Usual Suspects [ 2006-01-27, 6:31 p.m. ]

Most mornings I order the exact same thing from the Starbucks in our lobby, and most mornings I order from the same barista, and most mornings when I walk in to the coffee shop he sees me and says, The usual? and rings me up before I even get to the register. My usual is a venti latte, which costs me $4.28 a day, and yes, I have done the math and am aware that means I'm spending about $30 on coffee a week (including my weekend cappuccinos).

As much as I like the idea of having a Usual and having someone who remembers me and my Usual, it sometimes makes me uncomfortable. This morning, for example, I was hungry and wanted a raspberry scone. But, what sort of piggy piggy pig orders a venti latte AND a raspberry scone; what sort of cavalier big spender pays over $6 for breakfast? I walked into the building prepared to order my OLD Usual, from the time before anyone knew me and my order -- grande skim misto and a raspberry scone. But, I walked into Starbucks and the usual guy saw me and said, The usual? and started tap tap tapping at the register and the barista lady behind him grabbed the venti cup before I had a chance to say, No, actually today I'd like a grande skim...

The barista making the drinks called out, So she's NOT getting the latte? and the guy at the register called back, NO LATTE TODAY and I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying, SURE I'LL TAKE IT MY FAULT FOR CHANGING MY ORDER PLEASE DON'T ROLL YOUR EYES AT ME WHEN I LEAVE.

It's a great feeling when you have a Usual (People recognize me! I am memorable!), but there is pressure, too (How do I tell him I don't want that latte after he went through the trouble of REMEMBERING?). Having a Usual means rarely being able to try something unusual. Before he went back to school, my husband worked in an office on 60th and Madison and would take the 4/5 to 59th Street every morning and walk west on 60th towards his office, stopping at a deli called Sunberries for his Usual -- coffee black and a small yogurt and granola parfait. I assumed he always went there, and was surprised when he made a reference one day to getting his coffee from a street vendor. What happened to Sunberries, I asked him. It was those Sunberries ladies...he told me. "As soon as I walk in they all say HELLO and make my coffee and hand me the yogurt parfait but the thing is, the yogurt is kind of gross and I don't want it, but those ladies already HANDED it to me..."

So you're afraid of the Sunberries ladies? I asked.

Yes, he said. Yes I am. I don't want to insult them, so I've started walking on 59th instead of 60th, and I get coffee from the vendor near the NYSC.

How is the street coffee, I asked Kent.

Not as good as Sunberries, he said with a shrug. But the ladies...

My husband has a pathological aversion to any sort of emotional discomfort in others, so as far as I'm concerned, he deserves his bad street coffee for being afraid of the Sunberries ladies, but even so, I can relate. This morning I apologized for ordering coffee the way I wanted it, coffee I was paying for...

We went out for sushi last Friday night and when it came time to order, the waitress looked at me and said, I know! Sashimi plate! Edamame to start! Hee hee hee!

I suggested to Kent that perhaps we were in a rut. He shook his head and said he disagreed, mouth full of the same volcano roll he always orders. EZZ CUUPHTNG.

He swallowed and cleared his throat, No, we're not in a rut. I said IT'S COMFORTING.

It is comforting, which I suppose is the root of most habits. I tend to dive head first into new habits, trends and fads, then suddenly, inexplicably, lose interest. Ask the $150 class-card I purchased at the Bikram yoga studio several years ago, and never used. Or the four gyms I have joined and quit, the restaurant on 11th street I frequented to the point I was greeted by name, and then suddenly stopped visiting, the Pilates DVD I bought and then re-sold - unopened - at a stoop sale, or the wheat bagel with egg whites I ordered from the deli on 16th Street and 6th Avenue every single morning for two years. Ask the cranberry muffin which took its place, and the Runner's World magazines stacked somewhere, hiding in shame.

I like my routines. But, I also like being able to switch mid-stream and adopt a brand new routine and leave the old routine standing on the porch, waving listlessly and wondering, Was it me?

As a Gemini I tend to get restless easily but as a whiny baby-ass, I hate rocking the boat. I sit in the same spot at pretty much any meeting I attend and my husband knows he can go out for bagels on a weekend morning without stopping to ask me what I want, because the answer is always egg whites and cheese on sesame.

My husband can and will watch the same movies over and over and over and OVER again. And then he'll watch them two more times. He will watch crappy, awful movies on a nightly basis during their HBO runs maybe only a half hour here, and the ending on another night, but he loves watching the same thing over and over again. He can quote entire movies, verbatim. (Even complex, taut dramas like Groundhog Day and Ghostbusters.) I don't have children of my own but know enough about kids to realize that they do the same thing, and it's because they are looking for a sense of security and comfort. Kids like watching Dumbo over and over again and hearing the same storybooks over and over again because they know what's going to happen and it soothes them. A little kid has a hard time figuring out what anything means and so he'll watch Blue's Clues, which repeats the same episode all week long, and find comfort in knowing the answers and recognizing the characters and dialogue. Familiarity is soothing. My husband, he is not so unlike a three-year old. Familiarity is comforting to him too, and so he'll watch Anchorman every damn night before going to bed. I am astute enough to recognize the reason, however I am not kind enough to avoid complaining or making fun of him or shrieking NO I WANT TO WATCH MY BRIGHT AND SHINY SHOWS (i.e., whatever sitcoms the WB is re-running, because I need comforting too).

I find a great deal of comfort in knowing that every Saturday morning I can have the same cinnamon pastry from the little red deli around the corner, and that every Saturday it will taste the same. I like the sashimi plate and I like that more Fridays than not, Kent and I go out for sushi and have the same thing in the same place and can relax in the same way. I like knowing that my New Yorker magazine will come on a Tuesday, and that on Sunday nights we will most likely share a bottle of wine and snack on cheese and olives and bread instead of cooking a proper meal. I like my latte in the mornings, which I know is always going to cost $4.28 and take me about 20 minutes to finish, while I catch up on emails and brows nytimes.com and TWoP.

So where is the line between a routine and a rut? When does a pattern cross from being comforting to being stagnating? Is my daily latte just the first in a series of escalating habits which are keeping me from moving forward? I come home from work, walk the dog, change into sweats pants and tidy up the apartment, check email, make dinner, watch television, clean the kitchen, and go to bed. Almost every night. Should I be leaving my mess, avoiding the computer and taking a knitting class instead? Sleeping in slinky nightgowns instead of yoga pants and t-shirts? Ordering Indian food?

Perhaps I will raise the question with my husband tonight. Over sashimi and white wine, at table #16.

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