Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the day “March 20, 2013”

In the Shadow of Giants

Unwanted Heroes was much longer before my editor got his hands on it. A number of chapters were cut because they do not directly move the plot along. They seem to have something in common – my desire to show the many facets of San Francisco. I would like to share then with you over the next few weeks.

There is nothing here that spoils anything in the book – which probably vindicates the editor’s decision.

Heroes Low Res Finished Cover 11.18

In the Shadows of Giants

            The Daily Grind survives in the shadow of giants. Peet’s Coffee and Starbucks rule the roost. I believe there are eight of them within the half-mile radius that defines the boundaries of San Francisco’s Financial District. As an independent coffee shop employee, I should have nurtured a healthy hatred for these monoliths of corporate America, who have turned the little guy into an endangered species.

The truth is, I have read Howard Shultz’s Building Starbucks One Cup at a Time, and I have to admit I harbor a grudging admiration. He and his colleagues are true connoisseurs who stood up for something they truly believed in: Coffea Arabica.

Every investor, market analyst and beverage manager doomed them to failure. The American nation was incarcerated by the instant coffee powder, addicted to the milk, the sweetness, the insanely cheap coffee and, of course, the instant powder. Why wait? Why grind? Why the extra roast?

But these men embraced a common vision, believed in the people’s finer taste buds and held a zero tolerance for compromise. They raised the bar and the people voted, with their travel mugs. There are those who blame these corporate monoliths for the scarcity of the local corner coffee shop. But the little guy can survive, only he must commit to two holy tenets: top quality coffee and kick-ass service.

And this is why, even the corner coffee shop has its barista and he, or she, must make it work. I put considerable effort into trying to make every customer welcome – an honored guest. I have a good memory for names or odd details; I throw out liberally, letting them know that I remember them and that they are individuals.

We all want to be remembered. We go into a restaurant, a shop we frequent, the gym and hope that there is acknowledgement on behalf of the maitre d’, the shop owner or the gym receptionist.

It allows us to stand out from among the masses. It reinforces that we are each unique, individuals with our own life, our own destiny. The swamp of urban anonymity has not swallowed us. We live another day as individuals. And it keeps us returning to the same shop, restaurant or gym. It creates brand loyalty that is different from a great product, an image or a good price. It fills a need in each and every one of us; we are members of the tribe. In this case the Coffea Arabica tribe. Here, every morning, for a few minutes, we belong. We feel validated.

There is one woman who frequents our coffee shop every weekday morning at 8.20am, orders the drip of the day and sits in the same seat where she can easily look out the window or survey the coffee shop with equal ease. At 8.55am, she tosses her coffee cup into the garbage can by the door, and leaves.

She is, I guess, in her mid-thirties, always impeccably dressed. She is attractive, not centerfold beautiful, but in a genuine, deeper sense. Her clothes, though business attire, reveal a full, well-maintained body and her hair is always tied back in a tight bun. She would pass for one of a thousand who frequent our coffee shop, if it wasn’t for her eyes…and her silence.

She never speaks; she doesn’t have to order as I have her coffee poured as soon as I see her. The change from the two dollar bills is dropped automatically into the tips glass and she retreats to her seat.

Her eyes haunt me. They seem…empty. I realize she is somewhere else as she stares out of the window. Her elbow is on the table, her chin cupped in a hand that boasts elegant fingers, notably devoid of a wedding ring.

I always look for an excuse to get closer to her. I pick garbage off the floor, wipe tables; whatever is necessary to sneak a view of her. I wonder if she suspects and, if so, whether she even cares?

Yesterday, we heard of yet another Starbucks opening in our area. That makes six within walking radius and there are two Peets’ and two Tully’s. The boss constantly frets, though The Daily Grind has held its own for several years.

The talk among the staff focuses on the new Starbucks. People worry about their jobs; many are students, or high school dropouts. Others like me are artists; none of us have employment skills that will make finding another job easy. Our boss is tough but fair and he cares about us, though he would never want to admit it.

A customer, who is sitting at the next table to the woman I have just mentioned, asks me if I am concerned about the new competition in our crowded neighborhood. I crack a joke, something about Starbucks just wanting to ensure that they have at least one store standing after the next big earthquake thereby ensuring they maintain a monopoly on the survivors.

He laughs and, as the businesswoman glances over at me, I see a crack in the frown. I jump at the opportunity.

“Why do you come here every day instead of Starbucks or Peets?”

She hesitates. Is she deciding why or whether she wants to even tell me?

“Because of you,” she replies, quiet but confidant. “The coffee is good, but I come because of you.”

I swallow, uncharacteristically lost for words. Thankfully she continues. “For a few brief minutes of the day I belong. You know me; know what I want to drink. You respect my boundaries, though you hover around cleaning and such. I feel comfortable,” she hesitates again. I see her swallow. When she continues, I can hear the emotion in her voice. “Over the past few years you have been my most consistent friend. Sad isn’t it.”           

“At the chain coffee shops, that is what I am: just another link in the chain. Still I’ve been wanting to tell you something for the last month.” She rises and throws her cup in the garbage can. Then she turns around and smiles. “I love that you have my drink drawn by the time I am at the counter, but I’d like to try the mocha one morning.”

With an uncharacteristic bounce in her walk, she leaves the coffee shop. I don’t need to check the time.  It is 8.55am.


Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  


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