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 tag “The Daily Grind”

Survival – No Matter How

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 began sharing these passages with you last Wednesday and would like to share another one here.

There is nothing here that spoils anything in the book – which probably vindicates the editor’s decision to cut them!

Heroes Low Res Finished Cover 11.18

They sit in the corner of our coffee shop every day. They are old and somewhat withered, but they exude a mature and vibrant vitality that has a unique influence on our young staff.

He invariably wears a dark blue woolen hat, sturdy glasses and sports a full gray beard. All this partially hides a wrinkled, weather-beaten face and I fancy he could be a retired captain having spent a life at sea. He wears thick sweaters; today’s is dark brown and his training shoes are white, complimenting his beard.

She also sports gray but wavy hair. She wears comfortable corduroy trousers and often removes her Birkenstocks and curls her legs up under her or folded in front of her. She seems to possess an array of hoodies, all zip-fronted. The frames of her eyeglasses are thin and compliments waves of majestic wrinkles that line her face.

What makes this couple special? It is not that they are regulars, not that they always drink non-fat lattes, always ordered with a request from him to ensure the coffees come hot to which she lovingly rolls her eyes. It is not the single scone they order and carefully share.

It is the dynamics between them: the intimacy, the comfort. I watch as they share photographs. They never sit opposite each other with a table between them, but always gravitate to a corner where they sit on the bench that hugs the wall, close together with their backs on the red wood rest.

She has an arm around his shoulders and they enjoy close conversation. Nothing is forced. If there is silence, it is also shared and comfortable. But they are often talking and laughing. I am sure they have their aches and pains, their trials and disappointments, but there is always time to laugh, always time to share a loving gaze.

How do they keep it up? When does it cease to be new and fresh? They have been together forever, have children, grandchildren and maybe great grandchildren, but their focus is always on each other; their relationship is the anchor, the calm in the eye of the storm.

They have reached Budddahood, perfection. And they have achieved this by simply being together, by sharing the photos, the memories, by sharing the moment.

We are a young staff at The Daily Grind, all single, constantly vigil as we seek our own soul mates. We all observe this couple from behind the counter or when we clean around the café. We know their names and they remember snippets of our lives that they allow us to share with them. We are all silently asking the question.

We are their children, their grandchildren. We can be because they have enough space to share a bit of their Buddahood with every soul they come into contact with.

            *                                    *                                    *                                    *


It was a rainy day in January. Still no sign, no indication of Spring around the corner. Twain’s coldest winter was a summer in San Francisco, but he never braved a winter by the bay. The wimp! It is a tough time of the year. Christmas is over, gone long enough for people to return to their resilient regimes, but not long enough to forget the season of goodwill. We seek a glint in each other’s eyes, but they are glazed over now.  Eyes open, but shut.

The morning rush is behind us now and the place is completely empty of customers. I wrestle to clean an intricate and generally forgotten part of the Beast – our nickname for the Italian coffee machine that Mr. Tzu is extremely proud of. When he imported it from the old country, it was the only one of its kind in the New World.

I am so absorbed in my struggle that I am not aware of the door opening. Tabitha elbows me hard and I bang my head as I rise sharply. My pain is soon forgotten and the entire staff are now frozen to their spots and watching her.

She approaches the counter slowly, cautiously. Her head is bowed; she is defeated. Tabitha walks around and opens her arms to hug her. No words; it is clear. Their absence had been remarked upon over the last few days, but the inclement weather was assumed to be the culprit.

Now we know the weather is not to blame. I clear my throat. Even the most experienced barista is never experienced enough, but the responsibility falls to me. 

“A non-fat latte, extra hot?”

She nods. Now cones the hardest part. Will she or won’t she? She just takes the latte and shuffles, yes shuffles, to a table in the middle. It is not the one in the corner and it should not be. It was a brave enough act just to enter the store.

She sits and for a moment gazes over to the corner. The she picks up her coffee and sips. Returning the cup to the table, she reaches into a bag and pulls out a book to read. I see a slight shake in her grip that I had never noticed before.

Tabitha takes off her apron and makes herself a coffee. Usually, she would ask me if she could take a break, even this close to break time. But she takes her coffee and a plate, on which she puts a scone and two forks. Then she walks over and sits opposite the old woman.                                                                                                                                               

Words are exchanged and the old woman briefly smiles. They begin eating the scone together and Tabitha is talking. At one point they both go to take a piece of the scone and their forks clash. Her head suddenly sinks. This is the difference. She would always be able to find someone to share a scone with, but after all these years the forks had been synchronized. The synchronicity has gone, forever.

If you meet the Buddha on the road, strike him down. We are deep in the grasps of winter and, even in this most beautiful of cities, it is cold and lonely. Even here, the Buddha has not tarried.

imgres-1I walk over to the table and pull up a chair. I take her hand in both of mine and squeeze gently. I swallow, not sure what to say. I stammer:

“My grandparents were together for more than sixty years. They were very different from you. She always seemed to be telling him off and criticizing him. He had an arsenal of cutting responses. My sister once asked my mother why they stayed together all this time if they couldn’t get on.

“My mother replied that it was just their way of communicating, that they had stood by each other through many crises and upheavals. She told us that they were really very much in love. I tried to understand this, but even as a boy I knew that theirs was not the relationship I would seek.

“When my grandfather died, my grandmother put on a brave face for a few months. But then she withered away, before our very eyes. As she lay on her deathbed, she told my mother not to mourn her as she was going to join my grandfather and was looking forward to seeing him. She was going to let him have it for leaving her behind after all these years.                                                                                                                                    “But it seemed wrong to us. We were kids. It seemed like she was leaving us, leaving her daughters and grandchildren and all those she had touched in her charity work at the church.

“I guess she couldn’t survive without him. I’m just trying to tell you that you have a lot of people here who love you and still need you; your family, friends, us.”

She smiles and squeezes my hand. Then she pulls up her sleeve to reveal her forearm. Her voice takes on a steelier edge.

“I will survive. It is tattooed onto my body, engraved into my psyche. I can do nothing else, for it would betray the memories of my people. We are survivors.”

Then she covers her arm back up and pats my hand.

“And you have a shop to take care of, customers and a lovely staff.” She forces a tight smile. “And this coffee wasn’t hot enough!”

Gloria Lyon, San Francisco resident.

Gloria Lyon, San Francisco resident.


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.  

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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