We’ve all been there.
And by there I mean in the first instance, at the counter of a coffee store chain, being asked if you want to eat in or take away. Really you want to eat in, but you also don’t want to pay the extra 20% VAT for the privilege of a dinky little silver tray, the risible ghost remnant of service and value for money that staying out of the cold to enjoy your coffee will cost you.
Look around any chain of coffee shops and it is of course full of people who have paid for takeaway, but are trying to enjoy a warm seat they haven’t paid for.
So this morning, having decided to join their ranks, my eyes lit upon a discrete table where I had hoped to sit and write whilst enjoying my coffee and sandwich VAT-free. But as I reached the table, a disgruntled man in dirty clothes shuffled in front of me and hovered defensively over the chair. Yup, a homeless guy was going to fight me for a table.
Instantly my pompous self-serving instinct kicked in. You know that instinct, right? The one that says you were here first, you paid for your seat, you have it just as hard, you pay your taxes and blah blah blah .
But of course in this case I actually hadn’t paid my taxes. I checked myself and my privilege, felt a flush of shame. His need was greater, it was a cold morning, and soon I would be somewhere else warm.
“Sure, go ahead, take the seat”, I conceded.
But before I had even made it to the exit, the coffee shop staff were on the homeless guy to leave. He hadn’t bought anything. I returned and challenged them. “What’s he doing wrong?”
“It’s not allowed”, they replied.
“But the guy’s cold, come on, he’s not doing any harm.”
Again, with the “It’s not allowed”.
Before I could stop myself, before even thinking it through, I offered up my own coffee.
“What if I buy him a coffee? What if he has my coffee? Then its okay for him to stay, right?”
“Yes, then it would be okay for him to stay.”
I gave the homeless guy my coffee and shook his hand. Perplexed at myself I left the coffee shop wondering what exactly had I got out of this. How had I benefitted? A bit less sugar and caffeine in my already overloaded system? A feeling of self-righteous, sanctimonious satisfaction? A bourgeois sense of wellbeing and charity?
And then I thought of the tired and overworked coffee-shop workers. Would this guy now cause them trouble, not leaving for hours as he nursed his cappuccino? Would he maybe start to act in dangerous and unpredictable ways?
Of course his coffee was in a takeaway cup, so he still had no right to be there, they could still justify to themselves that ejecting him was ok.
Were they wrong to try and evict an unfortunate guy for trying to stay out of the cold? Or was I wrong to meddle in what might end up being a harmful situation?
My instinct was that we should all try to help one another and create our own version of a kind society. But was this merely the minimal, virtue-signalling act of a guy with a queasy conscience?
I think something good happened here, but I don’t know. Did I get something out of this? Why should that matter? Or did I just cause more trouble?
What do you think?