“I’ll take a grande, quad, nonfat, one-pump, no-whip, mocha,” the pretty professional lady says to me without looking up from her phone.
She’s particularly fancy with a silky white blouse tucked into a hot pink pencil skirt. The color of her long acrylic nails match the skirt.
“No problem,” I tell her as I write an abbreviation of the order onto a large paper cup.
She basically wants a lightly flavored mocha with all low-fat ingredients and four shots of espresso. It might sound like a lot of caffeine, but we get people who come in and order six and even 10 shots of espresso in one drink.
“Your name, please?” I ask her.
“Jennay,” she says.
“Jenny?” I ask.
“No, Jennay,” she repeats, emphasizing the “ay” at the end.
“Thanks,” I tell her. “It’ll be ready in a few minutes. Next!”
Fancy Jenny moves down the line, her heels clacking, as a young corporate-looking guy takes her place. He’s tall with horn-rimmed glasses, and a white business shirt tucked into black, tight slacks. He actually looks at me when he places his order.
“Decaf soy latte with an extra shot and cream,” he says.
“OK, so you want soy milk and cream?” I ask.
On the surface, this combo makes no sense but after years at this job, I go with the flow of people’s coffee orders.
“Yeah,” he says. “I like the taste of the soy better than regular milk.”
“Your name, please?” I ask as I doodle his order on the cup in what looks like hieroglyphics to those out of the know, but will make perfect sense to my friend and barista, Johanna.
“Colt, like the horse,” he says with a smile filled with pride.
I stifle some laughter and say “Thanks Colt, ready in a few!”
“Wait,” he says before I can rush him off. “How much for the t-shirts?” He asks pointing at the display of Kava-branded merchandise along the wall.
“T-shirts are $24.99 and sweatshirts $39.99,” I tell him from memory. “You want one?
“Um, I guess not right now,” He says apologetically.
“OK, your coffee will be ready in a few, Colt,” I say with a smile and a nod.
This goes on for the next 30 minutes of my shift with various simple and strange orders from a variety of both weird and ordinary people attached to them. The nerdy brother owners of the shop, Adam and Scott, say that people’s coffee orders used to say a lot about them. They say anymore, they don’t mean much. Everybody in Venice Beach has a special two-pump, extra shot, gluten-free, vegan order. The random orders for a simple cup of drip coffee seem to come from the older folks who are in the habit of living the same day over and over.
I feel Gary walk in to pick me up before I actually see him. Then I hear his booming voice and reality catches up with my intuition.
“Hey Garrryyyy,” my best friend Johanna trills sarcastically, with a thin layer of enthusiasm underneath only I can detect.
“Hey Johanna of the Mountains,” he says to her with a wink. “How’s the coffee game?”
“Oh you know, a bunch of douches and debutantes,” she deadpans with a smile.
People have called Johanna a “Goth” but it doesn’t quite fit. She’s just interesting and different. She usually dresses in dark colors, has a short primary red-colored bob and wears heavy black eyeliner. Her right arm is covered in a full sleeve of tattoos, the largest being a bare-breasted drawing of the late actress, Rita Hayworth. She’s one of the coolest people I know and my best friend since high school.
Gary laughs at her. He always enjoys her dry sense of humor.
“You know Johanna, you shouldn’t be so judgmental,” Gary says with a smile. “These people gotta work just like you and me, they’re just tryin’ to make their dreams come true.”
“Yeah well they aren’t gonna make them come true in here,” she says wryly as she finishes wiping down the wands of the espresso machine.
“You’ve got a point there,” he says.
Gary turns his attention to me.
“You ready?” He asks.
“Yeah,” I tell him. “Just give me a minute, I’ve got to talk to Adam about my shift next week.”
“OK, I’ll be over here,” he says, motioning to a brown leather couch sitting empty in the corner by a painting of multicolored, Chevron-themed pineapples.
“Bye, Johanna,” he says in a too sweet voice as he gives her a little wave.
“Bye,” Johanna says unenthusiastically.
As he walks away, I see her watch him. The pouty expression on her face doesn’t change but her trailing eyes tell me a different story. I’ve been suspicious she’s been into Gary for the past couple months, but the thought is so gross to me, I’ve never brought it up.
Johanna catches me looking at her watch Gary.
“What?” She says in an annoyed voice that I know is masking embarrassment.
“Oh, nothing,” I say. “I just zoned out for a minute. I gotta go talk to Adam.”
“Tell him I quit,” she says to me, flipping the hooped piercing on her lip back and forth with her tongue.
“Shut-up, I will not,” I tell her for the hundredth time.
This is our game. She pretends she’s going to quit and I beg her to stay. I pull my fingers through my long hair to catch any knots that have gathered during my shift. This habit of “preening” (as my mom used to call it) is necessary to keep my hair smooth.
