“I th – th – think maybe this is a b – b – bad idea . . .”
It’s two in the afternoon on a Saturday. Dusty, yellow light filters through large windows. It’s the time of year in the Flathead when you can’t go hiking or skiing and a winter’s worth of accumulated gravel is still on the road. I’m sitting across from a class-mate and we are performing a science experiment. Cups of coffee is the dependent variable. Heart rate is the independent variable. I’m fifteen. This all makes perfect sense.
Resting before us on the laminate table top are three pots of coffee. Lids have been removed to more quickly cool their contents. We have a watch and a notepad. When the coffee is sufficiently cooled, I start drinking a cup every two minutes. My partner takes my pulse. Numbers are recorded. Many trips to the bathroom are made.
The waitress doesn’t even blink. Two people want three pots of coffee? Okay. It’s probably not the strangest thing she’ll see this day. Depending on when she came on shift, and how long she’ll be there, she will have seen young people, still up from the night before, hazily watching creamer swirl into their coffee. Later, she’ll see families in for a late brunch with babies screaming and throwing things. She’ll see transient guys spending a few cents on bottomless cups of coffee just to get in from out of the cold. That evening, she might have to find space for twenty-three members of the cast of the local high-school play. She’ll serve order after order after order of deep-fried mozzarella cheese sticks.
We are of course, at Finnegan’s. Or, as a dear friend once suggested, Snaggenif which is just ever so much more fun to say.
It was just a diner, but it also was much more than a diner. It was the epicenter of every teenager’s world in the 1990’s. At least, every teenager I knew. Not to romanticize, but it was just true, we didn’t have cell-phones. If you wanted to know what was going on, it was a good bet you could find out at Finnegan’s.
Nights sometimes stretched out indefinitely there, like some kind of strange David Lynch film. On some weekend evenings, you could show up at nine and maybe not leave until, well, until your friends had to go home. Those of us with generous, or even no curfews, sometimes stayed until the bars closed. As a youngish teenager, it wasn’t generally a good idea to be hanging around Finnegans when the bars let out at two AM. Drunk adults took over then.
But at 10:30 on a Friday night? The place would be lousy with kids just barely old enough to drive. We didn’t really have anywhere else to go, especially during the cold of the school year. And we apparently had vast stretches of time to blow, drinking coffee and just hanging out.
There’s some pretty good science around the perception of time, and how our minds remember experiences, but one observation is that humans tend to remember things as going by quickly when our experiences didn’t include a great many novel events – that is, if nothing much happened, our memories tend to catalog those experiences as flying by. The converse is true. If a remembered event contained a great deal of novel experiences, our memories record those times as stretching on and on.
This, then, is the paradox of my Finnegan’s memories. My memories of these nights is that they were long, sprawling, nearly endless occasions. However, people came, people went, but not much happened other than the banal delivery of new pots of coffee or baskets of cheese sticks. Why then are my memories of this time so expansive? We literally sat in diner booths for hours doing nothing that my adult self would register as noteworthy.
I’ve been thinking about this lately as another change has happened in my life. In the last year it has become increasingly the case that I am with middle-schoolers. Among other things like the pungency, the mess, the braggadocio, the microwave burritos, is a kind of verbosity I had sort of forgotten about. These kids talk non-stop. There is never not anything to talk about.
Which isn’t a complaint. I do find the verbiage exhausting at times, but I also think what they find interesting to be absolutely fascinating. I’m honored, if not grossed out, when they include me in their expository extravagance. There are so many facets to what they go on about, but most of it is about who did what at school.
That’s clearly the answer to the Finnegan’s paradox – it might look to an outside observer (my present-day self) like nothing was happening, but like my kids, we were probably talking – communicating – non-stop: lingering for hours under yellow fluorescent lights, breathing far too much second hand smoke, drinking way more coffee than is good for any one person, creating, breaking, recreating, rebreaking, re-recreating connections.
I don’t remember what a pot of coffee and an order of mozzarella cheese sticks went for back then, but whatever it was, it was well worth the price.