Monday, October 31, 2005

PALISADES DISPATCH: Peggy and Melinda Get Testy at Starbucks, But Diplomacy Saves the Day

(Editor's Note: This post is part of a continuing series on the Palisades, that odd sleepy neighborhood upriver from Georgetown.)

IN A LOT OF WAYS, the Starbucks on MacArthur Boulevard in the Palisades (photo here from says about how we relate to one another in this city. Slightly claustrophobic, the coffee outpost in the quiet neighborhood is a cramped narrow space in a low-rise office strip that sends clear architectural signals to its patrons of its get-in, get-out, get-to-work as-soon-as-possible mentality. It’s no place to chat with friends or read the newspaper in peace. While this Starbucks’ quick-handed baristas may be overly cheery, its morning customers, slightly glum, are typically in a hurry to get their coffee and run. And on a Wednesday morning this past July, it served as a perfect microcosm for Washington's oft-criticized passive-aggressive nature. Stir in a parking dispute, and you're asking for a potential blow-up.

AROUND 8:45 A.M., I was reading a newspaper at the one table that actually gets daylight. Suddenly a woman (let’s call her Melinda for this exercise), coffee in hand, stood at the door, gazing into the crowd.

"Who has a black car?" Melinda called out.

Another woman, dressed in a striking green-, brown- and yellow-striped suitpant getup (let’s call her Peggy), turned around and looked over toward the window where I was sitting. She took one step away from the barista station and turned in Melinda’s direction.

"Excuse me, black car?" Melinda called out in a more curt fashion.

"It's actually dark blue," Peggy said, knowing full well what was going on.

"Well, I can't get into my car," she returned.

Indeed, while Melinda’s car was not blocked in, the tight parking spot prevented her from opening her driver’s side door. It was an awfully tight squeeze. Bad Peggy.

"Well ..." Peggy hesitated. "There weren’t any spots left. ... I need to get my coffee. It’s just a plain coffee."

I thought out of courtesy, Peggy should momentarily ditch the coffee, go out and move the car. But since it was just a plain coffee she was waiting for, I thought Melinda could be just slightly accommodating, despite Peggy being totally at fault. The coffee came in about 10 seconds and I thought that would be the end of it.

But Peggy decided to delay matters by going over to the coffee garnish station to sprinkle some cinnamon to spice up her beverage. Melinda, standing at the door foot tapping, was not pleased. The stress levels in her slightly parched mid-century face were clearly building. After all, in a situation where you’ve blocked someone in, it seems rude to delay the situation further by going for the cinnamon — not essential for your coffee like milk or sugar might be. Once Peggy’s coffee was secured, the two left to go out and resolve the parking matter.

PISSED-OFF MELINDA WAS STANDING THERE, hand on her hip in a rather authoritative posture. Peggy nonchalantly moved into her car, a dark blue Acura. Under closer examination, Peggy actually claimed a non-parking space, a tight white-striped buffer zone that doubled as egress space to be used if someone inside were to yell “Fire” and the baristas and customers had to evacuate suddenly. By parking in no man’s land, Peggy was totally in the wrong, and she took her royal time exiting the space. This, and from what I could tell Peggy’s lack of an apology, increasingly agitated Melinda whose foot began to tap and attempts to give hand motions as to how to leave the space quicker turned into broader gesticulations that expressed her displeasure.

Since I could not hear any of the conversation outside, I had to interpret the duo’s body language, which can sometimes speak louder than words. And in Washington, no matter how mad you might get, interpersonal diplomacy usually reigns supreme. In any other compacted city, this could have turned into road rage or a heated shouting match. In a very Washingtonian fashion, Melinda kept her cool but expressed her displeasure in silent non-aggressive ways. Protocol, most often, governs our urges to be confrontational.

Sure enough, as soon as the two left the premises, the law of logistics kicked in. Three parking spaces immediately opened up.


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