Monday, March 29, 2010

Coffee with a Stranger #3 - Coffee with Expanding Your Comfort Zone

There are time
s when we all need to expand our comfort zone. Maybe you're in a rut. Maybe you're bored. Maybe you just broke up with your girlfriend and you've decided to "show her" by discovering a little thing called whiskey, not showering for several weeks, and starting a punk band with some street kids you met at a NOFX concert.

Or maybe you get in your grandpa's Honda Civic and you drive across the continent with your dad for a low-paying, part-time job and an interview for a possible "manny" position in Oakland, California. Maybe you stop along the way at Graceland and the Grand Canyon. In the car, maybe you listen to a ridiculous David Baldacci book-on-tape that features an even more ridiculous narrator who raises his voice several octaves whenever a lady is speaking. Maybe your dad, who's flying home once you reach San Francisco, rubs his hands together multiple times during the trip and says, "This is really neat!" Maybe you spend New Year's Eve in a hotel in Bakersfield, CA, and while your dad sleeps and you peel labels off bottles of Sierra Nevada, you wonder what the hell you're doing moving 4537 kilometers/2707 miles away from almost everyone you know.

Or maybe you do something a little less extreme. Maybe you're bumming around Craigslist, looking for a job in the coffee roasting world because you're sick of working in "ink" and when you search for keyword "coffee", some post entitled Coffee with a Stranger pops up and you decide, "Yeah, whatever, why not?"

Well, that's exactly how I ended up meeting with Jason, Stranger #3 and a native of Wisconsin, at Blue Bottle Coffee in Oakland's Jack London Square. In Jason's own words, "This isn't something I would normally do, but it's not like I've got anything else going on and it's been explained to me that I should start doing things outside my comfort zone." Then he laughed.

I'll take it!
Coffee with a Stranger is open to any and all reasons for meeting over a cup of coffee.

Unfortunately, this particular Blue Bottle Coffee didn't have much in the way of seating, so Jason and I set out on foot to find another place to sit in Jack London Square. We ended up on a bench outside of the train station where we were serenaded by train whistles, the squeal of train brakes, and pre-recorded arrival and departure announcements. We also witnessed a little boy wander up to our bench to deliver a couple of swift kicks to a nearby garbage can. Kid's gonna be the next Pele!

When Jason, who I'd guess is in his mid-to-late 30's, first mentioned that he used to work in "ink", I thought of one thing: tattoos. I eyed his cropped, salt and pepper hair, Oakley sunglasses, long-sleeve Carhartt shirt, cargo pants, and 
hiking boots and wondered if he was hiding some extravagant tattoo somewhere underneath. He didn't seem the type, but I've been wrong on these kinds of things before. Turns out, however, that when Jason says "ink", he's talking more along the lines of McCormick Spices and Benefit Cosmetics. And, no, that doesn't mean tattoos of basil or dried chilies on your knuckles or lip gloss and eye shadow permanently etched onto your face. No, instead we're talking about product packaging. Jason used to work in commercial ink, mixing and matching different colors of ink for a company that manufactured packaging for the likes of McCormick Spices and Benefit Cosmetics.

Swing and a miss on my part, eh?

Speaking of which, Jason and I actually talked a lot about "swinging and missing". For example, he somewhat jokingly suggested that if things didn't work out for me financially and job wise in the Bay Area, I could always consider Spokane, WA. Jason once lived in Spokane, which he described as "kind of a crappy place, but if you're earning a decent wage you can live like a king in Spokane!" After a little research, I discovered that "Live like a king in Spokane!" isn't Spokane's official city slogan, but I'm thinking it probably should be. It might, however, have a tough time competing with this:

Jason, who was a pretty even keel kind of guy, was at his most animated when we talked about coffee. Although he'd mainly been working in the non-tattoo-related-ink industry and was currently unemployed, he had just applied for a coffee roasting position. He did have some coffee roasting experience, too, as he and his ex-wife used to roast coffee out of their garage when they were living in Portland, OR. They even had a logo and a name for their particular brand -
Blue Train Coffee. Jason fished out one of their old business cards from his wallet for me to see. The card was dog-eared and a little wrinkled, but it did have a cool design and logo featuring a blue, toy train engine.

