The “ticky-tacky” house of the author
The seat by the fireplace in the Strongsville Panera is usually open around 11am. The post-breakfast lull is punctuated only by early-lunch seniors, leaving the restaurant temporarily quiet.
I arrive at 11, laptop in hand, to lay claim to my quiet corner. Success. The over-stuffed armchair waits, an inviting contrast to the straight-backed chairs surrounding the other tables. The rational side of my brain knows that each Panera in the restaurant chain has its own fireplace-companion armchair, courteous of the standardized decorating rules that followed the Starbucks-inspired initiative to market comfort and consistency. But I can’t help feeling pleased with my ‘discovery’ anyway.
From my fireplace perch, I alternate between working and watching as the lunchtime crowd trickles, then swarms. Most are regulars. Not in the sense that I’ve seen them before, or that I recognize their faces. But still, I have a feel for who the Panera crowd is, in my suburban Cleveland town.
Enter the 20-something mother, pushing a stroller laden with enough baby bags to obscure the baby himself from view. She is followed by 3 business men in well-pressed suits. Their first task: tending to the dying batteries on their laptops, as they search for a table near an outlet. A middle-aged couple arrives next, conservatively clothed in an Ann Taylor sweater and crocodile-breasted polo. They always leave me wondering, what sort of non 9-5 job do they have, that allows them the freedom for a Monday afternoon lunch?
“Hi, welcome to Panera, can I take your order please?” the youthful voice behind the counter chirps. The young, round face matching the voice leads me to believe that she’s just graduated from high school.
“I’ll have the turkey artichoke sandwich and the French onion soup, a bag of chips and an apple.” I don’t even look at the options. Clever marketing also involves a stringently consistent menu; I’ll always know that the turkey artichoke sandwich is listed just above the Mediterranean vegetarian sandwich, and that the soup choices are French onion, tomato, broccoli cheddar and low-fat chicken noodle.
Comfort and consistency are what makes chains like Panera so successful, how they draw out-the-door lines for a cup of low-fat chicken noodle soup. The restaurant is a microcosm of the strip-mall suburban town in which it thrives.
And it’s a similar sense of comfort and consistency that draws me here – draws me home – for extended visits every year. A necessary counter-balance to the months abroad, where comfort zones are broken. Deep down, I yearn to know that the cereal will always be on the first shelf of the kitchen pantry, that my room will always be the one over the garage, that my parents will always be on the patio on a warm summer night, sipping wine. To quote Pete Seeger, they purposefully chose a little house made of ticky-tacky. One that does look the same. Because they wanted to raise us comfortably and consistently.
The quiet, pre-lunch lull is now a steadily growing hum of conversation, as the restaurant fills.
“Heather, I want you to focus your next observation on our new hire.” The businessman instructs and types at the same time.
“Maggie, come over here and eat more soup.” The young mother attempts to herd her toddler toward the table.
I try to block the hum, try to engage with my laptop.
“Hi, is this seat taken? Do you mind if I sit down?”
Those words catch my attention. A man in his late 50s inquires about a nearby seat. A college-aged girl, there alone, has already spread textbooks across half of the table. “Sure, if you want to.”
Two strangers were eating alone. Two strangers were sharing a table. The exchange seems out of place, outside the boundaries that characterize the rest of the restaurant: friends sitting with friends, mothers sitting with children, couples sitting with each other.
A few moments of silence. “What’s that book you’ve got there?”, the man asks over his soup spoon.
“It’s for this calculus class I’m taking.” She responds, hesitantly but smiling.
“Oh wow, a calculus class. I’ve never been so good at math myself. But I recently signed up for a history class, over at the community college.”
“No kidding? I’m just finishing my degree there…”
The conversation warms and spills onto my eavesdropping ears. No longer strangers. No longer eating alone, but rather sharing table and conversation. In a place where such comfort and consistency prevails, it’s refreshing to see people willing to step out of that zone, even in the smallest of ways.
Jenna Makowski is an American currently teaching English in Wroclaw,Poland. She also edits a local Enlish newspaper. Before moving to Poland, she lived in Moscow. Her blog is http://jennagmakowski.wordpress.com/