3: The Daily Grind
The scream is loud and piercing.
I am in the storeroom in the back and immediately run to the front of the coffee shop, where San Francisco Financial District’s finest are packed around tables steamy cups in hand. Passing the big freezer, I rip open the door and grab a blue ice block fearing burning coffee is hideously scarring someone’s unblemished skin. With great concern for my customers and an inevitable impending lawsuit, I think, Not on my bloody shift!
“Fuck man! You’ve spilled your coffee on my papers. You clumsy asshole! I’ve gotta submit this today. My professor will kill me!”
Oh no. A law student!
“I’m so sorry. I tripped on the strap of her Timbuk2 bag,” the middle-aged businessman replies, pointing to the adjacent table. “At least it missed your laptop.”
Oh no, an optimist!
“If you’d spilled it on my laptop, I’d have sued your ass.”
Assault with a deadly drink … graduating this fall; no doubt plotting to make partner next year!
“Well, I’m glad it missed … oh, wow, is that the new MacBook?”
This man clearly has attention issues.
“Yes, a spanking new one! Look, I’ve gotta finish these corrections.” She picks up the soggy pages. “Just move on.”
But the guy just can’t. Then his tone shifts. “Why did you print it out if you’re still editing? A waste of trees, don’t you think?”
“It’s easier to spot…” She glares, ready to pronounce the death penalty. “What the fuck do you care? I’m trying to…”
This is my cue. I am the barista: a master of the mocha, a connoisseur of the cappuccino. Well, that’s my pick-up line. With careful delivery, I believe it sounds sexy, like a hairstylist, a DJ or an open-heart surgeon. I know from experience—I brew coffee at the corner coffee shop on Mission Street isn’t likely to elicit the coveted phone number.
But for now, I play mediator. The law student accepts wet napkins to clean up the mess and the sympathy of Tabitha. I escort the man to a vacant table on the other side of the coffee shop as far as possible from the threat of litigation. Both receive complimentary drinks, and soon the buzz of many conversations restores normalcy.
The law student stops me when I pass her table. “You’re alright for a Brit, Scarecrow.”
Scarecrow is a nickname that seems to follow me. I am reasonably tall, five-nine I think, thin, and with hair that refuses to be subdued by even a highly disciplining gel. About five minutes after grooming, I am left with, on a good day, the controlled scarecrow effect. I automatically move my hand to flatten the offending spikes and she laughs.
“You look fine.” She giggles.
“And you’re alright too.” I mumble, flattered to get her attention. “At least for a law student.”
Our café borders the financial district and the Embarcadero as well as some law and business schools. This prime location attracts refugees from the intensely caffeinated work culture by day and draws an eclectic crowd in the early evening when The Daily Grind transforms into an intimate wine bar. We also serve tourists who have lost their way to the nearby Ferry Building and the attractions of the Embarcadero.
Like all coffee shops, our weekday has its ebbs and flows. The morning is a madhouse as no self-respecting San Franciscan can possibly begin the day without their caffeine fix. By seven in the morning the line snakes outside our shop. With regulars, I try to remember their usual orders; a good memory ensures that loose change finds its way into the tip jar. If I can’t recall what they drink, I make an educated guess and am rarely far off. Even then, I apologize and explain how I evidently confused them with an actor, singer, sportsman or politician. Compliments generate tips just as effectively as a good memory.
As the day wears on and eventually draws to a close, we place aromatic candles on the tables; vigorously air out the place to lessen the robust coffee aroma and turn on carefully placed spotlights to highlight the heavy, oak wine racks lining the walls. Polished wineglasses take prominence over coffee mugs while jazz plays softly in the background.
The crowd changes, at least in its intent. Tired businessmen and women seek a ritual to cleanse themselves of the workday stress. Couples huddle in the corners wondering over a deep-red Merlot if the person facing them might just be the one. Life is a Cabernet, my friend, and a soul mate is waiting to be found.
It’s a job, a good one, and it pays for my other life. You see, I’m not only a barista. I’m a writer. A well-worn book about famous writers who spent time in San Francisco sits by my bed. I’ve walked in their footsteps, frequented their coffeehouses and wine bars, and opened my Mac in search of the same inspiration.
One day soon, I’ll be a famous author. Someone once defined an author as a writer who never gave up. I’m far from famous, but I’m also far from giving up. Like others of my tribe, I’ve saved the rejection letters—evidence of the emotional scars that all wannabe authors bear.
Let me show you my world: the parallel realities of the barista and the writer, the highs and lows of an aspiring artist, the pitfalls that await a lonely young man with much to give. But first, let me introduce you to San Francisco, the greatest city in the world.
Yeah, I grew up in London with fog rolling off the Thames, but I do not recall locals stopping to admire it. Other cities share similar traits to San Francisco: Rome has hills; London has immigrants and culture, and Paris the artistic mystique. But San Francisco has all of this and it is not thrown in your face. It just is.