There was something both really endearing and kind of sad about Jason's memories of his home-based coffee roasting business. He was definitely very proud (and rightfully so) of what he had accomplished - he even offered to give me his old business card before realizing that it was likely his only remaining one. But he also admitted that it made him "kind of depressed" to think about Blue Train Coffee. It was, after all, a project he had worked on with his now ex-wife. He roasted the coffee, she did the design, and they worked together making sales and attending the occasional roasting conference. Jason estimated that they'd sold over 1000 pounds of the stuff. "I had plans," he told me, "to do a lot more with the roasting business, but then, you know, I got divorced, moved down here, and now I'm living in a studio apartment where there's obviously not enough room to roast coffee." In his even keel way, though, Jason seemed excited and hopeful about this coffee roasting position. It even involved working under a "master roaster" who used to work for Peet's.

"I'm going to give it a shot," said Jason, twirling his empty coffee cup in his hands and nervously bouncing his leg up and down. "And if it doesn't work out, maybe I'll be living in mom's basement in Wisconsin. At least I have that to fall back on, right? I can go to sleep at night knowing I'm not going to be out on the street."

By this point and nearing the end of my conversation with Jason, I wasn't exactly sure which "it" he was referring to when he said he was "going to give
it a shot." He could have been referring to the coffee roasting position, living in Oakland, or maybe even this general notion of getting out and expanding that comfort zone. But it was also entirely possible that he was talking about something completely different, something that we hadn't talked about explicitly. Jason often seemed lost in his own thoughts while we talked on that bench outside of the train station. He was always polite, friendly, and honest, but as he spoke with me, I felt like he was busy working through something private and difficult in his own mind. Like he was kneading a thought into a slow fruition or, like that empty coffee cup in his hands, he was twirling a difficult idea through his mind, circling around it, and wondering when and how to tackle it head on.

Once the sun began to set behind the warehouses and lofts around us, Jason and I headed back to our respective cars - me to my grandpa's Honda Civic and he to his Hyundai Elantra. One of the last things Jason mentioned was that he'd fought a ticket he'd received for unknowingly driving in the bus lane onto the Bay Bridge. It was an honest mistake. The signage really isn't clear, so he took pictures to prove his side of things and got ready for his court appearance. Fortunately, the ticket was thrown out - the issuing officer never showed up to court to disprove Jason. I mentioned that I thought small victories are important, and that you've got to keep things positive.

Jason smiled, we shook hands, and we went our separate ways.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Coffee with a Stranger #2 – Coffee with Time Traveling Steampunks

When I think of time travel, I think of Jean-Claude Van Damme. Yes, that Jean-Claude Van Damme - the Belgian action star of the late 80's and early-t0-mid 90's who proudly sported a mullet before it was ironic and managed to incorporate at least one scene where he does the splits to dodge punches, roundhouse kicks, bullets, or missiles into every movie he made. You see, several of my formative years coincided with the peak of an era that I like to call Van Damme Mania. It was an era where it seemed like every couple of months or so, JCVD would release some high-octane, adrenaline pumping, action movie. Living in a somewhat staid small town during both Van Damme Mania and my pre-teen years, my impressionable friends and I gravitated towards these movies. We had high standards after all:

Fiery explosions? Check.
Bloody fights? Check.
Royal rumbles? Check.
Easy to identify good and bad guys based on embarrassing racial stereotypes? Check.
The occasional bare breast or two? Check, check, and more check!

Aside from blood, boobs, and explosions, JCVD films often had another running theme: time travel. Well, that and twins, but I won't get into that here. There was a lot of JCVD going back in time, accidentally roundhousing, shooting, or exploding a seemingly insignificant tree, ladybug, or evil bad guy, and then coming back to a present where he didn't exist, he had an evil twin, a loving girlfriend was married to an arch villain, or everyone was still riding horses instead of driving cars. Need a visual? Check this out:

Time travel is complicated stuff, isn't it?

