“That’s all anybody can do right now. Live. Hold out. Survive. I don’t know whether good times are coming back again. But I know that won’t matter if we don’t survive these times.”
— Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower
The Black, queer-owned pop-up was nestled on a corner betwixt a gas station and brewery, in a neighborhood where rich folks’ homes sit on cobblestones just blocks away from corner stores and public housing. The space was small but two walls of windows, simple furniture, and green plants expand the world inside. Music streamed through the shop inviting you to leave the noise of the world behind as you enter — Sade, Janet, Stevie, Frank, or some new voice you have never heard but instantly love. The name on the door betrayed the heaven that once filled the mornings inside but those who came looking for it, those who needed it most know it was there — bold, tender, and waiting.
After grasping for the feelings of home for years, I stumbled right into it on a summer day. And it, the pop-up coffee spot with the good drinks and better people, kept me alive this past year.
If heaven was a place, it was there. Them folks were angels and those drinks — the coffee (hot or iced) handled with care and power — were miracles. But nothing stays the same — not even heaven on earth. Octavia wrote, “the only lasting truth is Change.” People leave, menus shift, leases end. In the end though, we have moments — just tastes of what once was holy and perfect. These are the moments that I can still taste, still feel on my hardest days.
I. The Welcome Committee: Lavender Latte with Oat Milk
In an early morning session, my therapist asks how I’m settling in. It is my second week in Ohio and she knows I have been searching for home longer than I’ve known her. I tell her I’m still working on it, remind her that it’s new and I’m just trying to figure out this town. “But,” I say, “I met a new friend and we are meeting for coffee again today.” She smiles and wishes me luck.
When I arrive at the coffee shop, it is more crowded than expected but I spot my new friend at a table just past the bar — her pink hair and colorfully patterned shirt popping through the sea of unknowns. She greets me as if we have been friends since grade school. I reciprocate because the world is open again and I am in a new city — everyone I know is both stranger and family at once. “Did you already get a drink?” I ask. I am not sure if the rules of meeting friends for coffee have changed since 2020. Do we order together? Do I pay for her coffee? Should I have ordered before I approached the table? Making new friends in adulthood is the most complicated endeavor (besides of course navigating health insurance and just surviving in this country). Before she can respond, Janet Jackson’s “All for You” blares through the shop’s speakers. A spry, cinnamon-skinned boy bops around me with ease carrying a cup and saucer.
“All my girls at the party, look at that body
Shakin’ that thing like you never did see”
The boy puts the drink down on the table and spins before popping into quick twerk on the way back behind the bar.
“Ahhhh yeahhhhh,” my new friend hypes him up and bursts into laughter.
“Welcome in friend,” the twerking coffee boy says as I follow him to the register. “Is this your first time?”
“It is, I just moved here from –– well from Vermont,” I respond, still unsure how to explain to new friends that I am not from Vermont, that I just lived in the mountains of Vermont to breathe for a year, that before that I was in a stuffy Boston suburb but I’m really from the DC suburbs even though nowhere feels like home these days.
“Oh snap, well welcome! I’m Jeffrey. We’re so glad you’re here,” he exclaims over Janet’s rhythms.
I tell the crunchy white girl in line behind me that she can go before me and she quickly orders an iced chai. I promised myself I’d try new things in this new city so I tell Jeffrey I want a lavender latte but with oat milk, because my stomach has proven that trying whole milk is forbidden. He gives me my total and asks if that’s okay with me. I say yes because this is America and it has to be okay (or so I think). I wait to add my tip to the bill — it’s a coffee shop and we’re in a pandemic so tipping is non-negotiable (or so I think). But twerking Jeffrey tells me that all I have known is wrong. He says the shop is “pay-what-you-can,” that if I couldn’t pay I’d still be good, that everyone should be able to get coffee if they need it and they don’t accept tips. “Gratuity-free,” he says and tells me about how he and friends opened up this pop-up the year before, how they dreamt as the world crumbled around us, how they believe in people and community first. I leave the counter and hope the coffee is as good as the story behind it.