I lean over the rails on the Embarcadero and stare out at the looming Bay Bridge, gray and partially veiled by early-morning mist. Next to me stands a metal woman eighteen feet high—a creation welded from hundreds of recycled pieces of junk. She holds hands with a child about eight feet tall and together they stare out to sea.
The metal woman lacks the elegance of the Statue of Liberty. That is what makes San Francisco special. It works without pretentiousness. I am told that the metal mother and child stand at the annual Burning Man festival in the Black Rock desert. Fire courses through her body and out of her hand into the child.
We could do with a fire right now. I shiver as I watch wisps of cloud hover above the water. It is very early and I must open the coffee shop. Despite the cold, I love this hour of the day when the city slumbers but is not asleep. It is simply preparing for the onslaught. In two hours, tens of thousands of people will spew out of the BART and MUNI public transport tunnels. Others will stubbornly drive in searching for elusive and pricey parking spaces. The more enlightened drivers have recruited passengers from the casual carpool pickup points scattered around the bay thereby paying less for the bridge tolls and utilizing the carpool lanes. The passengers, for their part, get a free ride into town.
Walking down Mission Street, I see Clarence, a huge African American dressed in a shiny black suit. I cannot tell if he is awake behind those big black sunglasses until he raises his saxophone to salute me. The shiny instrument gleams, even in our fog-filled streets, and Clarence lets rip a short riff to announce the barista has arrived!
Clarence customarily stakes his position in the early morning. There are more street musicians than ever these days and, with only a few prime spots, Clarence must claim his territory. But at this time of day, he plays only for me and I feel like a king. Clarence knows I do not have spare change to throw in his open sax case—perhaps he would feel insulted if I did.
Later, around 9.30, when the herd is safely corralled into their office cubicles and Clarence’s muscles are aching; he will come and rest in The Daily Grind. When I think Mr. Tzu, the owner, is not looking, I leave a cup of coffee on Clarence’s table. I used to mutter under my breath that some jerk had changed his order after I had already poured his cup and there is no point wasting it. After about the fortieth time, I figured Clarence had picked up on my ruse so I just place the steaming cup on his table without a word.
No thanks, but I know the gesture is appreciated just as I appreciate Clarence playing for me as I pass him in the early morning. He will sit for an hour or so then slowly move off. I know little of Clarence, but he is part of my life—another strand that weaves this urban tapestry called San Francisco.
Two weeks ago, a bunch of students entered The Daily Grind and their clothes were covered with ‘New Orleans’ insignia. They were excited and boisterous as they passed Clarence at his regular table. From the way Clarence eyed them, I thought that their intrusion annoyed him, but I was wrong.
“Hey! What’s with th’ shirts? What y’all doing with New Orleans?”
A young woman, blond, thin and tanned, excitedly explained how they’d just come back from a week helping rebuild houses damaged by Hurricane Katrina. “You should’ve seen the damage that hurricane did,” she said.
“Ain’t no hurricane did that, gal,” Clarence replied with a growl. “Weren’t no nat’ral disaster. Don’t let ’em bull ya’. The hurricane would’a done some damage, but if those levees had held, if those bastards had built ’em like they should, well, ain’t no one have died there. My grandma’s house waz swept away. Broke her, it did. Such a proud w’man.”
Clarence rose and moved heavily to the door but then turned. We all watched. He spoke now in a softer tone. “But I thank y’all for going down there t’help. It’s import’nt y’all show ya’ care, that some’n shows they care.”
We saw his tears as he walked out the door and left behind a heavy wake of silence. I could not stop myself. I nodded to Tabitha to cover for me and followed him out of the café.
He stood on the corner of Mission and Spear caressing his saxophone and let rip the most beautiful, soulful jazz I have ever heard. He was not playing for me that time; he was not even playing for San Francisco. I could almost see his tune rolling out of the bay along with the fog making its way to the Gulf Coast.
When he finished, I approached unsure what to say. We stared at each other.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”
I had spoken with Mr. Tzu, that day. I had an idea and from that week, every Friday at lunchtime, Clarence played in The Daily Grind to a packed audience. Big jars were scattered around the tables with labels: All Proceeds to New Orleans Relief Projects and as the music touched our customer’s souls, the jars filled, because San Francisco has a heart, and that heart was bleeding for a sister on the Gulf Coast.
You may buy Unwanted Heroes at Amazon.com
Growing up in London, Alon Shalev has been a political activist since his early teens. He strives through his writing to highlight social and political injustice and to inspire action for change.
Moving to Israel, he helped establish a kibbutz where he lived for 20 years and served in the Israeli army.
Shalev then moved to the San Francisco Bay area and fell hopelessly in love with this unique city. Being new to the US, however, he was shocked to see so many war veterans on the streets. He regularly volunteers at initiatives such as Project Homeless Connect and the San Francisco Food Bank where he meets and talks with war veterans.
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