You know how sometimes you feel someone’s looking at you even though you’re not looking at them? That happened to me yesterday afternoon as I was writing at a Starbucks outside Minneapolis.
I looked up to find a young man standing there, looking at me. When I looked up, he motioned for me to remove my headphones, so I did.
“Can I use your phone?” he asked. “I locked my keys and my phone in my car and it is still running.”
“Sure,” I said, and handed it to him, wondering if it was a mistake to trust a stranger with my iPhone. Oh well, I thought. It’s better to have my phone taken than not to help someone who’s truly in need.
Then he stood there next to my table, holding the phone in his hand. A few minutes later, he was still standing there, and he hadn’t called anyone yet.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
“Who do you call for cars?” he asked. “Who unlocks cars in America?”
And then I realized that his English was broken, his skin was dark and his facial features were small. I guessed him to be from Somalia or Ethiopia.
“Do you have AAA?” I asked. He shook his head.
“Do you have car insurance?” I asked. He nodded.
He knew he had a State Farm policy, and he knew the name of his agent, so I Googled the number, gave him a pen and a piece of scrap paper, and read the number out to him.
A few moments later, he was still punching numbers into the phone. I looked at the piece of scrap paper and saw that he was missing a number — he didn’t know that all phone numbers in the U.S. have 10 digits.
He called his insurance agent, but he couldn’t understand what she was saying, so I helped him put the phone on “speaker” and I translated back and forth between him and the agent. She was very kind and helpful. She quickly confirmed that he had roadside assistance, and it wouldn’t cost him anything to have someone unlock his vehicle. She dispatched a tow truck, and then texted me the name and ETA of the towing company, since his phone was locked in his car.
He and I both took a deep breath when I hung up the phone, knowing help was on its way.
“Do you want something to drink while you wait?” I asked. “I’ll get you whatever you want.” He nodded, and we walked over to the counter. He looked up at the options. He couldn’t pronounce “latte” or “macchiato” or “grande.”
“What are all these drinks?” he asked. “I’ve never seen this before.”
“You’ve never been to Starbucks?” I asked. He shook his head. His very first time at Starbucks.
I described the drinks to him, and he settled on a grande caramel macchiato, because it was a combination of his favorite flavors — coffee, vanilla and caramel.
While we were waiting at the counter, I asked him his name and where he was from. He said he and his family were refugees from Somalia. They’d fled Somalia and stayed at a refugee camp in Kenya before being resettled in Minneapolis.
As he told me more of his story, I smiled. It sounded exactly like the story of The Invisible Girls (the Somali sisters I wrote about in my first book), except they had been resettled in Oregon instead of Minnesota.
As he was retrieving his drink from the counter, I got a text that the tow truck would arrive in just under an hour. I relayed the info to him, and told him he could relax and enjoy his drink while keeping an eye out for the truck.
I went back to my table to start writing, and he followed me, and pulled up a chair. I realized he wanted to keep talking. So, for the next hour, we talked about Somalia and what he remembered, about what the camp in Kenya was like, about his parents, with whom he had immigrated, who now worked at a meat packing plant.
He asked me questions about the Internet and cell phones and books. He told me he liked to read — especially James Patterson mysteries — but couldn’t afford to buy books. He asked how to find more books to read.
“Do you have a library card?” I asked.
He shook his head, so I explained that as long as he had an I.D. and a piece of mail with his name and address on it, he could get a library card and check out as many books as he wanted for free.
His eyes lit up.
Then he asked me more questions. His car was still running with his keys locked inside. Would his car explode?
“No,” I said. “It might just run low on gas, but it won’t explode.”
“What is gas?” he asked.
I explained how cars work. Then he asked me about what I do for a living, and I told him about the Somali girls I wrote a book about, and the three months I spent in Togo working at a hospital there.
He was excited that I knew people from his home country, and that I had actually been to his home continent.
When he told me he liked to read, I ordered a copy of The Invisible Girls to be sent to his home. He asked if I could send him a copy of my next book, too. “Of course!” I said.
As we sat there chatting in the otherwise-empty Starbucks, the barista overheard our conversation and figured out what was going on. When I went to get a refill on my tea, she asked if I had any food allergies.
“No,” I said, thinking it was a random question to ask someone who’s just getting tea.
“Please pick out a treat from the case,” she said. “It’s on me.”
So together, my friend and I picked a piece of gingerbread cake with vanilla frosting on it. The barista smiled as my friend took a bite and exclaimed, “This is sooooo good!”
While we were still waiting for the tow truck, I asked him if he’d like to take a picture of him with his first-ever Starbucks drink, and he said yes. So we took some selfies and I texted them to him.
When the tow truck arrived, I wrapped up the rest of the cake and put it in his pocket.
“You have my number,” I said. “Keep in touch.”
“Thank you so much!” he exclaimed as he ran out the door.
My heart glowed for the rest of the day — it’s still glowing now. The Divine Appointment, the interruption of what I wanted to do (write) because of what I needed to do (show hospitality to a refugee — who became a new friend), the way that seeing an Invisible person makes me feel seen by the God who sees and knows and loves me, too.
The way that Love can show up at a Starbucks in Minnesota in the dead of winter. The way that Communion sometimes appears as a caramel macchiato and gingerbread with vanilla icing…..and it tastes sooooo good.