Unwanted Heroes – Part 4/4

 3:  The Daily Grind

AHHHH!

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.

Return to Unwanted Heroes – Part 3 or start with Part 1

____________________

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.

To follow this Blog via E-mail see upper right-hand column and click on “Follow”.

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Unwanted Heroes – Part 3/4

2:  The Letter

I stare at him in bewilderment as he strides out of the café. I cannot decide whether I admire or fear him and conclude that probably a bit of both is most prudent. Turning back to the counter, I see Tabitha watching me as she hands change to a customer. I feel a sharp wave of panic.

“So they’re onto me?” Her tone is flippant when it is just the two of us. “It’s the addiction, Will. Caffeine and a full moon. Such a fatal combination.” She raises her cup and flutters her eyelashes as she sips.

“Until Mr. Tzu shows up, we’ll have to rearrange the work roster,” I reply somberly. “I assume Ginny has been filling in for Mr. Tzu over the weekend, but you have more experience. You’re going to have to pull the shift opposite mine.”

“But then we won’t get to work together! Who’s going to train me, nurture my career, and bring out my full potential?” She does a credible job pouting like a spoiled child. Then stretching out her hands, she bows her head. “I’m still your humble apprentice, Will, my lord, my barista.”

I relax. “Be mindful of the Force, my young Padma,” I say in my best Yoda-ese, “and keep the fucking Beast clean. Remember, the coffee flows through the Beast.” If only my school counselor had let me pursue a career as a Jedi Knight. “Right now, you’re the only other person supremely qualified to run shifts,” I say, getting back to business.

“But what about the wines?” Tabitha asks.

“George and I will alternate,” I reply.

“Carrot Face?”

“You’re going to call him that to his face one day soon and I might not be around to protect you.”

We both laugh. The prospect of Carrot Face or George and I going a few rounds over Tabitha’s honor is amusing. George is a recent addition to our staff. He knows little about coffee but worked on a vineyard in Napa for a few years. He is skinny, spotty, awkward and … well you can probably guess his hair color.

“But you’re gonna work a lot of hours,” Tabitha says, concerned.

“It’ll only be for a few days. He’ll be back soon.” I hear the doubt in my voice.

I serve two businessmen, who take their drinks swiftly to a table—their discussion never stopping.

Tabitha shrugs. “I bet the bastard rented a sports car and is in Vegas denying his age. Men are jerks, you know.”

“How would I know that?” I roll my eyes.

“You’re a writer, Will. You must’ve noticed them. Jerks.” Tabitha manages a disdainful expression.

“I’m also a man—never mind. The other day when Mr. Tzu chewed you out, has that happened before?”

“No, I’m actually a wonderful asset to the business!” Tabitha replies, her voice feigning hurt, then she frowns. “Hey, Will, you’re worried, aren’t you? You’re not convinced he’ll be back in a day or so?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “I wonder what made him crack.”

Tabitha shuffles and stares down at her scuffed Doc Martin boots.

“Tzu’s always been kinda tight, y’ know. Not big on the conversation, but he’s not a screamer either. That day, though, he was really pissed and not just because I failed to clean the Beast to his standards. He later chewed out Carrot Face after George quipped that, though it was his brother’s birthday, he was ignoring it as they weren’t close.

“Tzu heaped him a nasty lecture about family and loyalty. It wasn’t a fatherly rebuke either. Tzu was really pissed. I figured maybe it’s an Asian thing. They’re very family oriented.”

Tabitha puts down a wineglass that she’s been polishing and sighs. “Look, I don’t know Tzu. I’ve always been a bit scared of him ’cause he never talks or anything, so I’ve kinda kept my distance. You never know what’s going on in his mind. It’s intimidating. I’m not a barista or a wine freak like you. I’m expendable. As a woman, too, I feel vulnerable around him. Asians are pretty patriarchal, y’know, and I’m at the bottom of the food chain.”

“Yeah.” I’m feeling increasingly uncomfortable. “Let’s get back to work.”

A few minutes later I see Tabitha hovering by Tzu’s desk in the back of the store. She’s holding a badly crumpled piece of paper and calls me over.

“Will, look. This letter appeared the morning Tzu wigged out on me and Carrot Face. It had been slipped under the door before we arrived to open the café. I picked it off the floor, but Tzu grabbed it from me and read it immediately. He had it in his hand or his back pocket all morning. Later, I saw him put it in his desk drawer.”

