Monday, May 26, 2014

Emergency at the Coffee Shop

Help Me - Please!

Today's Drama at the Coffee Shop

She staggered into the coffee shop, making strange noises.

I was at the table by the door, writing. I looked up from my novel as the woman crossed in front of me, her arms flailing, her shoulders shaking. All around me, heads turned, conversation stopped, chairs pushed out from tables in a collective gasp. Was this woman an oddball, come to disturb the peace? Was she insane? What was she doing? Why was she making such strange sounds? And why was she heading straight for the handsome young man ordering coffee at the counter, as if to accost him?

"Wrrrr grrrr orrr grrrr!" the woman howled. "Orrrr grrrr! Orrrr grrrr!"

I stared at her. I couldn't help it. We were all staring.

The woman was young, twenty-five maybe. She wore a black t-shirt and dark jeans. She carried a leather handbag. Her black hair was cut into a chic bob, and - I gulped - her jaw hung open in a most horrible way. As in, not straight. As in, hanging almost to her neck. Obviously, this woman was injured. She needed help. Everything changed in an instant.

Hands went to chins all around me.

"Wrrrr!" she cried to the young man, stopping in front of him, invading his personal space.

The man's eyes widened. He didn't back up. But he was nervous. He didn't reach out to help her, not right away. The barista leaned over the counter, a cell phone in her hand, about to call for help.

"Hrrrr eeee? Eeee?" moaned the woman. This time, the meaning of her words was clear: Help me? Please?

"What can I do?" the man said, making his decision. He set down his coffee, staring at her jaw.

"Hrrrr." She whipped a laminated sheet from her handbag and jabbed her finger at it. The man took it and narrowed his eyes.

"You want me to do this?"

"Essssss!" She leaned forward, neck extended, face tilted hopefully up at the man.

I was still staring at her. Everyone was staring. The man at the table next to me stood up, as if to help, but he soon sat again. Two women and a child chose that moment to wander into the shop. They stopped in their tracks, suddenly aware of the scene which was unfolding in front of them. The older woman clutched at the arm of the younger one, who took the child by the hand. They stood to the side. Waiting. Watching. With the rest of us.

"Oooo eeee," said the woman. Do it.

The man looked again at the paper. He rubbed his palms on his pant legs, took a deep breath, and put both hands to the woman's jaw. Then he gently placed both thumbs inside her mouth. There was dead silence in the shop. Not even the clink of a spoon against a coffee cup. Only the woman's heavy breathing. The two of them - and the barista - stood locked in place, a tableau that sucked the air out of the rest of the shop.

The man pulled gently on the woman's jaw. Her face went white, the cords in her neck strained, but nothing happened. A high, thin sound came from her, the sound of distilled pain. The man took his hands away.

"Do you want me to call 9-1-1?" asked the barista, leaning so far over the counter that her hair brushed the napkin dispenser.

The woman shook her head. She pointed at her jaw again. "Eeeeee? Eeeee?"

The man put his hands to her face again. And again. And then again. Finally, he threw up his arms. "I'm sorry, it's not working. I can't do it."

"Shall I make the call?" asked the barista.

The woman's shoulders slumped. Defeated, she nodded. Slowly, she raised her hands to her mouth, which hung open, dripping saliva. Moaning, she touched her chin. She leaned against the counter, her chest heaving, as the barista quickly and calmly explained the situation to the responders.

"Are they coming?" asked the man.

"They'll be here in a second," said the barista. "Honey, can I get you a chair?"

The woman shook her head. She just stood there, rooted in place, looking miserable.


She shook her head again. Time slowed to a standstill. The man who'd tried to help shifted his weight from foot to foot, but he stayed put. I looked away, unable to take the pain in the woman's eyes as she waited for help to come. Sounds started up again in the shop. A chair scraping on the floor. A child's voice. A coffee cup rattling on the table. We were waiting, all of us.

When I looked up again, the man had enfolded the woman in a hug. He patted her back gingerly, and rocked her back and forth. Even from where I sat I heard her sobs.

"Let's try it again," he said.

She nodded. She stood still as he put his hands to her face again.

This time her jaw snapped into place. She jerked. She put her hands to her lips, and smiled at him. "Oh! Thank you!" she said with a hitch in her voice, so near to crying I could almost hear the sobs breaking through. "Thank you so much." She worked her jaw up and down, back and forth, slowly, carefully, as if it might suddenly pop out again. Maybe it would. "I hate it when that happens!" she said as she stuffed her laminated instruction sheet back into her purse. "I just hate it."

"How often does it happen?" asked the man, looking flushed.

"Too often. Oh! Listen. They're coming."

Sirens in the distance.

In another moment, a fire truck pulled up out front and four firemen came hurrying in, surveying the shop. They looked around, not knowing where to go, who to help. There was no blood, no yells, no-one in obvious distress.

"Over here," said the barista.

"I'm fine now," said the woman, facing them, abject embarrassment on her swollen face. She gestured to the man. "He fixed it for me."

The firemen talked to her for an additional few minutes, then they filed out the door and were gone. The woman hugged the man who'd helped her, but this time, the hug was a quick, bashful one, not the soul-breaking one of earlier. "Thanks again. Really. I mean it. I won't ever forget your kindness."

And then, she turned around, clutching her purse to her side and gazing straight ahead - because, of course, everyone in the shop was staring - she left.

And that was that. As if it had never happened.

But it had. And it did something to me, all that pain, all that helpfulness, all that witnessing, and it made me wonder ... what if it had been me at the counter instead of the young man? Could I have done what he did? I hope I would have, but I'll never know.

I hope the woman's jaw stays put. I wish the best for her. But I'm afraid that sometime, someplace, her "How To Help Me" laminated sheet will be pulled out again to be thrust at strangers in utter desperation.

I only hope she finds someone as kind as the young man at the coffee shop.

Not an ordinary day at the Coffee Shop


  1. Wow. This brought tears to my eyes. The part where he hugged her while waiting for the ambulance... my god. You obviously painted a very real picture here (I know this was real but you told it so well).

  2. Thank you, J.

    That moment brought tears to my eyes also. I dreamed about this last night...I can't get it out of my head.

  3. Nicely done. Thanks for posting.

  4. What a story, Evelyn! I love that the guy tried again, and that it was real. Sometimes we get to be one of the heroes, and sometimes we are vulnerable, and have to just ask for help from strangers around us. When I hear or see something like this, the world can't be all bad.

  5. I agree whole-heartedly. The thing that surprises me is that there are a lot of moments like these in life, if we only pay attention.

    An update: A week after this happened, I spoke with the barista. She said the injured woman was a regular customer. The man who helped her was the barista's best friend (or boyfriend? I can't remember). The woman came back the next day, thanked them, and told them she was much better. She also said that she'd always been lucky in the past. Her jaw had never acted up when she wasn't with her husband, or family, or friends. Apparently, this horrible episode was a first for her too. I'm impressed she was prepared.


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