Coffee Grounding

Many years back when I lived in Redondo Beach, I’d often cruise down to the Starbucks in the Village and grab a cup of coffee before heading out to run weekend errands. It’s routine that I’ve continued for years, and something about having such a comforting, “grounding” (for me, anyway) beverage along for the ride and for the tackling of the to-do list always made the weekend that much better.

One particularly chilly weekend, I was fortunate to find a coveted spot in one of the few spaces right in front of the main door. As I scurried inside to evade the cold, my eyes fell on a less fortunate homeless man a few feet away who was rummaging through the discarded Starbucks cups resting toward the top of a full trashcan. He was pouring the remnants of each one into his own, hoping to make a full cup of something that was at least partially warm. My heart broke.

As I ordered inside, I added something extra to my order: a grande mocha for the homeless man outside. The barista asked if I wanted whipped cream on it, and I couldn’t think of a reason why someone who was homeless and rummaging through the trash wouldn’t want such a topping on a warm, happy beverage. I said yes.

I paid, walked outside and approached the man, only then wondering what my offering would be met with. Gratitude? Anger? Frustration? Maybe he’d pass on it altogether, but I sort of figured he wouldn’t.

He’d since sat down on a bench just outside the Starbucks and was drinking from the cup he’d just managed to fill. I walked up to him and, although I can’t remember exactly, probably apologized for intruding and said that while I wasn’t sure if he liked mochas, I’d gotten him one. Regardless of what I said, I’ll remember his response forever. He looked at me, then looked at the cup that I was holding out for him to take. As he reached for it, he said, “Thank you. You’re beautiful — thank you.”

His words made me tear up, and they were indicative of his gratitude. I was both happy that he was touched by the gesture and grateful he accepted it. After that weekend, I never saw him again.

Today as I set out to run my errands, I buzzed my neighborhood Starbucks. As I waited in line behind one person in front of me, I was aware that he was an older gentleman who was rambling on about the croissants they often sold there, and how much he liked them. Whenever I thought he’d be on his way and that I’d be able to order, he’d continue talking to the barista who was patiently listening to the man. This went on for a few minutes, and as I observed the situation a bit more closely, I realized that the man, who had done his best to maintain a clean, respectable appearance, was homeless and had managed to come up with enough change from passersby to buy a warm beverage.

I tuned in to listen some more just as the barista had managed to covertly swipe some change from their tip jar and handed it to the man. As he gave him the money, he said, “Well, here — I’m glad you like them so much. When we have them tomorrow, here’s something that might help.”

Before I could consider how to add to the barista’s contribution, the man had shuffled out the door and was on his way.

Again, years later, my heart broke. And yet it was comforted that the guy behind the counter — one that I’d seen so many weekends in a row for so many years — was willing to empty a bit of their tip jar to help someone in need. I don’t think it’s the first time he’s done it and, gladly, I don’t think it will be the last.

For me, the routine — whether at home, at work or while I’m out and about — of making or ordering a cup of coffee has always had a sort of peaceful, calming effect. If I feel a headache coming on, all I need is a little caffeine to help get me back on track. If it’s a cold, blustery day, it adds the liquid equivalent of a warm, cozy blanket to my afternoon. If I’m running around and stop in for a cup, I can take a few minutes to gather my thoughts, refocus and continue on with the rest of my to-do list. While it’s a stimulant that many of us know and love, for me, it’s incredibly grounding. It may not be the right word to use, but it’s the one I feel is most accurate.

I wondered today whether the two homeless men and countless others who — no doubt — have frequented their local Starbucks or other coffee joint have also felt this way in better times. Perhaps they, too, had a routine that took them out on the weekend after a week of work and allowed them to effortlessly pay for a cup of coffee. Maybe now they’ve fallen on hard times, but still are drawn to the place that was always a bright spot for them.

Maybe. Maybe not. But I like to think that something in them appreciates the warmth of a hot cup of coffee, of a warm mocha topped with whipped cream or the comforting aroma of a fresh, buttery croissant — because, in a way, maybe it lends a sense of grounding and calm to their lives, as well.

Tonight I am thankful for good people like todays’s barista who are too few and far between in this world, and for the extra change he gave the homeless man so that he can be a bit closer to his simple goal of buying a croissant. I’m also thankful for the awareness that he brought to my simple, quiet life; if I see him again, I’m thinking I’ll give him money for a croissant, but tell him to give it to the homeless man when he comes in again or when he sees him wandering nearby. It’s heartbreaking to think that what could be one of our three meals in a day — or a snack that we mindlessly munch on during a meeting, only to discard the remainder — could be the one thing that a homeless man is able to eat over the course of many days. But what’s heartbreaking on one hand provides opportunity on the other. Here’s to paying such kindness forward.

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