Wednesday, July 18, 2018

layla, the pope of coffee

A few weeks ago I got to tag along with G to a nurse conference in Tampa.  You can read about that if you scroll down a while.  The trip was interesting because we had never been to Tampa and we planned a few adventures there, but it was also interesting because I was feeling the pain of the hernia, especially in the afternoons and walking wasn't something I was doing a lot of at the time.  After hours of driving, my body didn't want to walk miles around the downtown area exploring.  Of course, I did anyway, but not as much as I would have normally.  

So on these types of trips, G has to get up early and go sit in on conference sessions most of the day, which leaves me to go around doing art things alone.  One of the traditions I enjoy on these trips is finding a place to have coffee and breakfast each morning.  I take my sketchbook and camp out for a while.  It's a great time to watch people, especially when a country bumpkin like me goes into a downtown city area.  I usually sit and enjoy my coffee while drawing the people or other random things.  

On the first morning in Tampa, the only coffee shop I could find on the map app was the Starbucks in the hotel lobby.  Now here's where we'll have to agree to disagree.  Starbucks is the Walmart of coffee.  OK, maybe it's the Target of coffee.  But only if it's a good day with the right person making the coffee.  Oh yes, I drink it and happily so if it's the only thing I can find, but in general, their coffee drinks taste burnt and it's really hit or miss with how the coffee is mixed.  I do love plain coffee with sugar but each morning I need as many ounces as possible of a Café Mocha to get my blood sufficiently sweetened.  And honestly when I order it and they ask me if I want it hot...that just irritates me.  It's coffee.  Of course I want it hot.  I didn't order a milkshake.  (No offense to the 90% of you who drink those iced coffee drinks)  You may get irritated by having to press 1 for English, I get irritated by having to specify that I do, in fact, want my coffee hot.  And I'm the old guy who still refuses to order the size in whatever vocabulary Starbucks is trying to fancy their place up with.  I want a LARGE.  I don't care what it means in Italian.  We're in a chain coffee joint in a strip mall in the South.  It's a small, medium or large.  Or maybe even "a big'un" if you're in the right town.  But all that aside, like Walmart (or Target), you can expect to get the same basic thing if you're in California, South Carolina, the campus shop at school or even Tampa.  So I waited in the very long line of nurses getting their cup before the conference and I sat at a tiny table.  I ate a frozen sandwich thing and drank my large white chocolate mocha.  It was all average as expected.

Exploring town a little more that afternoon, I found a little breakfast place called "Moxie's".  I decided they probably had better coffee than Walbucks and the atmosphere certainly seemed cozier.  The next morning I walked down and found my way in the door.  I was immediately greeted by at least two voices from behind the counter.  I felt like I was in Waffle House.  I was there for coffee and I found that quickly on the menu but I hadn't really thought out my food order.  I was making it up completely on the spot at the register, without even looking at the choices.  I saw a waffle and asked for one.  Then, asked for chocolate chips in it and got a "now you're talkin'" from the cashier.  I liked the place.  I was a stranger and I had been accepted.  

I took my seat by the front window, but opted to turn my back to the window so I could observe the interior and it's occupants.  There was a solo dude at the table beside me working on business.  The table behind him had a trio there on business.  They made small talk and I'm pretty sure one of the ladies was flirting with the dude.  An older couple sat behind them silent.  I lost interest the farther away people sat.  People would walk in the door and they'd be greeted by their first name.  I thought that was kind of cool.  I started to realize I was in a local favorite spot where people would come in before work or during a break every weekday.  I also noted that the person doing most of the greeting and first name remembering was the young lady making the coffee.  There were some kitchen dudes and a cashier who did several things, but only one person was in charge of the coffee.  Every coffee ordered went through her.  There was another young lady who would walk the food and drinks out to the tables.  

I started drawing in my sketchbook while I waited for my waffle and coffee.  This is what I drew...

The lady with the glasses was the one flirting with the dude.

Soon, I looked up to find the barista walking toward my table with my coffee.  She sat it on my table and said, "I'm sorry it took a little longer.  It looked so good I had to take a picture of it before I brought it."  She smiled and I admitted that it was a very good looking coffee before thanking her.  

 That's the coffee as it was delivered.  It was perfect.  I mean, it looked great, but it tasted perfect.  It was a vanilla mocha latte and if I'm honest, it may have been better than the ones I make at home.  I guess maybe I should have mentioned that in the Starbucks paragraph, but I make a really great coffee at home.  When I go to a coffee shop, they really have to be great to live up to my expectations.  I know plenty of people who work at Starbucks and I know you think you're the exception but I promise you're not.  This is not an insult.  I know you're following your recipe like you should, it's just that your recipe isn't as great as mine.  No big deal.  We can still be friends.  

