When a Small Town Girl Walks into a Big City Coffee Shop

I sipped a cup of coffee, and looked up as the bell on the door jangled.

Nope, didn’t know that person either.

I grew up in a small town. We barely boasted 2,000 people on a good day. Our brick-paved main street was quiet, and calm-except for the yearly city-wide garage sale which swelled the occupants of our town what seemed like ten-fold.

When I was nineteen, I moved to my college town: a teeming metropolis of a town that actually had two stop lights and even a few one way streets! Whoa Nelly! This was living! My college town was four times as big as my hometown, and it had a Wal-Mart, a bowling alley, and four thrift stores! When my friends in college complained about the lack of things to do, I never really understood what they were talking about. This place had it all!IMG_8655

I still live in college town. Hubs just finished up his college degree this past fall, and now we are working, he’s applying to grad school, we are both working many hours, and preparing for Baby Lotulelei to arrive this August.

I have lived here long enough now that I know every person who works at the local coffee shop. I went to school with most of them. They know  me, have seen me in plays, know my family, and my favorite order. I don’t go very often, because ever since I purchased my Aeropress I have made it a habit to make coffee from home to save moolah (because, you know, babies are expensive. Natch), but I know on the special occasion when I do go there that I better be ready to see half the people I know in town milling about.

Heck, if I walk to my mailbox, a mere three feet from my door, I will undoubtedly see eleven people I know on the way there, and back. Everything is noticed in a small town. I can’t sit on my patio without talking to several neighbors, when my Mom would come over to go on walks with me to have our wedding planning sessions at least four people would mention to me that they saw us out walking, and Wal-Mart is the town square of our city. Everyone is always at Wal-Mart.

So my brief jaunts to Lincoln, a mere hour away, always have me in for a bit of a culture clash. No matter how many times I drive into Lincoln I always have a death grip on my steering wheel, Google Maps droning on from my phone, and an awareness that this Big City doesn’t look kindly on hesitating when the light turns green, forgetting my quarters for the parking meter, or happy-go-lucky small town folk. 

I met a friend at a coffee shop in downtown Lincoln a few weeks ago. I arrived early, and wandered around the shop looking for a seat. I half expected to see people I knew, but no face was familiar to me, so I grabbed a seat by the window.

The bell on the door jangled, and I craned my head around to look at the door, I noticed no one else did. Every time that door creaked open I would instinctively turn towards it, a habit from living in a place where I knew just about everyone walking through the door. Even worse, as the person walked towards me I would smile at them: another small-town reflex.

Here’s the thing: big city people don’t smile at strangers. I know this. I KNOW this. And yet my facial muscles, trained from twenty-five years of small town living, invariably turned upwards.

The Big City people would look at me curiously, glance away instinctively, and then give me a side-eye look to try to figure out if I was a bit crazy.

So, I attempted not to smile at people, but fighting against the urge was difficult. The habitual smile was so ingrained, that when I tried not to smile I ended up giving the stranger a strained grimace.

So there I sat, flipping through a dog-eared magazine, my head jerking up every time the door swung open, giving each passerby a painfully crooked frown.

As I waited, I checked in to all the conversations around me. People talk louder in big cities. Perhaps it’s because they can relax into the anonymity that big city living affords them: they don’t have to worry about their boss, best friend, or worst adversary sitting quietly behind them. They relax into the big spaces that they inhabit, and fill it with their loud tongues.

In the middle of the room, a man loudly argued on his phone over why Vladimir wasn’t right for the role. A long-haired greasy fellow gave me side glances (probably still wondering why I had grimaced at him), and a woman behind me extolled the benefits of cold brew coffee. I watched out the window, my head instinctively shifting  to look at every new occupant of the shop. Grimacing helpfully at anyone who walked by.

Eventually, my friend did show up. We relaxed for an hour or two into our hurried catching up, and then much to my surprise, an old acquaintance walked by and greeted us warmly. Thus proving to me that my stalwart assessment of the entries and exits of the coffee shop were not in vain.

After all, what is a Big City, but a bunch of smaller towns bunched together?

Are you from a big city or a small town? What do you like about where you live?


3 thoughts on “When a Small Town Girl Walks into a Big City Coffee Shop”

  1. Too funny, Bethany! I’ve lived in towns ranging from a few thousand to 150,000. I think my favorite would be about 50,000 with a large city about 100 miles away. Big enough to offer some of that anonymity you mention (but not enough to inspire loud talking!). I really don’t enjoy seeing people I know every single time I leave the house. I think I’d have to wear a sign at times saying, “Just pretend you don’t even see me today.”

  2. I grew up in a small town like you described and I went to grad school in downtown Atlanta. Living in the ATL burbs metropolitan was a huge culture shock. I still need open spaces a lot of times 🙂

    1. Wow, what an adventure to go to school in such a huge city! You are braver than I! I bet you really had a lot of great experiences, though. Yes, open spaces are so important to me, because Nebraska is basically one big open space. Ha ha!

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