An old man wearing a fedora that only Central American grandfathers can pull off approached me while I was taking a photo outside the Cafe´ Ruiz in Boquete, Panama. “Get out of the sun,” he said in a mixture of Spanish and English, waving his hand away. I took the next picture in the shade and it was a beauty. For his sage photo advice, the old man asked for a picture with me. We both beamed and he said “thank you, beautiful” in Spanish and hobbled away.
Coffee, since that tour, has taken on a different flavor for me. I stopped drinking it two weeks ago and have been thinking what it has been to me over the years.
Coffee was boiling water over a fire I’d started in Kiribati and pouring it over instant granules and loads of sugar; my first coffee ever.
Coffee was the first date after my broken heart to a coffee shop with an artist who had the wildest, most intense green eyes on the planet. It was spending a month together and relearning the game of romance. He cooked me dinner and fixed my bike. It’s him sending me a text I received while on my very first sailboat trip on Lake Michigan. I think he was saying goodbye. He knew I was long gone before I did. But I still remember that date and every cup of coffee he made for me in the morning, because he let me choose my mug. I always chose Paris.
Happiness. Standing in the sunshine, drinking coffee out of the best orange mug ever in our backyard on Kedzie Street while I fed the chickens.
Coffee was my misguided hangover cure, which made me feel better and worse.
Coffee was breakfast at a diner, where I never wanted the conversation to end.
Coffee was a pre-show ritual, heightening the nerves shooting through my body before going onstage. My dad filling a thermos and taking it with him to paint houses all day in the summer for his second job. My mom misplacing her cup of decaf and always drinking mine instead. Having cappuccino in a German bakery in Panama with my Austrian friend and talking about everything in the world.
Coffee was using my t-shirt sleeve as a filter and boiling grounds on a cheap hot plate that shocked me every time I touched it at the Independent boatyard in St. Thomas. The bagel shop with the worst coffee in Chicago. Mornings at the Nirola house in Potomac, where my friend’s mom suggested I should just perform on Broadway since now I lived so close.
Coffee was a conversation with Patch Adams in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. I asked him how he did his life’s work; how he could see so much pain and not break down under the weight of it. He bought me an espresso and answered me.
It does no one any good to have my sadness. I weep privately for the suffering of others, but when I’m near them, I try to relieve their suffering in whatever way I can. You’re strong. I would encourage you to really live…to light fires everywhere you go.
Coffee was the balcony of a hotel room in Salt Lake City with Jamie after we learned our flight was cancelled. Coffee was being a nanny and learning how to use the fanciest coffee gadgets on the planet.
Coffee was my racing heart and rapid speech. Coffee was quiet cups after my grandpa’s funeral. Then my uncle’s funeral. News of another uncle’s death at a coffee shop this summer.
This Spring it became Ruiz coffee farm, where I learned exactly the cost of each cup. It became the backs of local people who could no longer afford to live in Boquete because the rich white expats bought up all their land. They were forced to move two hours away by bus. Forced to uproot their families and start over.
Coffee became meeting members of the family who run things and learning Ruiz, who is in his 90’s, was offered millions of dollars to sell his tiny farm which exports some of the highest quality coffee in the world. He refused to sell because he believed the farm belongs to his family and they can care for it better than anyone. He refuses to sell because his life’s passion is not quantifiable.
Carlos, our guide had worked there since age 10. He was hospitable but under his joviality, there was an understandable undercurrent of anger at the gated communities that ravaged the countryside and the developers who blew up the mountain tops because they were obstructing some rich person’s view. And at climate change, which is forcing them to plant different, more durable coffee trees than they would like, compromising the quality of coffee fruits.
As Carlos and I talked, I mentioned that Mr. Ruiz seemed like a pretty incredible person. I wondered if I’d have the chance to meet him, or if he ever stopped by the café. He had become a folk hero in my mind. The little guy standing up to the big man and winning.
As we filed out, I went to take one more picture. I was out front again near the sign when the same adorable old man came wandering by. We smiled at each other sweetly and Carlos said “It looks like you already have.”
I will drink coffee again at some point, I’m sure. But somehow I think it will taste a little different.