Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Cup

Here I sit, on the big red cloud of a couch that I used to sleep on during lunch breaks, drinking a large soy gingerbread chai latte with no foam (AKA heaven in a cup), my ears flooded with the familiar sounds of Regina Spektor. It occurs to me in times like this, times of adversity and aimlessness, that I subconsciously try to surround myself with things that feel like home. The concept of home is a curious thing to me; I’ve never lived in any one place for more than four years. I have small comforts, sanctuaries and havens that evoke in me what I imagine “home” evokes in others. The Neighborhood Cup is one of these places.

I first came to the Cup in early September of 2005. I had just returned from my first cross-country road trip with Erin, begun classes for the semester, and parted ways with my boyfriend of 5 months. The shop had opened in May of that year, and I had been following their barista ads on Craigslist since before they opened, waiting for the right time. The right time came and I was their 17th employee. 17 being my favorite of numbers, I tipped my hat to providence.

Funny thing about me and coffee; I spent 10 years hanging out in coffee shops and 4 years working in them, but didn’t start drinking coffee until I started sailing. Equally curious is that I was still very passionate about it. I loved to toil with the espresso machine, adjusting the grind and timing to produce the perfect shot, mixing this flavor and that, trying to pour the perfect rosetta. It was my craft and I took great pride in it.

Now, let me get this straight. The Cup isn’t just any coffee shop. So much care and thoughtfulness went into this place. You will find no caramel-containing machiattos here. The Cup is family owned, they recycle, and save coffee grounds for customers to use as compost. They host live music every Saturday night, display the work of a new local artist each month, host classic car shows on Sunday mornings, and make some of the best sandwiches you’ll eat in your life. They sponsor Saturday morning Yoga, Friday night swing dancing lessons, open-mic (that doesn’t suck), AND it’s connected to the library. A far cry from my last cafe, or any that I’d given my patronage in the past. For a coffee shop snob like me, the Cup was, and still is, a dazzling beacon of hip in the heart of suburbia.

One thing that always fascinated me about this place was that so few employees were California natives. It’s like the Cup beckoned us who needed something to feel like home, who needed family. The Cup wasn’t a job, it was a lifestyle. We worked together, hung out together, slept at each others’ apartments, laughed, danced, partied, and cried together. When we weren’t working, somehow we were still here, and that was OK. When we weren’t here, we were still together.

What a sundry group of kids we were. If there’s one thing I learned here, it’s to never judge a book by its cover.

There was (and still is) Stephanie from Kansas, admittedly raised by the movie “Clueless.” The quintessential valley girl, but also an incredible artist with questions and concerns for a world outside her own and one of my favorite people.

Lalitha, who worked on the human genome project when she was 16, who wrote and spoke with unmatched eloquence and wit. She struggled for a long time, and I miss her. I expect I always will.

Alex, a local, who went on to compete in latte competitions with extraordinary skills acquired at the Cup (I think she won). An accomplished writer; you’ll find her in the NY Times before long.

Romak… well, he’s Romak.

Rebecca, from Iowa, is the Cup’s longest running employee, a pianist, and one of the kindest people I have ever known. Meet her once, and you will never drink and drive again.

Jen, who played big sister to each of us. She guided us through crises with admirable patience and grace while struggling through her own. A truly remarkable woman, she worked open to close and I don’t think she had a day off until the shop was in its second year. We didn’t always see eye to eye, and I regret that I was not always as kind as I should have been. There are few things in my life I would go back and change given the chance; that is one of them.

Steve, Jen’s father, works in a San Bernadino crime lab when he’s not at the Cup, and always has a gleaming smile on his face. If he struggles, it doesn’t show.

And the customers, some with which I’ve formed lasting friendships, notably Ken the Nomad, who trekked hundreds of miles solo through Death Valley. Then there were Jill and John, Dr. Martinez from across the street, Benedict, the sheriffs, the firemen, the Soka students. Second to the camaraderie with my coworkers was the kindness of my customers.

There were others, many others; the list could go on.

As all good things, though, it had to end. We have a way when reminiscing of remembering the happy moments, forgetting the negative. It wasn’t always peachy, and I remember trying for weeks or months to muster the courage to put in my notice. My feet were getting itchy and it was time to move on. One average afternoon in April 2007, after clocking out, I found the strength, and cried the whole way home.

There was a store meeting shortly after, sort of a going away party for me and another girl, Meghan, who was leaving to Africa on a mission trip. Everyone took turns going around the room sharing prominent memories they had of us. I most remember Jen’s; she said to her father after my second interview “well... she’ll definitely add some color to the place.” Little did she know. I received a Neighborhood Cup mug with the year and my name engraved that I still use with fondness.

For months after I quit, you could still find me sitting on this big red couch studying algebra and sipping hot chai, not quite sure what to do with my newfound freedom. Incidentally, this is when I discovered tall ships, which is another story altogether.

The Cup was a really cool thing to be a part of. I’m proud that I was here from nearly the beginning, that I played a role. I’m proud that I was here when we won the Small Business Award in Aliso Viejo, ousting Cox Communications from the previous year. I’ve been able to watch it evolve and grow, maintaining its familiar quirkiness and care. It will be a sad day in my life when the Cup closes its doors, and I hope to never witness it. No matter what we went through, despite the differences and vexations, I will always think on my Cup family with unconditional love and gratitude.

If you’re ever in Aliso Viejo, stop by and get a lavender latte, check out the local art, strike up a conversation with a stranger, and know that you’re experiencing a very special part of my world.