“You know I’d never make it here without you, don’t even play,” I tell her.
“Hmmmm,” she draws out the sound as she rinses the old cloth in the sink. “I guess I can stay a bit longer,” she says with a wink. “Love ya, Jo.”
“Love ya, Jo,” I say back.
Satisfied our exchange ended on the right note, I walk to Adam and Scott’s office just behind the wall of espresso machines. Of course Adam is intently looking at the computer. Some might assume he’s working – crunching numbers or something, but he’s not. He’s just sitting on Reddit, as usual.
“Hey Adam,” I say as I plop down on the hard plastic chair next to his desk.
He’s wearing a tattered, blue “We can do it!” Rosie the Riveter t-shirt that he wears at least once a week. His short, brown, curly hair is a mess and clearly hasn’t been combed today.
“Oh hey, Josie,” he says, barely looking away from the Reddit screen.
“What’s hot on Reddit today?” I ask him teasingly. He doesn’t catch that I don’t actually care.
“Things are wild today,” he says enthusiastically. “This guy uploaded a short story about a modern-day military unit that’s sent back in time to fight a Roman army and people are losing it. It’s already got 50,000 views and he just uploaded it this morning.”
“Wow,” I say absently.
I really don’t care about Reddit or any other social media. Mom didn’t like social media and Gary doesn’t either. I feel the same way. Most of the kids I went to high school with spend hours posing for selfies and making their lives look a thousand times better than they really are. I don’t play that game.
“I need to talk to you about next week’s schedule,” I tell him.
“Oh?” He says.
It seems I’ve finally gotten his attention.
“I need off early on Thursday, probably around noon. Gary’s got an exhibition in Santa Monica and I promised I’d help him set up,” I tell him.
Gary’s art incorporates what he calls “corporate junk” with electricity. He welds together big pieces of equipment from broke-down forklifts, for example, with smaller office equipment like pieces of metal desks, file cabinets, or chairs. He trained as an electrician in his early 20s so once the junk is all welded together, he lights it up.
Adam turns from the computer screen at the mention of Gary’s name.
“Oh, an exhibition?” he enthuses. “Where at?”
“18th Street Arts,” I say. “He’s been planning this one for awhile.”
“Oh nice, we will definitely be there,” he says.
The “we” he’s referring to are he and his brother Scott. They not only own the coffee shop together (they bought it after getting an inheritance from their grandpa) but are inseparable in every area of their lives, including living together. They look like opposites (Scott, short and chunky; Adam, tall and thin) but they’re so much alike they speak for each other and almost operate as the same person.
“That’s cool,” I say. “Gary will appreciate that.”
“Alright,” Adam says nodding his head. “Maybe I can talk to Gary about getting one of his pieces in here again,” he says with a question in his voice.
I know that won’t happen but I need to handle the situation delicately. Adam is my boss after all.
“Maybe you can ask him at the exhibit,” I say without much promise.
Adam and Scott work with local artists to feature their paintings and sculpture on consignment in the shop. When I started working at Kava Kava, Gary agreed to put an installation in an empty corner. Adam and Scott sold it for way less than it was worth. Then they wanted to take a consignment cost out of it. Gary wasn’t happy but he handled it the way he handles most conflict: he let it go and then told me he wouldn’t work with Adam or Scott again.
“Those guys are baby snakes,” Gary told me afterwards. “They want to be venomous and dangerous but they don’t know how yet. You be careful of them.”
I listened when he told me. I think Adam and Scott are mostly harmless with boundaries in place. Luckily, I have no trouble with boundaries.
“Thanks, Adam,” I say. “I’m taking off, Johanna’s out there and in charge.”
“Cool,” he says, his eyes returning to the Reddit screen. “See you tomorrow.”
“See you tomorrow,” I say as I turn and walk back into the shop.
I go behind the counter, grab my backpack and say goodbye to Johanna.
“Gary,” I say in his direction and nod my head up.
Of course, he’s chatting up some older woman who’s sitting on the worn couch with him. She looks at least 70 and is smitten. She and Gary share a hearty laugh as he stands up to leave. Gary makes friends everywhere he goes.
“Hey little girl,” he says as he walks up to me. “You ready?”
“Yep,” I say as we leave the shop together and walk towards his waiting truck.
“Heads up,” I say. “Adam and Scott are coming to 18th Street on Friday. They’re going to ask you about putting a piece in the shop again.”
Gary laughs. “Those guys are persistent, huh?” He says.
“Yeah, I guess,” I tell him.
