Practical people, who are proud of their practicality, look askance at such talk and think such palaver essentially a waste of good time that could be put to good use. Woody, a close and dear friend, chose as his company motto: Be a doer, not a talker. I did not have the heart to tell him that talking is doing. It is putting our time to very good use. In fact I believe not talking is profoundly wasteful of good time.
Short of making love, I know of no better way to know a person than to talk. I suppose two people can look into each other’s eyes and share heart-felt messages – the way that George Bush peered into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and saw his soul – but usually we talk, and talk a lot, to know each other. True we often talk trivial things, what went wrong in a game or in a car, but at times we connect meaningfully and get a true glimpse of the other person. Then the miracle of a genuine relationship begins.
The other aspect is less personal, but no less substantive. However superficially we talk, whether of politics or of office politics, however similar our interests or orientation, we always leave with the other a trace of our different point of view. That difference is like leaven: it has the potential to change the other’s view, a little or a lot. It is for many people the key recurrent source of daily exposure to a new idea. Maybe sometimes we reject the others’ views cavalierly, without giving them further examination. Occasionally, however, the new idea stays, germinates and becomes the basis of a new way of thinking.
My first initiation to coffee houses was in India, to a spacious, bright Coffee Board café conveniently located close to both my home and the university on College Street in Kolkata. It seemed forever buzzing with professors and students, journalists and scholars, authors and artists, vagrants and vagabonds. The visitors seemed to have one feature in common: they all wanted to be heard. If there was a quiet person among them, I didn’t meet him. Everybody talked, in unison and at cross purposes, sometimes cogently and always eagerly, frequently at higher and higher decibels when the discussion got heated.
That affection prompted me to explore coffee houses in the many countries my work took me. From embassies and project offices I strayed into cafés in Bogota to Berlin, Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur, Paris to Port au Prince, Manila to Mexico City. Sitting alone with an espresso, I watched the cavalcade of men and women sipping latte, smoking cigarettes, reading newspapers and, most of all, talking and laughing and sharing. They differed in look and style, but the essential business of exchanging messages and meanings remained unchanged. People need to talk and connect.
The coffee was indifferent, but I felt at home.