The Etiquette of Spills and Fuck Ups, for Grown Ups


I spilled my coffee just behind the word “smoothie” on the front window.

Last week I spilled a large cup of coffee at my local coffee shop.

The place is called Urban Grounds. It’s in Avondale Georgia, just outside of Atlanta. What you’ll find if you go, are a handful of long couches and a few big tables that will easily fit four noisy heating and air conditioning contractors or high end landscape designers. (They seem to love the place.)

There are also smaller tables near the windows that look out on Avondale Avenue. That’s where I sit, providing some other outcast type hasn’t gotten there first. If you’re alone and anti-social, those two tables are Boardwalk and Park Place.

The day I spilled my coffee I had my iPad and my Samsung Galaxy Mega Phablet. I had about an hour to kill, and I had given myself the challenge of creating a website for my wife. There would be SE’s Optomized and SM’s Marketed. It was going to be a thing of beauty.

Then I knocked over my coffee.

It was full. I had only barely sipped it. But as I picked up my iPad, its dented aluminum edge caught on the plastic lip of the cup. It tilted in slow motion as I shouted, “Shiiiiiittttttt….”

There were small, presumably, innocent children there, sipping on hot chocolate and sounding out words. In the back was a table full of nuns, planning a clothing drive for destitute puppies. And there I was shouting out one of the primary curse words as my coffee tilted further and further out of reach.

This wasn’t one of those near misses, when you catch it just before the explosion. I could have caught the coffee but I would have had to throw my iPad to the linoleum floor. That wasn’t going to happen. My iPad has been through enough.  

Afterwards, my table looked as if a murder had taken place, and the victim had coffee coursing through his or her veins. It was everywhere.

I didn’t know if I should apologize for the coffee or for the curse word. I pride myself on being a quiet customer. Like a $2 ninja, I like to get in, do my work and get out. I say hi, but I don’t tend to get deep. Especially not at Urban Grounds.

You know how most baristas are kind of hipster-strange or emo? Well, Urban Grounds is old school. They have one dude who does folk music and two thin quiet blond girls, but the two women that I see the most are hearty and stern. Think of elementary school vice principals on their off days. They are both pleasent and welcoming, but I don’t think they suffer fools easily.

I can’t count how many times I said I was sorry. I said sorry as one lady came to my table with a mop. It wasn’t a cool apology, but one of those “sorry’s” that you say when sorry doesn’t even begin to explain how sorry you actually are. In that way, the word sorry is one of the worst words in the english language. It’s been hijacked by insencere people who say it when they really mean, “Stop being mad at me.” Remorse is old school, like dungarees and TV knobs.

As a result, I was desperate to express just how sorry I really was. So I said, “Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,” and then I walked to the counter where the other barista would refill my cup, leaving a sorry trail of “sorry”s behind me.

It went past that point of diminishing returns. It stopped being about her and her mop and the minutes that she would never get back again, because she had to clean up behind my sorry, clumsy ass. It became about me and my awkward embarassment. I was looking for them to tell me something that might make me feel better – less clumsy and more human – which is way beyond their job discription. They are neither my mama nor my therapist.

I’m still not exactly sure how to handle those things. I’m pretty sure I did it wrong, though. Maybe there is some middle ground between falling to my knees and pleading for forgiveness and shouting, “Sucks to be you!” while I walk out the door.  In a perfect world, I would have slipped a $20 tip into their jar and given them both coupons to Outback Steakhouse for their troubles. This isn’t that world. All I could afford to give were condolescenses. Does Hallmark make a card for that?

The lady with the mop already had to deal with my mess. I think she grew tired of trying to deal with my emotion too. She shrugged and said, “It is what it is…” which is exactly what it was. It wasn’t exactly a zen moment, but it is as close as one is likely to get with a mop in her hand.

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