Wednesday, September 14, 2011

In the shelter with the Cat Man

Oh tangents, how you distract me!  I just deleted a long-winded entry that I realized contained way more tangential information that was necessary.  Really, it just distracted from the story I wanted to tell way too much. 

So I have been spending my down moments working on homework (oh the joys of metadata!), avoiding housecleaning, and fantasizing about reorganizing my second bedroom.  To fill you in on the status of these items, the first is almost done (but not quite), the second is a slam dunk, and the third has moved into the next phase (determining what, if any, budget I have). 

After an interesting discussion the other day regarding creepy people that we have encountered over the years, I had a flashback to an incident that occurred when I was still a teenager working at my first job. 

As first jobs go, mine was pretty sweet.  I worked at the first (and best) coffee shop in Willmar.  It was started and owned by two ladies from my church, and they were about as laid back and kind as any two first bosses could be. 

It was a small store; I think the kitchen in my townhouse may have been about the same size.  The location was perfect as it was in a strip mall on the main road through town.  This was before the whole espresso-drink craze took over the world, so words like "latte," "mocha" and "cappuccino" were all new concepts to the general public.  As the first crew of baristas to hit the town, we became well educated quickly in how best to explain these mysterious (and more expensive) beverages to our fellow citizens.

Despite the confusion over drink composition, the little store soon developed a loyal following.  Most of the regulars came through in the morning/daytime shifts, which meant that they rarely encountered the high school employees during the school year.  However, there were a few regulars that chose different hours to visit.

One would think that in a small town, one would know the names of all the regulars.  For some reason, this was simply not the case.  Perhaps it was because this was before the time of credit/debit card use and it is hard to see someones name if they're always paying in cash.  Or perhaps teenagers really don't give a rat's hinder about anyone but themselves.  Both are true.

Most of our regulars (nameless or not) were pleasant folk.  We happily chatted with them and served them their coffee and treats.

Then there were the creepers.  Not many, mind you, but enough to make young teenage girls take notice and be cautious.

One of these creepers was a nameless fellow we had dubbed "The Cat Man."  I have tried to recall the meaning behind this name, but I cannot answer with certainty.  I do not think it was because he had cats.  Not that I know he didn't, but he was not the kind of gentleman who would share that kind of information because he rarely spoke to us beyond his beverage related requests.  It may have had to do with the fact that he was quiet and sneaky like a cat.  Or something else.  I forget.

What I have not forgotten is that he used to come in alone, dressed casually and carrying a briefcase.  He would order his drink in a glass mug and sit down at a table to read whatever book he had in his briefcase.

He would sit there for hours, silently keeping to himself.  When his drink became cold, he would bring it back to us and ask us to warm it in the microwave.  When his drink was empty, he would refill it with coffee from the urns out on the counter.  When his refill coffee became cold, he would again ask to have it microwaved.  This was the extent of our normal interaction with The Cat Man.

Until the summer before my senior year of high school.  It was a strange time in my life.  My family was preparing to move to Wisconsin, but I was going to stay home to complete my education in Willmar.  On one particular week in July, my entire family went (without me) to Wisconsin to look at houses and familiarize themselves with the area.

This meant that for one week, I was alone at our house.  Of course, I did have the protection of our fearless Sheltie, but she was more of a lover than a fighter.  Rather than take the normal teenager route of hosting some wild and raucous parties, I kept a low profile.  Looking back, I am a bit ashamed of my square-ness.  Our house was on a lake in the woods and relatively secluded.  Really, an ideal place to host a bunch of people.  Oh well.

I decided to fill my alone time with more shifts at work.  The summer traffic at the coffee shop was typically a bit lighter, which meant that most shifts were done solo.  Long afternoons staring at pastries and swilling copious amounts of fountain Dr. Pepper were the norm.

All of this was to explain the scene for my Cat Man story.  One afternoon during my week of living alone, I was all by my lonesome at work.  Well, actually I was not totally alone.  There were a few customers, but I was the only barista on duty.  It was a slow day; however, the Cat Man did manage to make an appearance.

