There are times 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.