There is Good Coffee Alone, Then There is Coffee with My Friend

I visit a suburban coffee shop right after I get work done at the dentist. And if I feel restless, unfocused or a bit lonely I can head to my area “close-in” (interesting word for inner city near the river, gradually gentrified and booming) city streets to mix with others who are sipping a latte or macchiato or double espresso. Coffee shops abound in my city and they are always busy. Within a few blocks I have my choice of a half dozen, and a 5-10 minute drive will take me to another twelve (or more). I found conflicting numbers regarding how many Portland metro area offers, but it is may lie somewhere between 750-850 shops (one source stated at least 1200, not too shocking). And then there are the cafes which offer lighter food offerings with their impressive array of coffee as well as fine teas.  I have favorite stops in my neighborhood but I won’t deign to rate them as I’m no coffee snob. I go where it’s friendly, the drinks go down easy and don’t agitate my stomach while the decor doesn’t startle or bore me too much. Though I can order a fresh cup at a tiny hangdog roadside stand and be fulfilled as I drive away.

I have always loved tea and have become more a tea person over the years (this stomach is fussy). Still, I enjoy a good cup now and then, especially an expert Aztec mocha made with almond milk, no whip. Add a tasty scone or banana or zucchini bread. That specific drink is found at Insomnia Coffee in the suburbs, and I look forward to visiting following each dentist appointment. Since I’m a frequent patient–they treat me like family–this is a grand motivator for me to endure with acceptance any indignities that are forthcoming. Last Monday I stopped as usual at Insomnia but to my dismay it was being remodeled.  What a let down, I thought the interior is great. I’m hoping this is a good sign, they’ll be back with bigger or better changes. But there are other choices, of course, though I went home to nurse my own cold brew mocha before the numbness wore off.

It got me thinking, though, how big a role coffee shops and/or cafes play in my life and apparently most people’s– at least in the Northwest, place of chilled rainy winters (but long clear summers). There are so many bars and eateries here where scores of people drop loads of money but I don’t drink alcohol and am not a big foodie. Thus, coffee and tea with lighter fare are mainstays. I go in search fairly often, as Portlanders do, for these. (We are reputedly just third in the country for most coffee drinkers–Seattle and San Francisco beat us a bit.)

I like the fact that these shops are meeting places and they support our artisan culture. I like the civilized air that presides in such businesses no matter how humble, how varieties of people come together and don’t find anything to fight about despite a good caffeine buzz. And most of our coffee shops are independently owned, despite Starbucks’ ubiquity (only 295 here owned by them…) and they do thrive. Beyond that it’s the atmosphere, usually cozy, sometimes sophisticated, and wall to wall packed with humans. (And sometimes dogs; Portland is dog heaven, one wonders if they are the actual ruling class here.) I muse over how we can be shoulder to shoulder yet claim our bit of privacy, too, and everyone goes about their own business–or not, if given to spontaneous conversations. Often computers dominate the tables, though, another pro for coffee shop hounds.

Just last Saturday morning my friend Brenda and I met to catch up. We live thirty minutes or more away depending on traffic so we usually talk on the phone, then meet up as we can. We were in the atmospheric Costello’s Travel Cafe, started after a young man traveled the world, then returned with a vision for a family business. (Other good spots for us include Grand Central Bakery, Jim and Patty’s, Townshend Teas, Stumptown, Caffe D’Arte, Petite Provence, Fleur de Lis, Peet’s, Cadillac Cafe–yes, it showcases a real, very pink vintage Cadillac inside). We thought we might be out of luck getting a table but spotted a narrow one pressed against a front window. She snagged it as I got in line to order at the counter, then she took a spot in the longer line as I sipped my mug of coffee and tasted a mixed berry scone. One comes armed with patience at coffee shops or you might even stand outside to snag a table or even a bench as someone leaves. Or up and find another nearby spot.

We had a good view of full tables outdoors–it was chilly but no rain. There was sheer blue sky above houses turned into businesses, a few older offices. Pedestrians attired in various fashions or lack thereof, hard to say, sauntered by. There also stood a medium sized, buff colored, luxuriously furred mutt tied up at a bike rack. He’d accompanied a couple of guys who sat across from him. That dog attracted everyone who passed, like honey for bees, though he did nothing but sit, then stand assuredly, a model of a dog. Perhaps that was it–he didn’t set off alarms and was just being gorgeous.

“Watch this,” Brenda said, “his parents should check that dog and talk to the owner first but there some nutty kid goes!”  She sloshed about the tea bag in a bowl-shaped cup, started on a generous slice of cinnamon coffee cake while fascinated by the child’s seemingly reckless actions. “Too late!”

