Today in the coffee shop the woman ahead of me gestured with her hands and knocked over the large latte that had just been placed in front of her.

Today in the coffee shop the woman ahead of me gestured with her hands and knocked over the large latte that had just been placed in front of her.

The cup either had no lid or the lid jumped to safety. At any rate, three dollars' worth of milk and espresso instantly spread over the counter and poured off the edge like an illustration of global warming in the Arctic circle.

It was the far edge, I was glad to note; otherwise, the young woman and I would have already leaped back into the refrigerated case of Red Bull and water.

"Oh! I'm sorry!" the young woman said. She said it very nicely and very sincerely. I have no complaint with the way she said it. I have no complaint with her at all, in fact. She was regretful and she said so. I've witnessed similar calamities, during which the instigators have expressed zero remorse, so hearing her apologize was pleasant. I wanted to take notes.

"Said 'I'm sorry'" but did not offer to come behind the counter and mop the floor herself," I'd have written.

In contrast, had I knocked over the coffee, I'd have behaved as if I'd accidentally set the place on fire. I'd have rushed behind the counter, wringing my hands and demanding a mop. I'd have apologized effusively. I'd have deplored, repined, gibbered incoherently and smote my forehead.

I'd have offered to pay for two coffees: the one that spilled and its replacement. I'd have called myself names (nitwit, dumbbell, stupid old woopid). I'd have refused to accept any reassurance that was offered, and I'd have rent my garment while bewailing my folly. Or at least I'd have pretended to rend my garment. Frankly, it would sort of depend on what garment I happened to be wearing that day.

My point is, I don't handle this kind of thing very well. As annoying as it is when a person fails to apologize after knocking over the supermarket soup can pyramid or pulling the thread that unravels the entire Girl Scout quilt project, it's far worse when someone falls apart over a moment of unintentional clumsiness.

How did this young woman learn to be so relaxed about apologizing? How did she know that saying "Oh! I'm sorry!" would be sweetly sufficient, and that she wouldn't come across like the woman I knew who left her car in gear when she pulled into the car wash? -- that is, oblivious to the outrage of the carwash owner, who ran out of his office waving his arms like a cartoon character as she drove away? Of course, in the case of the spilled coffee, no big "CLOSED FOR REPAIRS" sign will appear on the espresso machine as it did on the car wash.

Nevertheless, that cup did go flying. For several silent moments, the three of us contemplated the spreading taupe lake. The owner of the flailing hand was no doubt aghast. The worker who had just made the coffee probably was thinking practical thoughts involving bar mops and squeegees.

And I, I was caught between surprise and relief that I'd had nothing to do with this particular mess. Instead, it had been brought about by someone far better able than I to shoulder the responsibility. I had only to be quiet and pay attention.

I listened and learned.