Some years ago a friend nine years my senior lamented that when women turn 50 they become invisible.
Not you, I said, thinking of her superfit athleisurewear-clad body, ageless face, and huge social media presence. Oh yes, she said.
She was, I’ve since learned, correct, though age hasn’t marked a big change for me; having never been a pretty girl, I’m accustomed to feeling unseen. Also, I tend not to notice things – like the fact that people don’t notice me. While flying over the Himalayas, I managed to miss Mt. Everest. Whenever friends say that they saw me running, I am shocked since I didn’t spot them.
Like a toddler who believes covering his head confers invisibility, this obtuseness kind of works for me.
Each morning, six days a week, I take my dog Helen for a walk, brush my teeth though not always my hair, put on holey jeans or the clothes I’ll wear to go horseback riding later in the day, and drive to my office.
It’s not really an office. It’s a coffee shop/bar/restaurant on the South Hill that has been around so long everyone who has lived here for more than 15 minutes has been there. The real Spokanites know the family that owns it and the history of the place, and many people know Kevin, the general manager, and Kirk, the barista.
They open at 8 a.m. and I’m at my table shortly thereafter. On rare occasions when I’ve had too good a time the night before or am working on a migraine, I’ll ask Kirk to add this much caffeine to my usual decaf, using my thumb and forefinger to indicate the amount. When I arrive late and someone who doesn’t know any better is sitting at my table, I’ll grumble to Kevin and Kirk. They always say: “Minutes ago.”
When I don’t show up for a few days, Kirk will ask where I’ve been. He’ll assume, correctly, I’d gone out of town. This kind of accountability is a gift. In the past 10 years I’ve written three books at my table.
I warm my hands on my first cup, open my computer, and get to work.
Were I to wonder what someone might see when they look over – well, I try not to think about that. It’s possible that when I’m really in a groove, I move my lips as I type. Like a crazy person. When I was working on my first novel, I allowed my hair to hang in my face to hide the tears I shed for my characters. Very occasionally I crack myself up. If I’m not laughing, I suspect I’m grinning like an idiot.
Because I share my home only with a 50-pound Mensa-smart mutt, I like being around other humans when I’m working, and because I’m a neurotic creative of habit, I crave routine: ’80s music in the background; not having to make my own coffee; getting out of my pajamas, even if just barely.
And there’s a big dividend. I’ve come to know some of the other regulars. We have water cooler talk while waiting for refills. There are bar-sitters like engineer/cyclist Travis, Mary with the cool shoes, tall Wi-Fi fixing Mark, badass athlete Jake, Tara – who smooches with Kevin – and David, when he’s not busy running his own restaurant. There’s Kate, at her table behind piles of big red law books, and my colleague Chris writing or reading poetry at his post by the window. And the Ladies. I love the Ladies, a vital quartet in autumn. One of them once brought to my table a small glass bowl filled with water on which floated an exquisite flower. She said, “I just wanted to brighten your day.”
There are book groups and Bible studies and suits who come to do business. I meet with my thesis advisees, colleagues, and far too many first dates. Those who come to sit across from me have cried (mostly thesis advisees), confided, and bored me to tears (most of the dates). My friends know not to phone before 11 a.m., and also where to find me if they need something.
Head down, fingers flailing over the keyboard, I don’t always recognize the other regulars. People I’d swear I’ve never seen before have approached me in the grocery store to say how they like that I’m always at the same spot. When they ask what I do, I tell them I’m not only shopping online for another pair of cowboy boots or checking on my Facebook friends. I’m writing.
Writing is hard and lonely work. Making your way in the world today, it’s a boon to have a place where everyone knows your name, or recognizes your face. Or at least, forgives you unbrushed hair, grubby clothes, and public muttering.
Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. She is the author of one novel and four books of nonfiction, the most recent of which is “Misunderstood: Why the Humble Rat May Be Your Best Pet Ever.” Her column, “Everything is Copy,” will appear monthly in the Monday Today section.