Passive Privilege

This man. This very special man has come into this coffee shop expecting to work. And to work, he needs an outlet for his laptop. There simply isn’t one and he is intent upon letting all of us know that he cannot get to his critical work. Not in the loud, shouty way that would be the hallmark of an asshole. His are the subtle entitled signs of privilege.
He looks around, using his entire body in a sweeping motion to case the room. He expels a sigh audible over Tori Amos’ latest song and fifteen other conversations. He picks up a stack of Very Important Files, shuffles them around with a flourish, then slams them back down. He can’t do ANYTHING without an outlet, and yet he has not planned for that possibility.
He’s spotted me, off at a corner table. Me and my outlet. I know where they all are, and I choose a seat near one. I get here early. I charge my devices fully before leaving home in the event they are all taken. I bring a notebook, should my charges run out. I flex with the world, instead of trying to bend the entire planet to my needs.
This man is used to the world moving for him. He wants the outlet that I am using and he is staring in my direction. One minute. Two minutes. I stare back, emotionless. No invitation to sit at my table, no acknowledgement of his performance. He flicks his laptop shut and the message is clear. “I can’t work because of you.”
Me, who got here early, scoped the right table, and worked on battery until the woman behind me finished with the power. He stares at a couple chatting over coffee. A man in his twenties and a greying woman. Not mother/son — because she sits a few seats away from him, not right across. Teacher/student? He stares until they notice and become uncomfortable, which didn’t take much, because they were already halfway there on their own.
“Do you have an outlet there?” he asks, across the room, so that everyone must share in the conversation. Their discussion is interrupted by a moment of searching the wall, the floor, under the table. They shrug, but leave anyway, their moment gone.
He moves to their table, bringing stacks of files in sets of five, then his bulging briefcase, then his laptop. He, too, searches under the table, up the wall, on the floor. There is no outlet here. He makes a phone call, and I learn his name is Michael and that he’ll try Jim back in an hour. We all learn it.
Another trio finish their drinks and leave, and Michael’s next performance is to search their empty table for a power supply. On the way back, he stops at a runner’s table and says, “Not a lot of outlets here!” His problems are all of our problems. The runner pulls out an earbud. “What?” And Michael repeats his outraged statement. The runner nods and goes back to his paper. A real paper one.
Michael sits back down and frets. This is his fretting: hands clasped tight in a peak over the laptop, then down on the keyboard, he looks up, scans the tables, looks back down, hand over his mouth, now pinching his cheek, now rubbing them together, head bobbing left and right as if debating something. Every moment or so, he looks up to see who is watching him in distress. The world has not bent to him and he is lost. It feels disorienting not to get what he needs at the instant he needs it. To watch others have what he wants and be unable to procure it.
Michael is becoming frantic. He piles the folders on his keyboard, clears his throat, then re-piles them back on the table. He opens the top folder, taps the pages on the table to straighten them, then puts them back in. He makes another call for all of us to hear. He stands up, walks by each of the tables, looking again for the outlets. Then back again, looking backwards this time. I have to pee, but I truly believe that if I leave, I’ll come back to Michael using my outlet. After all, he wants it, so doesn’t that make it his?
I have to go. Like go go. I take the lid off my coffee and put it on the table in front of me. Then spread out my three napkins to take up as much table real estate as possible. I’m trying to make myself look bigger, more imposing, so that he does not approach. Etiquette here, in a suburban coffee shop, is to leave your laptop on the table while you pop into the restroom. Not the small things, like phones and wallets, but laptops can stay open while you relieve yourself.
He suddenly stands, grabbing his laptop and stuffing it into the stretching leather of the case. He sprints past me, sighing again as the show comes to an end. He drops the case onto a vacated table, looking underneath triumphantly. Michael has found his outlet. All is right with the world.

And now I can pee.

Author: TJ Berry

TJ Berry has been a political blogger, bakery owner, and spent a disastrous two weeks working in a razor blade factory. She now writes science fiction, fantasy, and horror from Seattle with considerably fewer on-the-job injuries. She’s on Twitter @TJaneBerry.

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