“Steal like an artist,” the main at the counter said, looking at me in the mirror as I cradled the coffee cup in my hands.
“Beg pardon?” I asked.
“Steal like an artist,” he repeated. “You were born to run, so by Darwin’s radio, get to running.”
“I’m just sitting here having a cup of coffee,” I said. “I don’t want to run anywhere. And anyway I have a bum knee.”
“There you go with the excuses,” the man said. “How often do you come here and order a cup of coffee, and then sit there moping about whatever it is you’re moping about, until you run out of time to do anything to make it better?”
“Well, I –”
“How many times do you sit there thinking about what you would do if you just had time to do it, if you just were free to make a decision, if you just – just – just – do you know that in the time it took for you to sit there thinking, you could have been up and doing?”
“Is this guy bothering you, Anson?” the waitress with her hair in a bun and light blue uniform with the apron asked.
“No, Alice, we’re good,” I said, “just talking.”
“Thanks, but you’re wrong,” the man said, “or else I’m not getting through to you. You see, I WANT to bother you. I want to get you off your prodigious butt and convince you to start living your life. Steal like an artist. Show your work. Lift rockets to Mars and tell me about the mighty warriors you find there, and the empty cities and the lost civilizations. Sing me a song. Show me a picture. Run through a field with your dog, scratch your cat behind the ears until he purrs. But don’t sit there drinking coffee and wishing you had time to do all those things.”
I took another sip.
“You don’t understand,” I said. “I have dreams. I – had – dreams. But then life happened. I had responsibilities, things that had to get done. There really wasn’t time, not if I wanted to get any sleep.”
“There’s always time,” he said. “Do you see all those books on your shelf at home? They were written by people with just as much time as you have every day. They just used the time more wisely than you.”
“Now wait a minute –”
“There’s no time to wait. Don’t you see? Don’t you see? You could have been doing while you were sitting here thinking.”
“The problem is I have to make a plan – otherwise I’m just bouncing back and forth all day and nothing gets done.”
“And when you do plan, you bounce back and forth all day and nothing gets done anyway – amirite?”
I looked at myself in the mirror behind him and realized he WAS right.
“What were you doing when I started talking to you?” he asked. “I’ll tell you: You were sitting there, doing nothing, you weren’t even drinking your coffee – maybe you were sniffing it to smell the aroma. What were you thinking about doing?”
“Right that minute?” I said. “I think I was thinking about what I would do to make money if I didn’t have my job.”
“Then it’s a good thing I told you to steal like an artist just then,” said the odd man. “Because that’s the key. All of your ideas have been done before. Want to open a hamburger stand, sell burgers and fries and a medium soda? It’s been done. You just have to figure out how YOU would do it, a little bit better, so it’s YOUR hamburger stand – know what I mean? Want to write a story about a Martian invasion or going to Mars? My goodness, has that been done – so many times that there are dozens of books, hundreds of books, about Mars, probably thousands. Now, just because there are thousands of hamburger joints and Mars books doesn’t mean there’s no room in the world for another one. Nope – because to this day no one has opened YOUR hamburger joint. No one has written YOUR Mars book. When you go and do it, it’s the first time that has ever happened, and no one will ever have seen anything exactly like it.”
“So that’s the secret of the universe?” I said. “Go and steal someone else’s ideas and throw them out there as if they were original?”
“Pretty much,” he laughed after a moment. “Because nobody has ever seen how YOU would combine all of those ideas – what does your beef stew taste like? What happened to you on Mars?”
“I didn’t go to Mars.”
“No, you were too busy staring into your coffee cup!” he said, a little exasperated.
“Top you off?” Alice said, appearing out of nowhere with a glass pot in her hand.
“Sure,” I said, sliding my cup over into her reach. “What do you think, Alice? How do you steal other people’s ideas?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Sometimes I call older men ‘honey’ when they look sad and alone – I saw another waitress perk people up by doing that. I put a smiley face on people’s checks with a ‘thank you,’ because someone once said it gets better tips.”
“Does it work?”
“Beats me,” Alice said. “But it makes me feel better.”
“There, you see?” the odd man said. “You don’t ever have to be an artist to steal like an artist. Somebody once said everybody makes art some way or another anyway – I like that idea, so I steal it. Everybody makes something – it’s what we do. Alice makes coffee and small talk and a nice place to visit. I make conversation. The garbage collector makes a cleaner, less cluttered environment for you. The truck driver makes a lot of lives easier by carrying stuff to you, whatever it is that you want or need. That’s their art. And everybody steals ideas from the people who came before and does the stolen things in their own way – it’s not exactly stealing but it is. ‘Nothing new under the sun,’ right? So we take the old things, the familiar things, and we do them our way.”
“So maybe my explorers find something on Mars that’s like what a little boy found digging in his mom’s garden.”
“Now you’re talking – or your Martian invasion fails miserably instead of wiping out New York.”
“The Roswell crash –”
“– or something like it –”
“– the more people investigate, the more it looks like a botched invasion.”
“Works for me. I might read that story. Or if I don’t, somebody else might.”
“Thanks,” I said, standing up and reaching for my wallet to pay for breakfast.
“You’re welcome,” said the odd man. “Now get out there and do something.”
“I think I just did.”
“That’s the spirit.”