Oddly enough, other people have different associations when it comes to the idea of time travel. Take Kristy, Stranger #2 in this little project of mine, who I met at the Bread Workshop in North Berkeley. She was in her early to mid 20's, originally from Connecticut, and an accomplished knitter judging by the red hat she was wearing and the scarf she was working on when I arrived a little late for our meeting. For her, time travel has nothing to do with mullets, splits, and explosions. Instead it involves steampunks and 4th century Celtic monks. Or, more specifically, modern day steampunks who steal a time machine to go back in time to chat with some 4th century Celtic monks.

If you're anything like me, that last sentence raises a lot of questions. Like what's a steampunk? Or what differentiates a 4th century Celtic monk from, say, a 6th century Celtic monk? Or where can I steal me a time traveling device?

Steampunks, according to Kristy, "dress and look like they dropped out of a Charles Dickens novel." She also described them as "anti-mass production" and as "purposeful Luddites." After my own superficial research on the Google, I'd add that it looks like they wish they could hit the pause button aesthetically and technologically somewhere in and around the Victorian era. They also seem to be big fans of steam and gear based gadgets, funky top hats and aviator goggles, and the writings of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

As for the difference between 4th and 6th century Celtic monks, I have no idea and Kristy didn't get into details. To tell you the truth, I'm not even entirely clear on how one would define a Celtic monk, no matter what century he or she may be from. Kristy, however, was focused on one monk in particular: a historically real monk who was apparently living large in a Roman emperor's palace and then one day said "nuts" to that and gave it all up to live in the desert and weave mats. Instead of saying "nuts", though, Kristy made what I would describe as a farting noise and ended the description by remarking: "Then he spent the rest of his life sitting on his butt and doing that." Steampunks, for their part, would relate to such a lifestyle - not necessarily for the weaving, butt-sitting, and desert living, but because of an appreciation for the rejection of luxuries and the embracing of a simpler life. So why not steal a time machine and check this guy and his 4th century cohorts out?

And where's Kristy getting all this material from? I don't remember JCVD playing a Celtic monk in any of his movies, so it can't be that. Surprisingly, Kristy doesn't rip off her time traveling ideas from dated action movies. Instead she's actually writing her very own novel about this stuff! When I met with her at the Bread Workshop, she was 60 pages into her novel about modern day steampunks who steal a time machine to go back in time to chat with 4th century Celtic monks. What's even more impressive is that she writes 1300 words a day, either working on this novel or writing poetry. 1300 words! Meanwhile, it takes me weeks to write even one of these
Coffee with a Stranger posts.

I've really got to get my shit together.

Although I never asked her outright, I don't think Kristy would identify herself as a steampunk. After all, she wasn't wearing aviator goggles and she's definitely not a "complete atheist", which is how she described most steampunks. In fact, while living in Boston with her husband, Kristy thought she had a call to the Episcopalian priesthood. She even approached her priest and asked him how to get the priesthood ball rolling. Her priest, however, urged her to take things slow and instead go through a process known as "discernment". This process basically involves taking some time to do some work for the Church, think about your relationship with the Big Guy, and decide whether priesthood is really for you. Kristy ended up doing a "community organizer" internship for a church in the Allston-Brighton area of Boston. Needless to say, she met up with a lot of Allston-Brighton residents for cups of coffee, which is why she decided to meet up with me. "Good karma" is how she described it, but I'm left wondering: can an Episcopalian priest believe in karma?

A couple of weeks after our cup of coffee, I randomly bumped into Kristy. She and her husband were in line behind my ladyfriend and I at Ici Ice Cream. Her husband, a nice fellow, is the reason why they moved out to the West Coast. He's a computer programmer/developer by trade and last year he got a job with Hi5 does all those games you see on Facebook - stuff like
Sorority Row and Mafia Wars. Or as Kristy explained, they're those social networking games where "instead of connecting with your best friend from second grade, you get to shoot up your friend from second grade!"

I don't know about you, but I think JCVD would appreciate this type of social networking.

Meanwhile, we all ordered some delicious ice cream, exchanged some pleasantries, and had some laughs. Kristy had written another 20 pages of her novel (which I'm hoping she'll, hint, hint, let me take a look at), whereas I still hadn't written a C
offee with a Stranger post about our cup of coffee together. I'm thinking it's time I steal a time machine, deliver a roundhouse kick to something or someone, and cross my fingers that that will lead to an alternate present where I procrastinate less.

It's worth a shot, right?