When I sit back down across from my new friend, she is engrossed in work but pauses to chat. “So this is the shop…” she says with a grin. “It’s great right? Like really great?”
A few minutes later, Jeffrey slides my latte onto the table, careful not to disturb the art on the surface of the drink. I take more pictures of the coffee than I want to admit and raise my cup to my lips — not too hot, not too sweet, delivered with care from a stranger introduced to me with a twerk. More Janet plays overhead and I think maybe it is time to redefine home — maybe home tastes like lavender and feels like this.
II. Liquid Courage: A Shot of Espresso
I drop off my wife at a job that eats her alive before the sun rises on Wednesday morning. I have memorized the miles and minutes between the charter school and the coffee shop. The sun promises that one day she will beat me to the shop. I sleepily tell her yes because I know these early mornings won’t last much longer — more sleep or daylight savings will relieve me soon enough. I park my car on the street adjacent to the shop and wait two minutes until they “open.” At 7:01, I turn the corner and open the door — James Blake’s mellow voice and the smell of coffee grounds greeting my weary soul.
“Ayyyyyy,” Ben yells with a grin that wakes my spirit just enough to make it to the counter. “I’ll start with a shot of espresso,” I say. “Got you,” he says. I wonder if he can read the insomnia in my eyes, if he can hear the grief in my voice. I sit down at the counter and break out my stack of articles, highlighters, notebook, and pen. The shot goes down bitterly with a hint of soul — like a desperate old soul’s breakup song with a girl who did him dirty. I chase it with the soda water. As the sun arrives, Ben cranks up the volume on the Lenny Kravitz track he’s just put on. He runs to the middle of the empty shop and does a circular dance move with his tongue out. Bryan and I share a glance and I shake my head. We all laugh and this is how we will make it today — strong coffee, Lenny Kravitz, and moments like this — outshining the world in ridiculousness.
III. Holding Me Close: Cocoa Butter Mint Latte
Winter in Ohio feels exactly how it sounds. It is not as bitter as Boston, not as beautiful as Vermont. Instead, she is mostly grey and miserable with overly dramatic threats of snowstorms. In the mornings, I coerce myself out of bed with the promise of coziness in the uniform I have adopted for the season — a hoodie, soft beanie, and fleece-lined joggers. It has been a year since my dad became an ancestor and the world around me continues to burn — more mass shootings, stress, grief, and hate than I can digest fills my feeds when I wake each morning. I wake up and hold my phone above my head, scrolling until I remember that my wife said I should stop scrolling before I get dressed. She knows the phone has become a double-pronged fidget toy for my anxiety, fueling and easing it at once. She knows that getting out of bed has become increasingly harder for me since the new year. She knows scrolling won’t help.
“I just need to make it to coffee,” I tweet before locking my phone again. I don’t mean just any coffee, of course. It’s Thursday which means I’m going to the shop again. Two weeks into the semester and I’m grateful I’ve intentionally scheduled my courses around the hours of the shop. A grad student moves across the country to get their doctorate and ends up planning their academic schedule around the hours of a coffee shop. Sounds like the beginning of a really bad rom-com that ends with co-eds making out on the lawn (or perhaps outside the front door of a coffee shop). Instead, I was just trying to dodge disaster — being another casualty, another Black academic lost to a system that will never love me back. Everyone told me the same thing — make time for yourself and find your people. The Black ones I asked were more specific with their warnings — take care of yourself because academia will kill you, find your people because academia can kill you if you don’t.
So because it is Thursday, I get out of bed knowing my calendar says “@ the shop” and my coffee is waiting on me. I throw on a graphic t-shirt that reads “Ohio” in white block letters and cover it with a sweatshirt that reads “Ohio State” just in case the universe didn’t get the memo the first time. As I look in the mirror, I tally the number of Ohio-branded shirts I’ve acquired in the previous six months. Stop counting. This is a distraction, shea. Get your ass out of the house. My dog hates mornings more than me. I can tell by her side-eye when I dangle her harness to wake her. But I know the cold January will slap us in the face and wake us both faster than we want.