This from a woman whose own dog, Gypsy, growls at me most of the time I get into her car despite having known him all his life. I bare my own teeth in a smile that may be a half-grimace. It’s the protective nature of the beast. Only Brenda has the magic touch. But the owner of the cafe dog had no concerns plus he’d been trained to be nicer…perhaps. Gypsy hasn’t worried me, even lets me pat his head with his mistress’ assurances.

The perhaps four year old boy plunged his hands into all the lovely fur, ruffed it up good as a series of squeals rushed forth. The dog looked at him from the corner of his eye but was pleased to offer enjoyment. The child was loathe to leave–only his parents tugging hard at him pried him off. The next child, an older girl, put her head on the dog’s back and hugged him. Several others paused to pet and speak to the animal who was the most popular being on the block.

I was about to dash out to get my admiring moments in but asked Brenda just how she was doing. Brenda offered a health update which has not been very good for a long while, and then came scenarios involving her six year old niece (for whom she provides care every week-end),  and her work with women prisoners (also in treatment for addiction) at a correctional facility. The stories get longer the farther she moves from her health.

All this when a small round table to the right was not three feet away. A young man with laptop had been joined by two female strangers who chatted away, voices medium quiet so he was not disturbed. Brenda’s voice doesn’t lend itself to sotto voce even when it might be applicable. We just mostly talk as if we’re alone. Anyway, the room resounded with conversations; we joke that we’ll next need hearing aids that also block out others. But it’s another coffee shop/cafe with a reputation for talkative gatherings, soccer game gatherings and other events, with worldwide travel footage on two screens. One might be in Europe for all the languages ping-ponging around.

“My niece is a lovable terror, she knows too much and says it all and she always needs attention! I’m very happy to give it. I love that kid.” She laughs from the belly. “Rug rats, that’s what I called children, aye? Not ever my fate! Now I’m a doting aunt. Huh, karma, maybe!”

Her grey–blue eyes squinted in warm light brightening everything. She shook out long, still-damp, reddish-brown hair so it was artlessly arrayed. Her Native American genes show up in rising cheekbones and how they sit next to other features, her circuitous storytelling, and becoming still, taciturn when emotion runs deep.

She sat half-sideways; we were that close to the wall, but not uncomfortable. She is ten years younger than I but walks in pain every step. Never complaining unless it is so bad she can’t contain it. Her wild life story is evident in her face but so is a quirky good humor. Brenda finds life generally funny despite the horrors humans live through (or do not). She maybe should retire from her work as the battle her body fights takes its toll but she loves her clients, is committed to being of service to others. This is all she knows to do.

She’s been talking about life span lately, how fast it all goes, how it is best to seize every day and find it good before it seeps away. I know she means both of us–my heart problems, her multiple issues. But more often I sense in her some clouded if infinite horizon as she talks, see the wisp of a most uncertain future in her gaze. I look away for the sharp hurt it brings. And then she is back in the present with a joke and I talk about my adult kids and writing–she has never read it and I have never asked, it’s not needed for she knows me at heart–and the ways of my marriage and our recent trips. She cares for her elderly and similarly feisty mother, travels occasionally but only to hear music, Las Vegas or San Francisco. Once long ago she she took a cruise ship. She listens to my life as I do hers. She want to have lunch with a daughter and me.

We talk about the concert we’re attending in late spring. She has bought tickets (she buys online the first minute) for every Bonnie Raitt concert we could go to–is it five or six or even more, now?– and then I always ask what my portion is. Demand it.

“So just how much is my ticket to this concert? I know it costs a lot, this is Bonnie Raitt  and James Taylor, come on! We’re in the ninth row, the middle!”

She waves my words away, shakes her head. “You can get me dinner before and a t-shirt! We’re all set to go.”

“You’re impossible, you always say this when you know I can pay my way and am glad to do it. How can I possibly repay you?”

“I like to do this, you’re my friend, go with the flow.” She grinned, closed the topic.

I think over where we might eat before the concert. Think how I can never do enough for her, she won’t often accept it. But I am her friend.

