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first person

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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

I am not a coffee connoisseur. I just drink lots of it every day until 11 a.m. and then I stop. I have to be particular about when I drink it. Too late and I won’t sleep. The coffee needs to have the power of jet fuel, too. Light, dark whatever. I’ll have it black or as a cappuccino with almond milk on my days off. Through the pandemic, getting coffee has been one of the few reasons to leave home. My dog knows the route and takes me to the coffee shop around the corner for the treats. But it’s the people who serve the coffee that are the real reason I drink so much, I get much more from them than a hot cup of coffee.

Blame me for holding up the coffee line. (But I can tell there are a few other customers who have also made a connection.) The baristas and I have been in deep conversations. We are often talking about feeling stuck in situations that are draining. We talked about the way the pandemic brought out the worst in all of us. How people we knew were getting sick with COVID-19, and how restaurants hadn’t figured out how to switch to a takeout model. We were home-schooling children whose needs had long exceeded what untrained parents could do on their own and work from home at the same time. We were feeling how tight our homes had become. We were all on top of each other wherever we lived.

One morning, my barista said, “Have you read All About Love by bell hooks? The next day there was a copy of the book at the counter, left for me by that barista. I don’t know this person’s last name. But I do know a lot about how they grew up. I know they are frugal and have a deep interest in music. The loan of this book was an incredible kindness. They didn’t know at that point if I’d ever return the book or bring it back swollen from being dropped in the tub. The book got me through what had been a moment of feeling so despondent during the pandemic.

That book and the loan of that book lead me to think deeply about how I love and who I love. All About Love has become one of my guiding texts. It breaks down the idea that love is a list of attitudes. What stood out to me is the idea that respect is key to loving and without that, love is something else – then love becomes something that does not feel good, that can’t withstand time or a pandemic or home-schooling.

So I love my coffee barista.

When bell hooks died in December, we had another moment of conversation grieving her loss and celebrating the knowledge she left us. And yeah, I held up the line at the coffee shop again.

Another time I dragged myself to the barista’s window, this time just for the carbs and sugar and chat. I wanted to talk about the random bit of 1990′s hip hop I had just heard coming from a car on the road. The song was You Don’t Know Me, by Armand Van Helden. That loud music woke me up before I got my caffeine and I realized I had been dragging myself through the mental struggles of friends and family.

For some people, the pandemic is lifting away any pretence of sanity and decent behaviour. The anger, the hurt, the desperate loneliness and loss of purpose are tearing people apart on the inside. Conversations are argumentative. There is no patience and lots of rash decisions. A total inability to move in a positive direction. This is a half-and-half life, and lockdown residue.

Since I can’t push anyone to do anything, I go for coffee. On this day, I tell the barista I’ll be taking my carbs and sugar to sit alone and eat in the sun. I get a musical recommendation: “Listen to some Pharcyde.” More nineties hip hop.

The barista’s order pulled me out of that day’s pandemic muck. But just as I am feeling the nineties again, my earbuds are drowned out by breakdancing music that’s erupted nearby. A young crew is doing moves invented decades before they were born. They are adding new dance patterns. They are expressive and happy. I see that the pandemic can’t stop their joy.

The carbs and sugar have lifted my mood but I get more of a life-restoring feeling from watching the breakdancers perform in the sun. They seemed to come out of nowhere. There is energy and laughter. They are top rocking and locking. The moves are short, quick and exact. They all hit the beats as if the music was written for them. Old school all the way.

When one of them jokes to another, “Yo, you gotta know your next move, bro!” It feels like life advice. I wonder if they saw my barista and she sent them my way.

Your local barista may be serving up more than a flat white if you’re willing to hold up the line to find out.

Marcia Young lives in Toronto.

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