weird and complex limitations: I let people take their stress out on me.

The thing is cafe man, you weren’t looking to connect with me. If you had been then you would have seen that I was simply trying to fit lunch into a very busy day. I on the other hand was overcompensating by trying to sympathise with you too much. I arrived at that workshop with a mild case of the shakes, convinced that I was the person who came into your cafe yesterday, and wondering what I’d done when I was in there to piss you off so much.

Cafe Man, you made a mistake. There are lots of ways to let it out without hurting the people around you. You could climb up to the top of a big hill or stand on a bridge over some train tracks and yell whatever you want at the top of your lungs. You could cry hysterically whilst watching the last episode of Fleabag Season 2 and then be late for work and have to pretend the washing machine unexpectedly broke. You could do yoga, you could sing, paint or go to a boxing class. We overeat, we under-eat, we self harm, we have lots of sex, go to therapy and drink. Sometimes we obsessively clean the entire house and then burn the brownies we decided to make. Some things are productive and healthy, some are not. We can’t always handle our own stress though, and occasionally we take it out on ourselves, or even other people.

Two sad people doth not make a happy person. Lashing out helps no one. If lack of empathy is the beginning of all disputes then lack of self respect is the window for all abuse. We need to find a balance between understanding a person's pain and protecting ourselves from other people's limitations.

Since I’ve set more boundaries, I’ve noticed that the people I spend most of my time with now are the ones who lift me up instead of drag me down to make themselves feel better.

If something or someone doesn't feel right I can take a moment to connect with my own thoughts and feelings about it, access the situation and usually I'll find that those gut instincts come from somewhere logical and profound, not immediately assuming that my direct actions are the cause of everything bad that ever happened, which is really quite egotistical.

Dearest cafe man, I am sorry that one person with the same hair colour or something came into your work recently and ruined your day (by the way that wasn’t me.) Sorry about all the emotional labour that your job takes. I worked as a waitress for 10 years and it was making me incredibly depressed by the end of it all. If you’d asked me I’d have happily talked to you about it.

So what I’m trying to say cafe man is: firstly, everyone you’ve ever met is struggling in some way, so don’t be so mean; secondly, I hope it was worth it; and lastly, thank you for the lesson.

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Kate-Lois Elliott is an actor, writer and producer. She has contributed to a variety of projects as a writer, including work for VICE, Caboodle, Femini, Jazz FM, Wandsworth Radio, XYZ Magazine and Theatre 503. Kate co-hosts the Podcast Diversify, which celebrates diversity in all its forms, and has been featured in the Canary and DIVA Magazine. She is also a resident practitioner at Shakespeare’s Globe, and regularly champions first time playwrights and emerging artists with her company Backbone Theatre, who produce theatre and film in London.

Twitter and Instagram: @kateloiselliott

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