5:30 am. The sun is peeking through the buildings across the street, orange and pink filling the sky and glinting off the buildings.
I'm sitting behind a large espresso machine that pumps out hundreds, perhaps thousands, of coffees each day and before the hoards arrive, I'm sipping my own. Beside me is a raspberry muffin; fresh off the truck from the bakery, still warm and fragrant.
Soon the grinder mill will whirr, the shop will be abuzz with people, and we'll be calling orders like "tall double shot almond latte" or "grande mocha extra whip" while the machine chugs and dispenses liquid gold. People of all walks of life; lawyers, businessmen, stay at home moms, students, will come through the doors. You can see the relief on their faces when they enter.
They take a deep breath and soak in pungent smell of coffee; the smell that signals them to relax, put their feet up, enjoy a small slice of heaven in a busy day.
This isn't just a coffee shop. It's a community.
There's the harried Mom who comes in on the way to driving her kids to school, then accidentally drives away and forgets she left her grande latte sitting on top of her car. We laugh and make her another one, refusing her money. We've all had a bad day, like the time I couldn't remember the access code for the shop's security system and phoned the manager in tears because I couldn't shut it off.
There's Ray, the Vietnam Vet dying from stomach cancer who visits us every day after he finishes a chemotherapy treatment. We've watched him change from a robust, healthy man to one that we barely recognize. We can't bear to charge him for coffee, and instead toss our tips into the cash register and hand him a cup with a smile.
There's the silver haired realtor who tells me that I look like his grand daughter and calls me Katerina because in his native Germany, that's what my name would be.
There's the hearing impaired couple who, when realizing that I know some sign language, teach me the sign for "tall latte". I teach the staff, and from then on they order without having to use pen and paper, for which they are absolutely ecstatic.
There's the "grande extra hot double shot hazelnut latte" lady who comes three times a day and woe be to the barista who gets it wrong. She brings us sweet buns from the bakery around the corner one day because she thinks we are all "just so wonderful."
There's the cabbie who makes it a habit to drive by at least twice a night and check on us young girls working late, because he wants us to be safe. We slip him free re-fills as a thank-you.
There's my future husband, who roars in on a motorcycle and loves a squirt of chocolate syrup in his coffee, who, unbeknownst to me, is only coming to the shop so that he can sit with me on my breaks. For a year and half, we don't date. Instead we have coffee together every day.
Then there's Sam, the homeless man. The guy who we watch as he cycles from being sober to falling into drunkenness. Who we call security to come pick up not because he's disruptive, but because we're terrified he's going to get hit by a car as he stumbles by on the street. Sam, who is dirty and smells, who hardly speaks English.
Sam. The guy who sits at the outside tables in the corner and sometimes eats whatever he picked out of the dumpster, with his bike parked alongside laden with every possession he has in the world. Who, when he's sober, insists on paying for his own coffee from our more expensive shop then going to the much cheaper convenience store next door. He quietly stands in line with everyone else and we give him a warm smile, look him in the eye, and then slip him a muffin, which he gratefully accepts. He speaks very little, but his eyes say it all. We have never asked him to leave or refused to serve him. When Sam is in our shop, he is treated the same as the Mercedes driving businessman in the expensive suit before him.
One day he hobbled up to the counter and thrust a dirty, half dead bouquet of flowers at me. His lips parted in a toothy grin.
"Thank you," he grunted as he took his coffee. He pushed the flowers to me. "Nice. For you."
I was only 21 then. I had never known hardship. Never really knew what it was like to face hunger, to not have a roof over my head and money in my pocket. I didn't understand what Sam really was thanking me for. I only saw the ragged bouquet, which I accepted with a smile.
Today, 17 long years later through job losses, financial crisis, moves, illnesses and children, I understand.
He was thanking me for giving him the one thing that was so much more then a coffee.