But that coffee.  It was so good.  So good I can barely remember the really high quality waffle I ate.  So good I ordered another before I left.  It was really, really good.  

As I savored the coffee, I started to pay more attention to the coffee maker.  After people would order their coffee to go, they would come around to the end of the counter where the coffee syrups were and they'd talk to the barista.  Not like small talk, but really talking like they knew each other.  She talked to them like she was really interested in their lives.  I started to think about how this affected the customers.  It was affecting me, first of all.  They made me feel at home when I came in.  But it was also making the customers feel like family, making them want to come in again the next day.  People would walk in the door with morning face and when the barista would call them by name, they'd perk up and smile.  It was fun to watch.  

When I go on trips like this with G, I try to take some kind of thick paper scraps to draw little messages on to leave for strangers.  Sometimes it's "you are beautiful" taken from the You Are Beautiful international sticker campaign or sometimes I improvise with something nice on the spot.  It takes only a couple of minutes but it can make a big impact on someone's day.  It gives me something to do while I wait for G to get out of the conference.

I flipped through my sketchbook and realized I failed to put the strips of Bristol paper in there.  But I was inspired so I grabbed a napkin and quickly sketched out some words and wrote "thanks for the coffee" and handed it to the barista as I headed out the door.  This is the way these scenes end and it's probably why I enjoy doing it.  I get to make someone smile, but it's pretty hands off and I don't have to feel any emotions.  I hand them a paper and walk away to never see them again.  It's very me.  

But dang that was great coffee.  And I had one more morning in Tampa.  And she probably wouldn't be there two mornings in a row, right?  And even if she was, there's no way she would remember a stranger.  And I could wear a hat.  I'd be invisible.  

So I walked to Moxie's again the next morning.  I got the common greeting when I walked in the door but no one seemed to recognize me.  It was all going according to plan.  I ordered my coffee and a new breakfast and took my seat unnoticed.  I was invisible.  There was an older couple at the table beside me and I gathered that she was a nurse and he was tagging along just like me.  Behind him there was an annoying table of people having a business meeting.  They used every cliche statement you have ever heard in your life.  It was like bad TV.  Behind them a younger couple came in and took seats trying to decide if they were "here or to go" people.  

I started sketching and writing a recap of the day before and I looked up when I felt someone close.  

The barista was standing at my table with another magnificent coffee.  She placed the coffee on the table and she handed me her phone.  This is not normal, right?  Then I realized I was busted.  She recognized me.  She said, "Hi, I'm Layla.  And you're...Doug?"

Then she explained to me that the day before she was having a particularly crappy morning and that when she got my little drawing it turned her day around.  She said that she was so moved by it that she posted something about it on Facebook and that she never does things like that.  She had placed her phone right in front of me and had the Facebook post pulled up so I could read it.  There was the photo of the coffee that she took (that's her photo above) and a photo of the drawing and a nice little paragraph thanking the "random stranger". 

We talked for a minute and she left me to my breakfast.  I thought about how she had taken the nice thing and used it as fuel to be nice to other people.  She had multiplied it.  This was something she offered to people every single day by saying "good morning" and calling them by name.  She probably has no idea what a difference that small thing makes in those people's lives.  

Layla is one of those people you instantly know you could hang out with.  She has a positive energy and a personality that is giving instead of taking.  When I was ready to leave I walked up to the coffee counter and thanked her for sharing her post with me and for another excellent coffee.  We talked for a couple of minutes and it turns out her parents just moved to South Carolina so she was familiar with the area I was from.  We shook hands and parted ways with a smile.

Sometimes when I'm walking on campus I'll pass a stranger and smile or say "good morning" and I'll wonder what that person is dealing with at that moment.  Did they get dumped the day before?  Do they have a sick parent?  Did they come to school so anxiety ridden that they were sick?  And did that smile make any of it any better?  You just can't tell by looking at them.  It seems to me that the best approach is to be nice to everyone as often as you are able.  If they're having a great day, you might make it even better.  If they're having a tragic day, your smile might be the only good thing that happens to them.  Within us each day, we have the power to make people happy or to make people sad.  I wonder if Layla knows how many lives she has touched in a positive way just by going to work every day.  

If you're ever in Tampa, check out Moxie's at 514 N Tampa St and look for Layla.  You'll leave a better person.

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