Hoping for a clue, I take the letter. It is dirty and creased, and I just stare at thick, black Chinese characters.

I return the letter to the drawer of Tzu’s desk. It will be here when he returns—probably tomorrow. But Tzu doesn’t return and as the week passes, the whole staff begins to worry for Mr. Tzu and our jobs.

Early Wednesday, an elderly Asian woman enters the café. She wears a thick heavy coat and a green-silk scarf covers her head probably to ward off the chill. I turn to serve her as she approaches.

“Will?” Her voice is unsteady and her English heavily accented.

“Mrs. Tzu?” I hazard a guess.

She nods. “Please, bring green tea and sit with me.” She shuffles over to an empty table. There is a heavy flow of customers. I don’t like the other staff members seeing me sit while they work, but this wasn’t presented as a request.

Mrs. Tzu sips the tea and stares at me. Her face looks tired and worn.

“I’m sorry about Mr. Tzu. I really am,” I say. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Husband will come back.” She nods as she says this but without conviction. “He says you are good boy. He says you can be trusted.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Tzu. That is high praise.” I am pleased to hear this. “I love my job and the coffee shop.”

“Good, good.” She nods. “You stay and run place. Mr. Tzu will soon return and give you reward. Okay?”

“Sure, Mrs. Tzu. Do you have any idea where he might be? Could he … could he have gone home to China?” Last night, I dreamed that he had returned there to die, but I don’t feel it prudent to share this.

“Mr. Tzu is American.” She shakes her head. “Left China as very small boy and feels no love for China. Love 49ers and Giants. For him, America is home.”

“What do your children think? Have you talked with other relatives?”

She again shakes her head. “I speak with children. Speak all the time. No brother or sister. This disappearance is very strange. He has gone before when very stressed. Has something in past, something from war.”

“So you don’t think he’s been kidnapped or anything? He doesn’t have any enemies, does he?”

She looks at me for a moment perhaps to see if I am joking. Then she leans forward, her expression serious. “Mr. Tzu is good man. Very fair. Many in city know him. All have high respect for him.”

“I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to imply—” I didn’t know what I didn’t mean to imply, and we both fall silent.

Then Mrs. Tzu leaned forward. “I am from China. Parents die during time of Long March, I think. Maybe later. China was chaos. Hard life then. I brought to US to stay with aunt. Meet Mr. Tzu in city. America is good but for me not home. Mr. Tzu is my home and so America is my home.”

She leans back and sighs. “49ers and Giants, they suck. Coffee not good either. Bad for Shen, for spirit. Green tea is good—keep you young.” She winks. Then she laughs, and I try to laugh with her.

I feel a wave of sympathy toward this brave woman who, like me, is far from her home. I swallow hard. “Mrs. Tzu. I don’t know where he is. I don’t really know him.” I’m getting repetitive perhaps feeling guilty that I haven’t tried to befriend him. “But maybe you could come into the café more and sit here to help look after the staff and customers?”

She flashes the briefest of smiles. “Thank you. Mr. Tzu is right. You are good boy. I go down to visit children in Ventura for few days. Help them not to worry.” She smiles and looks proud, so I think that they have invited her. Then she asks, “You good son to parents, yes?”

I’m a little bewildered by the change of direction but manage to say, “Despite the distance, I try. My father passed away about ten years ago, but I think they were always good to me. My mum’s still in England and I miss her—both of them, I guess.”

“Maybe you send mother flowers to show you think of her? Write letter. I come back and check, yes? After I return from Ventura.”

Write a letter—shit! The letter! I reach into my pocket but something stops me. Mrs. Tzu rises pushing down on the table as she straightens and shuffles out. I remain seated staring at her cup of still-steaming tea, which she hardly touched. Mrs. Tzu could probably have translated the letter her husband received on the day he flew at the staff, yet some strong impulse holds me back. I shrug. I can show her the letter another time.

I pick up her warm cup and hug it between my two palms. As I stare at the door she has just exited, I have a strong feeling that I am getting sucked into something that shouldn’t be part of my life yet unequivocally is. Shit! Maybe I should give up coffee for green tea. It’s bad for my Shen whatever that is.

Continued on February 20, 2013 in Unwanted Heroes – Part 4 or return to Part 2

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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.

You may buy Unwanted Heroes at Amazon.com

To follow this Blog via E-mail see upper right-hand column and click on “Follow”.