As early evening approached, I started to anticipate quitting time and my return to an empty house.  The seating area eventually emptied, with the Cat Man the final person to depart. 

That is when I noticed something odd.  The sky, which had up to that point been a beautiful shade of blue, was turning a very alarming shade of green.  If you are from the Midwest, you know what this means.  For the uneducated, this means that "a TWISTER be a-comin'!"

In normal tornado safety procedures, one knows to get to a safe location.  Usually, this is the basement.  In the absence of a basement, one moves to a central part of the building away from glass and windows. 

For the coffee shop, this meant moving into the back storage area.  In what I can only describe as a very odd layout decision from a safety and security standpoint, the back hallway of our little shop was openly connected to a thrift shop located next door.  Here is a crude map:

This is in no way drawn to scale.

While this always caused a slight unsettled feeling for me, it never really caused a real problem.  The thrift store was not open on this specific day, but this only meant that the entire place was dark and not exactly a place I would want to hang out.

After I noted the change in weather, I made a phone call to my boss.  She instructed me to lock the doors and ask that any remaining customers be invited to take shelter back in the bowels of the building with me.  This was not a problem, because at that point, there were no customers in the store. 

Before I could hang up the phone and lock the door, it opened.  The Cat Man was back.  In a rare moment of verbosity, he related that he had been half way home when he realized that a storm was starting.  So instead of going home to take shelter, he came back to the coffee shop.

This was an alarming development.  Not only was I isolated in a basement-less building during a potentially severe storm, I was now trapped in said building with a man that I considered creepy.  Was he dangerous?  I wasn't sure.  All I knew for sure is that he was weird.  Weird enough to think that it was a good idea to return to a basement-less building for shelter.

Various scenarios flashed through my mind, mostly ending in my gruesome and painful death.  Who could rescue me?  Who would find my body?  How could I tell the police who to look for when I didn't know the man's real name? 

Against every fiber of my being, I informed the Cat Man that I was locking the doors and that he was welcome to seek shelter in the back area of the store.  If he accepted my invitation, my plan was to hide out in the ladies bathroom.  For some strange reason, he declined my offer.  He chose instead to remain stationary at the front store windows, watching the sky and the storm unfold. 

Trying not to seem too relieved, I retreated to the back storage room/office and locked the door.  Yes, I realize I left the Cat Man alone in the front of the store with our merchandise and cash register.  But after all of our outside furniture was abruptly swept away by a large gust of wind, I decided that my safety was more important.

So I sat back there for what felt like hours but was probably only 20 minutes.  Occasionally, I peeked out around the corner to see if he was still there.  As is the case with most super severe storms, the worst part passed relatively quickly and the sky resumed its blue shade. 

I emerged completely from the office and asked if it looked like the storm was over.  The Cat Man nodded.  I told him that he was welcome to stay, but that I had to receive confirmation from my boss as to whether or not we would officially open for business for the remainder of the day.

Uncertain as to what his long-term plans were due to his aversion to verbal communication, I made myself busy behind the counter.  Finally, he started to shuffle towards the door and I quickly ran up to open it for him.  He thanked me and departed.

After re-locking the door, I called my boss to inform her that I was alright, the customer had left and that all of our outdoor furniture was probably on the roof or somewhere in the next county.  She agreed that due to possible damage and the low probability that anyone would want to venture forth for frothy espresso drinks, I could close up shop.

This was a relief.  Once everything was closed up and clean, I drove home to an empty house, unsure of what I would find.  There was indeed a large tree branch barring the driveway, but I kicked the '87 Chevy Celebrity into high gear and drove around it.  Thankfully the power was still on and my dog seemed unfazed. 

Later, I learned that there had actually been a tornado that touched down less than a mile from the coffee shop.  Hence the airborne furniture, I guess.

This was the last summer that I worked at this coffee shop, and to be honest, I do not remember much else for the remainder of my tenure.  I am sure that the Cat Man came back, but there was no bond of survivors between us.  Maybe he is still alive and living in Willmar.  I do know that my coffee shop no longer exists, so if he is still around he has had to find a new hangout.  Maybe this one will have a basement.

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