Espresso Love

Ever had a hangover?

Had one this Saturday morning courtesy Starbucks.

Not from an overdose of caffeine, rather a full dose of the first shift, beginning at 5:00 a.m., Monday-Friday.

Was in and out until 9:00 a.m. (we have a seven week-old baby) but was finally dialed-in after receiving a call on my cell phone.

I didn’t pick up. Probably would have sounded like Rastus from Gunsmoke; so, I was slow to the draw.

After showering and clearing out some cobwebs, I decided to make a coffee run and continue my Starbucks experience as a customer.

On the way out, I checked my messages to see who had called. I struggled to understand the message. The aged, male caller spoke in broken English. I caught a few key phrases that reminded me who it was . . . my 85 year-old neighbor from Sicily.

I hadn’t seen him in a month. The last time we spoke he was bitterly upset about world matters. He had been smarting from the devastation of the tsunami in Indonesia and Hurricane Katrina. He questioned the existence of a loving God.

“How can a loving God allow children to die in the arms of their parents?”

Sharing my own personal experience and crises proved futile; so, I wound up giving him my number and going my own way.

This morning he sounded frantic. As I listened to his voice mail, I decided he needed a visit.

When I arrived, he engaged me right away.

“I just realized something,” he said pointing to his head. “I have been looking at things outside myself.”

Nonplussed, I said. “OK. That’s great.”

“I know what I have been sounding like.”

He proceeded to share his bitterness that no one had taken an interest in him and his growing bitterness over the years. He conceded that many long-since dead friends had abandoned him as his bitterness overtook their friendship. He said, unfortunately, his newfound discovery made no difference to them now.

I tired to placate him with some niceties and trite truisms.

“Focus on those who are with you now.” Or, “you can grow bitter or better.”

Others had said the same to me. But, you don’t really hear it until you’re ready, and even then, 10 years are gone, in his case 50.

But, in the moment, here were are: He, a nice guy from the Old Country, and I, a ready audience, lapping up his broken English and stories of Italy and its culture.

That was today’s Starbucks experience.

Culture.

When you work the drive-thru, “have a nice day,” is the extent of cultural exchange.

I could communicate that to the same effect with a Wal-Mart button, yellow smiley face, strategically placed.

Before I digress into a rant, Nino’s culture had drawn me to he and his wife Maria.

Last month, I had promised myself that I would bring him some coffee once I had started at Starbucks. (We get a free bag each week.) I knew he was bitter and skeptical of me when I offered to help him with chores and unpacking his groceries.

I would have been.

I thought giving him some coffee might prove otherwise.

As usual, I forgot.

So, during my visit this morning, I checked out his coffee pot and noticed he was an espresso drinker, true to his native Italy.

I drove back to Starbucks, ground some espresso beans, delivered my household coffee orders, and gave my Italian friend his espresso beans.

He offered me a seat on his patio and brewed the Starbucks espresso beans under protest. He had sniffed the beans and wrinkled his nose.

“Too strong.” He had said.

He has been drinking the same brand of espresso beans the last 50 years. And what is that expression about old dogs.

I insisted that he brew the bag. I had brought. To my delight, he came out with a small carafe, diminutive cups, and some sugar. This was a totally Un-American experience.

One, I relished. Don’t tell Stephen Colbert. I am still America.

I asked him if he liked it. He said it was too sweet and chocolaty but conceded that he had grown accustomed to his usual brand.

Unfortunately, I didn’t win him to Starbucks today, at least its coffee. (I noticed one of his cups had a Starbucks logo on it.)

I think he won me.

Why?

As we sat, we enjoyed the experience. Starbucks terms it, the Starbucks experience. But, really, it is a much older one from time immemorial. One where two friends drink-in each other’s company and experience.

It was great: even in my pre-fabricated condominium complex, I felt like I was in the Old Country. We sat café-style on his patio and looked at his beautiful garden and talked politics with whimsy.

As we sipped, he talked of his early coffee experiences. The way his mom purchased coffee beans at the market and roasted them at their house. He smiled as he told how his neighbors drew to their home, the aroma of roasting beans welcoming the entire block.

He too inhaled the past, the coffee beans still fresh in his mind.

My thoughts turned, too: I remembered the first time I had sipped espresso in Rome near the Coliseum. How I had ignorantly said “expresso” instead of espresso. And how I smile each time someone mispronounces the word the same way.

Again, for me, the great thing about this Starbucks experience was its culture. We had already struck up a friendship, and his personal crisis today sparked his phone call.

But the espresso beans had given us another rallying point.

Had I met someone from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Colombia, or an Indonesian or African country, we could have shared the culture of those Starbucks offerings as well.

In that way, Starbucks global reach embodies one of the great qualities of this country, its catholic approach to culture, “melting pot” if you prefer.

Some decry our lack of culture, but our country, at its best, assimilates many other cultures, allowing us to share the best aspects of each.

Starbucks serves as a wonderful extension of that universal approach.

Today, my Starbucks experience, here in Cary, North Carolina, USA, was that our “coffee talk” – without sounding too “veklempt – is that I am a small part of a greater whole. And that smallness can be just as enjoyable as greatness.

Posted in Perspective