Jared Axelrod recalls bittersweet days spent handing a few ounces of warmth to those who needed it most.
When I started working for Robbie at Cup-A-Joe back in Chapel Hill a decade ago, one of the first things he told me was that I should forget the myths of dark roasts. “Dark roasting doesn’t make the coffee stronger, or give it more caffeine—that’s just science fiction,” he said. “All it does is make the coffee more bitter.” Robbie carried many dark roasts; it was the only way to treat African coffee beans, in his opinion. But the shiny beetle-black carapaces of French roast beans were alien here. He wouldn’t have anything to do with them. Because Robbie knew how easy bitterness can overwhelm the earthy, acidic taste of a good cup of coffee.
Most people buy coffee on their way to somewhere else, after all. They don’t need more bitterness on their journey.
When I left North Carolina and moved to Philadelphia—which might as well have been Mars, to my post-collegiate mind—I scoured the place for barista jobs. Ten years ago there wasn’t yet a java joint every two blocks like there is now, but it still seemed a likely point of entry into the Philadelphia workforce. I interviewed for a job at the Children’s Hospital coffee bar, only to be passed over for someone else. But when that someone else decided not to show up two weekends in a row, I got the job.
The coffee bar at Children’s Hospital was an odd thing, tucked away in a corner of the cafeteria. It had no plumbing, so the water necessary to run the machines was pumped in through tanks, which needed to be refilled periodically from the sink in the supply closet on the other end of the cafeteria. The coffee came pre-ground in little silver packets, which made me feel like I worked in a coffee bar in space. The hospital residents, who’d pad up in their minimalist pajama-scrubs with their beepers and such flashing, only added to the distant-asteroid-outpost feel of the place.
My coffee-making work was essentially unchanged from what I’d gotten accustomed to in a neighborhood coffee shop. But I wasn’t prepared for the shift in clientele: Instead of the college students, the intellectuals and film buffs I was used to, the people I saw in the Children’s Hospital were, of course, sick and injured kids and their loved ones. Families would congregate at the cafeteria, parents ordering a coffee in the hopes that some extra caffeine would get them through the visit. There’s something wrong about seeing a child who isn’t running and screaming about like the rest of her siblings. Just sitting there, looking worn, with tubes coming out her arms to a IV stand twice her height like a little cyborg. A child should not be shrunk by the machines that keep her alive. It doesn’t seem right.
One Saturday, I saw all these tiny, tiny girls walking past the cafeteria. As it turned out, it was the weekly meeting of the anorexic/bulimic patients. I couldn’t imagine at the time how horrible an eating disorder has to be in order for a person to be hospitalized? But they looked so frail, so small, like wingless butterflies.
Everyone, I learned, looks small in the vastness of a empty cafeteria. Even the parents.
One mother came to the counter and ordered a latte. While I was fixing her drink, she spoke to two new parents in the group. They needed directions around the hospital, and she had been here long enough to have a mental map of the place. She was clearly not proud of this knowledge; envy burned in her eyes as the other parents walked away. What must it have been like to not know every location in this hospital—every nurse’s station, every restroom, every alcove where you could sit apart from everyone. But she was a moon in orbit. She had circled this path many times.
“Man, you’re helpful. You deserve a cape,” I said. I wasn’t trying to cheer her up—not exactly. But I felt I had to say something.
She looked at me with an expression of complete disbelief. “I wish I could help my daughter get out of here.” She rested her elbows on the rickety counter, her head too heavy to stay on her shoulders.
“Well,” I said, “Even superheroes have to do things one thing at a time.”
“Thanks for that.” She tried to smile at me. It was a good effort, if not a successful one.
The latte I gave her was smooth and rich and full, with as little bitterness as I could manage; she had more than enough already. She took a sip, gave the smile another failed attempt, and crossed the vast empty space to her daughter.