As the pandemic is brought under control by a year of mitigations and an aggressive rollout of vaccines, Minnesota and much of the world is beginning to look and feel more normal, and thoughts turn to the resumption of those normal activities we took for granted pre-pandemic.
Much has been written about the intense, deeply engaging things we sacrificed — seeing loved ones, employment for some, in-person school for our students — and the "new normal" can't come soon enough for many of us to end the long drought of these affirming activities.
There's another category of activities that we take for granted, and that maybe haven't been front and center this past year, but I think they play an important part in how we resume our post-pandemic life: all those incidental interactions along the way that individually may be pretty small but add up to become part of the mosaic of our life experiences.
For me, one of these would be my morning coffee at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on days with an early flight. Traveling for work, sometimes weekly, I would often find myself looking for my morning caffeine in line at the Caribou by the food court. There, a barista named Gwen would be working virtually every morning. Gwen was animated, to put it mildly. She always greeted customers with high energy and a smile and kind word and would just help wake you up.
She would recognize her "regulars" and even call us out by name on arrival. (Think about the effort to remember customers' names who come through an airport terminal once a week or so!) I'd walk up, and she'd say "Mr. Mike, how we doing today?" and lean across the counter to give me (and other regulars) hugs. That simple affirmation that we were in this together meant more than I realized on those early, often chilly mornings.
I found myself trying to game my place in line so I would end up at her register. Later, when Gwen moved from the food court to the new, larger Caribou at the start of the G Concourse, I changed my routine to ensure I always started there no matter what gate I was leaving from. Even in the bigger, busier store, Gwen was there with the same smile, uplifting words and name recognition.
Once my daughter was flying alone back to school, and I told her to stop there and get her coffee and say hi to Gwen for me. That earned her a hug, too, from our favorite barista.
I've been thinking about Gwen and all the Gwens in our lives over the past few weeks as we drop mask mandates and start opening up our businesses. Are they all healthy? Did they stay employed during the pandemic? Have the most important things in their lives come back? Selfishly, I wonder if they'll be back in their spots where we would meet up when life gets back to that normal pace again.
So to Gwen, the barista at MSP Airport Caribou Coffee, G Concourse, and to all the Gwens out there, I hope you are well and that you weathered the storm. You have been missed. I also hope our paths cross again, and I thank you for what you gave us before we even realized what it meant.
Mike Hess lives in Minneapolis. On Twitter: @mpls_mikeh.