catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 12 :: 2012.06.08 — 2012.06.21


The art of coffee and questions

As soon as he entered the coffee shop, I recognized him. I’d seen him walking the streets of Orange City, a small town in Northwest Iowa, carrying a cloth bag of groceries, dark eyes focused straight ahead in deep concentration or determination to get to his destination. Besides groceries, he carried the added weight of middle age. An unkempt beard merged with wavy brown hair that haloed the balding top of his head — though the image was less Friar Tuck and more that of a sinister Nostradamus. In this college town of Dutch storefronts, tidy lawns, strolling couples, bike-riding professors, luxury Buicks and polished pick-ups, he clearly did not fit in. Now we stood face-to-face, counter and cash register between us.

After studying the menu board, he ordered a dark roast — “a Spice Island, please.” His voice was quiet, his manner hesitant, gentle. The impression was no longer that of a wild-eyed loner, but rather of a shy, lost soul.

He moved to the side of the counter where I would prepare his coffee. At the shop that my wife Rola and I opened a couple years ago, we do a pour-over method, making one cup at a time. No brewing machines. No airpots.   

I ground 25 grams of beans, placing them into the filter inside the ceramic dripper atop the pour-over stand, a skeletal framework of copper pipes that supported six drippers. I positioned the cup under the dripper and with a small amount of hot water, wet the grounds.  As I waited 30 seconds for the oils in the beans to release, I mentioned to my new customer that I had seen him around.           

“Did you grow up here?” I asked.

“No,” he replied. And then added, “Well, sort of.”

With my kettle full, I began pouring the 206-degree water over the grounds, which would slowly filter into the waiting cup. The whole process would take about three minutes — an ample amount of time to start conversations with customers, conversations that often moved beyond the weather forecast to matters of employment, health, culture, philosophy, faith and just about anything else friends talk about.

The “sort of” answer was an invitation for follow-up questions, an art I had honed during my 20 years in the magazine business, several of those for a lifestyle magazine in which I traveled the country doing stories on “everyday people.” One of the tricks I used in starting conversations was to sling an expensive camera around my neck, even though I wasn’t the designated photographer. The camera, a physical representation of my status as “reporter,” gave me the excuse, the courage, to walk up to anyone and start a conversation, to ask questions. I had simply traded my camera for a pour-over stand.

And so began a conversation and a friendship that would continue to the present day. I learned my customer, Barry, was “sort of” from Orange City because he had spent the very early years of his childhood here. He returned to Orange City, giving up his job as an illustrator for a Vancouver, Washington, newspaper, to care for his mother, ill with cancer. Five months after returning, his mother passed away; he stayed.

Recently, I asked Barry about the first time we met, if he could remember it.

“What I remember,” he said, “is that you saw me.” He said people assume you aren’t interested in them. “But if you can get past generalities, if you can get into the details, that’s where the truth is.”

Perhaps the truth is that we are all outsiders or misfits in one manner or another, that we have doubts, insecurities. When someone takes time, even the time it takes to make a cup of coffee, and shows an interest in our lives, as imperfect as our lives may be, we are buoyed by the acknowledgement of our presence: I see you.

Since I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen all kinds of customers, each with his or her own story. There’s Becky, a dance instructor and choreographer of musicals by night and a secretary by day. Feeling unappreciated at her day job, she decided to take a retail job at the furnishings design store. Since then, she’s become pregnant and added a bagel to her usual order of a light roast to go.

Doug, editor of the weekly newspaper, will show up at any time during the day, depending on the event or sports story he’s shooting, to get whatever special blend or varietal is offered at the moment. With his hair pulled back in a long ponytail, he’s a holdover from the hippie era, a liberal in a town of conservatives, who still pursues his bike hobby by running a sales and repair shop out of his garage.

Mr. V. just got out of his second stint of rehab. He’s doing well and pursuing a new, promising career.

Steve, with a film degree, delivers pizza. He organizes monthly poetry slams at the coffee shop, loves kids and contemplates going back to college to get his teaching certificate.

Hadley substitutes as the pianist at a church in a nearby town. She and her husband Kendall have lived all over the country. They tell great stories and host a bible study. And (this took me several months to find out) Hadley is the author of a dozen novels.

Of course, not everyone who walks through the door will become a regular customer. Many times, it’s someone passing through town, or someone visiting family. Even then, I find that the time spent brewing a cup of coffee can be meaningful. To ask about their reasons for being in town, to learn about what they do for a living, whom they’re connected to in the area, where they’re headed — I find it gratifying to exchange a couple pieces of personal information, to send them on their way with a blessing.

For example, this past Saturday I had a manager of Cirque du Soleil, traveling from Portland to his small hometown south of Toronto, stop by for coffee. His job, he said, lets him see the world. After five weeks home, it’s off to Australia for a two-year run. Also, the daughter of the late wooden-shoemaker (I occupy the old wooden shoe factory in town) returned to place flowers on her father’s grave. Her father, Wilhelm, carved shoes from 1956 to 1984, passing away, sadly, before he had an opportunity to take his first retirement trip to Arkansas.  Then I met a young man born and raised in New Zealand. He was in town visiting his Dutch relatives. All things Dutch were familiar to him, though his grandfather was full-blooded Maori. And to my great delight, my principal from junior high saw a newspaper article on the shop and drove up to see me. Though it had been more than forty years since we walked the school hallways, we talked with pride of the dedicated teachers and accomplishments of my classmates.

All this is not to say that meeting and speaking to people comes easily. I am by temperament shy. Reaching out to others is not a casual act. That Barry said I saw him was humbling, more so because of a secret memory, something I’ve never told him. Once, before he was a customer, before he became a close friend, I had noticed him walking down the sidewalk that led past my house. I stood on my back porch, watching him come closer and closer, groceries in hand, eyes forward, a set jaw and stern look. I delayed my trip to the mailbox, just a few feet from the front sidewalk where our paths would intersect. I quietly stepped inside the back door so I wouldn’t have to acknowledge this strange man who marched the streets of Orange City, this guy who I sensed didn’t fit in with tulip décor, family outings and church potlucks.

My judgmental cowardice is a shameful memory. But I’m glad I had a second chance to see Barry, to see him reenact scenes from classic or obscure movies, to hear him recite passages from books he read years earlier, to hear his unrestrained laughter at the telling of a good story or the recognition of an ironic moment, even if that second chance requires a prop: a pour-over stand and a cup of coffee.

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