It has been over twenty-five years since we met, working at a facility for gang-affiliated, addicted, abused and homeless youth. We did not trust each other, only grew to like each other when we took smoke breaks together. We stood near the locked doors at night and under eaves if it rained or sat on the curb if it was daytime, clear skies. Made coffee runs together to breath a bit.  She initially noted I was “too Miss Junior League and sorta snooty” and I found her dominating, quickly abrasive. I felt tempted to smack her some moments but of course, professional hopes and good sense corralled irritation. We discovered we were far more than what the eye could decipher: she was interested in both God and politics as well as the arts, especially music-. Not just her beloved blues but opera (though she didn’t and doesn’t like jazz, to my consternation). Treating people with respect despite the sharp edges she had. And I was no delicate cream puff, not by a long shot, having lived life on and off many edges if not right in the street. She later said she suspected that, she just had to test me to see,  but she was surprised I could handle such tough kids. I soon appreciated her frankness and gave it right back. We laughed hard, something I had forgotten I could do. I liked that we laughed at ourselves, too.

The cafe was buzzing. She picked at her cake as I finished my scone, her voice trailing off as she finished responding to my sharing. She was tired. I glanced at my phone to check the time. I had a commitment with another friend later, a wealth of good times for one day.

“Ready for the music hunt?” I asked.

“Sounds good, sis-tah.”

We exited for Part 2 of visiting. This was how it went when we got together–coffee or tea with food, then music, then maybe something else. (She rarely comes to my upper floor apartment as the stairs are too much to tackle.) After checking on a congenial Labradoodle dog–the Royal Furry One had left– we took off for the independent music store we love. It has an intimate, cavernous semi-darkness and the various music played, loud. After twenty minutes Brenda was empty-handed while I’d found a jazz trio. She was coughing, that cough that would not let go, and her steps had been more halting after we’d parked. Despite all, she laughed it off, as ever: “I get premium parking in handicapped spots since hips and foot went bad!” The surgeries helped but not enough.

A broad-shouldered woman, taller than I am, she commands a room even when feeling compromised. It’s her air of authority right or wrong, the laser-like vision and instinct that scans a scene, her way of asserting that she’s able to hold off any threat as necessary with her will or a few choice, well-paced words that ring in heads for long moments after. She stands as she lives, with courage and clarity, exudes a passionate interest in life. Even when she, herself, may be vulnerable. Of course, she is just a person felled by what most are felled by even while asserting it’s all good, she’s got this. And I stand by her.

A narrow window revealed the sun sliding behind thickening clouds. We both had other things to do, not like some days when our agendas are clear so we can waste time and do things like shop at Target for nothing special or visit a dog park so Gypsy is freed from the back of her car.

In the car, she stated, “Don’t put that CD in, I don’t want to hear “your crazy-ass jazz.” I retorted,  “I don’t want to hear all those moaning blues, either.” That’s how we are sometimes, smart-mouthed, quick to point out differences that are really just a few steps apart, like the span between chartreuse and pine green.

Next time. There has always been a “next time” year after year, and we have each changed. She’s gotten more careful with language and more pensive. I have found more joy and peace, shed my reserved amour some. Perhaps we’ll meet at a pretty place that has fifty fine teas in big glass jars or  at a spartan setting with bagels and cheaper coffee or a brunch spot where we’ll wait for fifteen minutes and the superior coffee costs a fortune. It may be a hideaway coffee shop with a spacious patio and vines snaking up a fence; there’ll be flowers blooming soon. She’ll fuss about pesky, noisy birds and I’ll offer a few nature stories gathered during hikes. We’ll sip and snack and talk about things, the hardest and the easier, the idiocy of this world and the beauty we still find.

Next year she may feel better, maybe not. Likely not. But we have this stellar friendship, and Bonnie Raitt again in June, that much I will count on despite life being fickle and this flesh wears out bit by bit, mostly without our permission.

I cannot begin to imagine all those fine coffee shops without Brenda.

9 thoughts on “There is Good Coffee Alone, Then There is Coffee with My Friend

  1. Wonderful story, Cynthia. We don’t have enough good coffee places here in Pittsburgh; Starbucks reigns and we have 2 on campus that are always packed with students. I miss the cafes of Italy; probably the closest to what you describe. I always think of the entire West Coast as a “cafe society” where both place and coffee are valued.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and enjoying–I always appreciate when you stop by. Yes, I think this is a true comment regarding a big part of our culture out here. I have not, sadly,, been to Italy so cannot compare…Would love to hear how that is to experience if you’re ever moved to write of it!

  2. It amazes me how many people go out for coffee or tea but as you say it is a meeting place and I look back to the sixties when coffee bars equipped with juke boxeswere for teenagers.

    1. Funny that you would mention our youthful era–the piece was initially to be contrasting the old-time spots with the newer–but perhaps another post! Yes, I recall that and also coffee houses where there was folk music, etc. shared. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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