Head in the clouds or feet on the ground?

Opinion: Columns

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By Tom Holmes

Earlier this morning Michael Rosenthal saw a light on next door and decided to dial his neighbor's phone number. "Hey, Walt, you want to check out Bernie Rolvaag's new coffee shop?"

"Oh, um, hi Michael. You mean right now?" It was 6:30 a.m. and Pastor Walter Mitty had just gotten out of bed, so it took a few seconds for his friend's early morning proposal to sink in.

"Yeah, Walt. It sounds like you need a couple shots of espresso to wake up, and I'm anxious to see what Bernie's new expansion looks like."

"I could use a good cup of coffee," Mitty admitted, yawning. "I'll meet you outside your house in 10 minutes."

When the two friends arrived at the bookstore/coffee shop, they noticed that Bernie had added a line after History/Herstory on the sign outside his business — "Stimulating Books and Coffee."

"Cute," said Michael as he opened the front door.

"I like the smell of coffee a latte better than the smell of books," Mitty said with a grin.

Michael groaned.

"Good morning, Pastor. Morning, Michael," said Troy Williams, as he poured steamed milk into the cappuccino he was making for the customer in line ahead of them.

Surprised, Mitty said, "But Troy, I thought you worked downtown."

The woman ahead of them took the cappuccino in a to-go cup, paid for it and hurried out the door.  

"She doesn't want to miss the train," the barista explained. After wiping off the steam wand with a wet cloth, he said, "Yeah. I still do, but I put in a couple hours here three days a week before hopping on the train to go to work. Student loans. It's all about paying back those student loans."

"So, do you think the loans are worth what you're going through now?" asked Michael.

"I think so," Troy answered. "I read online that those with a college degree will, over a lifetime, average $300,000 more than those who don't."

"I feel for you," said Michael as he paid for his coffee. "When I graduated from college back in the dark ages, I had zero debt."

"These are different times, for sure," Troy replied. "I don't like it, but it's the law of the jungle — adapt to a changing environment or die."

Still seeing no incoming customers and desperate for caffeine, Mitty asked, "How did your mother do in the election yesterday?"

"She lost," he answered with a sigh, "and she's taking it pretty hard — can't understand how people in this town who have known her for decades would vote for a political novice who's lived here for just five years instead of her with all her experience."

"I'm sorry," was all Pastor Mitty could muster.

Michael waved for his neighbor to join him at the table in the corner where he had already started a conversation with Ehud Ahmadi, who was holding a half-empty cup of espresso.  

"As-salamu alaykum," Ehud said as Mitty pulled his chair up to the table and took his first sip of coffee. He searched his memory for the proper response to the man he had come to know fairly well since Ehud moved to Poplar Park from Libya 15 years ago.

It finally came to him and shaking hands he responded, "Wa 'alaykumu s-salam."

Just then Bernie Rolvaag walked in the door, picked up a coffee and asked if he could join the three at their table.

"I like what you've done here," said Michael, "adding a coffee bar to the bookstore."

"Thanks," Bernie replied. "I looked at it this way. Times are changing. As you all know, I love books. When I'm reading about John McCain's legacy, I want to be holding a book in my hand. But these younger folks are turning to their phones for quick, short bites of information instead of spending money on a book."

The four men went silent. They were all born at a time when attendants pumped your gas at the Texaco station and people only bought guns to go hunting with.  

Bernie said, "I realized I wanted to hang on to the books I love but I also had to change with the times. I realized that iPads can't brew you a good cup of coffee. Not yet anyway. So I figured I already had a nice ambience in the bookstore and adding coffee to the mix might attract some new customers."

"I'm afraid that's what Harriet Williams was unable to do," said Mitty.

"The issue is deep," said Ehud. "It's a big deal for us Muslims who moved to this country from more traditional societies. We came here to escape violence and poverty, but we thought we could bring some of the traditions we love along with us."

"A question of keeping the baby while throwing out the bath water?" asked Michael.

"Exactly. But Michael, you understand this. When you are a religious minority, you worry about your kids being so fascinated with what is new that they are no longer interested in the traditions we love."

At that point Bernie started laughing.

"What's so funny?" Ehud asked with some irritation.

"I'm sorry," Bernie replied, "but the discouraging irony in all of this is that right where we are now sitting, I have an inventory of 500 books all of which confirm the conviction that those who don't know history are bound to repeat it."

On the way home, Michael asked, "Walt, did you vote for Harriet Williams yesterday?"

"No I didn't," Mitty replied. "And now I wish I could change my ballot. If I could do it over, I'd cast half my votes for some of the young, idealistic candidates and half for those who have been around the block a few times. I'm thinking it would be a good thing to keep a tension between those who have their heads in the clouds and the ones who have their feet on the ground."

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