When I finally reach the shop a half-hour later, it’s still quiet. Jess greets me when I walk in. She wears a green flannel and a smile that cuts through the bitterness of a dreary winter morning in Columbus, Ohio. I remind Jess that she is my favorite. I tell her that she is the Employee of the Month. I tell her this every time I see her. She chuckles and shakes her head. I skip my espresso because I need something that will wrap me tightly and hold me close. “Cocoa Butter Mint Latte,” I say, surprising both Jess and myself.
It is too pretty to drink, but I taste it anyway. The cocoa butter coats my throat and the mint bites back against my imposter syndrome that tries to creep up when I open my laptop to write. In a pandemic, I have learned to redraw the definitions of intimacy. I sip the drink again and call it a hug.
IV. Adulting: A Cortado
When it comes to coffee, I am a pre-teen mucking toward adolescence, just barely graduated from too-sweet frozen drinks that are more dessert than fuel. When you are young in experience, all unknowns blend — you just want to wear “makeup,” taste “beer,” get “a girlfriend,” drink “coffee,” — unaware that not all foundations, drafts, girls, and beans are made equal. Coffee is coffee, I had thought. I ordered lattes like I ordered drinks at bars — the same drink each time. I have mastered the art of pretending I know what is good — what to do, to drink.
The smooth cat who sometimes sat next to me at the bar on weekdays ordered cortados. Built like an Ivy Park model with cropped pants and ankles showing even in winter, he sipped the drink like it was gold. I imagined he drank gimlets while holding expensive cigars, too — like a suave protagonist in an Ernest Hemingway plot. We talked about podcasts and politics. I mentioned his bare ankles and he chuckled nonchalantly, too cool for mother nature’s temperaments.
“I’ll take a cortado,” I say one brisk morning after paying my rent on time for the 8th month in a row and remembering to take my medicine again. It is a day for adult shit. I open my computer at the bar next to the smooth cat and pour myself a glass of water. I make a to-do list of my work tasks. I confirm my therapy appointment by email. I text my wife I love her. Bryan slides my four-ounce glass across the bar — half espresso and half oat milk with a layered heart on top.
First sip and the door opens behind me. The air hits my bare ankles and it is cold as hell.
V. Birthday Guest: Blood Orange Shrub
They say eventually everything blooms. In Ohio, I call BS until late April when spring finally begins to make herself known. The rain comes more often than not and in between the downpour, we get teasers of what is to come — sunshine, budding petals, faint scents of freshly cut grass. As my birthday approaches, my wife asks what I want to do. I say it is on Friday so I will go to the place that feels more like home than most places I have been since my mama died. When I arrive at the shop, my sister and friends have decorated the front table with pictures of my face. Jeffrey hands me a present — a new journal. More friends show up to the party — most of whom I’ve met right here or by way of this place. The end of the semester looms and my work is piling up, but today I remember the advice of those who have come before — take care of yourself, find your people.
So I celebrate my survival. Everyone dons the paper crowns my wife brought. We play Jenga until one of us loses. We play Cards Against Humanity until we tire and then feed ourselves cupcakes and more coffee. We laugh and tell stories. They sing the birthday song and I wish that the shop will always be here even as the world crumbles around us. Surrounded by the ones who have kept me breathing, I raise a glass of the Blood Orange Shrub and cheers to my (our) existence.
Before I leave, I request my theme song be played through the speakers. Ben eventually relents and “Knuck if You Buck” blasts in the cafe. I leave the rest of the cupcakes with the boys behind the bar and say “thank you for everything.” For today. For every day before it. For dreaming. For building. For helping us survive. For holding us close. For this pop-up heaven with coffee fumes and good music. For something better, smoother, beyond what I knew could ever be possible.