Gary starts the car and pulls out onto Abbot Kinney. He turns on the radio and I look out the window at the shops, restaurants and galleries that line the mile-long stretch. Even though I grew up here, I never get tired of the mix of quirky stores, artists and celebrities that are drawn to this area. Abbot Kinney is a celebration of the Venice arts community and Kava Kava fits right in.
“Hey,” Gary says, interrupting my thoughts. “There’s something I want to talk to you about.”
“Oh?” I ask. “This sounds serious.”
“It’s not that serious,” he says with a laugh. “Will you help me out at my exhibition next week?”
“Gary,” I say. “We already talked about that, remember? I’m getting off early to help you set up.”
“Oh yeah, I know,” he says. “I mean in another way.”
“Oh,” I say, a bit confused at what he’s asking.
“I had an idea,” he says. “I thought maybe you could sing at my show.”
The suggestion catches me off guard. We never talk about me singing in front of people and I’ve never expressed an interest in doing it. To be honest, the idea scares me.
“No way,” I say quickly, shaking my head and thinking about how nervous it makes me.
“Just hear me out,” Gary says. “You know how when you sing on the beach, it helps me catch waves?”
“Yeah,” I say, wondering where this is going.
“Well, I was thinking, maybe you singing at my exhibition could have the same affect,” he says.
“You wanna catch a wave in 18th Street Arts?” I say jokingly, still not sure where he’s going.
“Sort of,” he says with a smile. “What if you sang and it helped me sell a few of my pieces?”
I tilt my head to the right, squint, and try to understand why he wants me to do this. Then it hits me and I start to feel used; like I’m a little prop for him. I start to get upset.
“Gary, I don’t understand why you need me to do that,” I say to him, maybe a bit too firm.
“I told you, your voice opens up the heavens,” he says. “Having you there can open up all sorts of possibilities.”
I’m starting to get frustrated because it doesn’t feel like he’s taking my feelings into his thought process.
“What if I don’t want to Gary?” I ask him with an edge of anger in my voice. “Have you thought about me at all? I’ve never sung in front of people before. Isn’t me helping you set up enough?”
“Wait, why are you getting pissed?” he asks.
He knows me well and can tell by the shift in my tone that I’m not happy anymore.
I exhale a “psssshhhhhh” and take a deep breath. I’m feeling anxious, edgy, and I don’t want to say something I’ll regret. It seems like he’s trying to guilt me for his own agenda.
“Gary, why do I have to help you sell your pieces like that? I work too and give you money every month. Why are you pressuring me like this?” I say to him, this time on the edge of raising my voice.
“Woah,” he says and looks over his right shoulder for a chance to pull over.
I feel hot tears behind my eyes but am willing them to go back to where they came from. I don’t like having intense conversations with anyone, but especially with my uncle. We fought a lot when I was in middle school, and I don’t ever want to go back there.
Gary pulls over onto a side street, and puts his hand on my shoulder.
“Little girl,” he says softly. “I didn’t mean to upset you. What I asked, it … it came out wrong. I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.”
I take in a couple of deep breaths and am satisfied nothing wet will be coming from eyes.
“It’s ok, “ I tell him nonchalantly as I look out the passenger window, away from him.
“Just listen for a minute, ok?” He asks.
I nod my head “yes.”
“I don’t care about selling my pieces next week,” he says. “The exhibition is just a way to find new clients. I’ve got a couple of commissions that will pay our mortgage for the next year.”
“Oh?” I say.
I didn’t know that.
“I didn’t ask you to sing because I want you to help me,” he says. “It’s the other way around, Josie. I want to help you and I think this could be an opportunity.”
“An opportunity for what?” I ask, confused.
I finally look away from the passenger window into his face. I see that he’s completely sincere and looks a little sad. My emotions start to soften and I feel stupid for getting upset.
“An opportunity to find out what comes next,” he says. “You aren’t going to work at Kava Kava forever.”
“I’m not?” I say half-joking to lighten the mood.
I’m starting to understand his intentions, and the anger and frustration are melting away. Gary stares at me, a small grin creeping onto his face.
“I don’t think so,” he says. “But if that’s what you want …” he trails off.
“It’s not my long-term goal or anything,” I say. “I know something else will come along, I just don’t know what. So I just stay there, waiting, I guess.”
“I understand,” he says. “I’ve been there. Waiting for something to happen.”
He pauses briefly and then continues.
“When I was apprenticing as an electrician, I was going through the motions. I did it cause your grandpa did it and I didn’t know what else to do. Your mom told me she thought I should do something else. She said she couldn’t see me like grandpa.”
“What was wrong with grandpa?” I ask a bit defensively.
I have fond memories of my grandpa Alika before he passed when I was in elementary school.
Gary chuckles. “There’s nothing wrong with grandpa, I loved my dad very much.”
Then he gets more serious.
“I think the point your mom was making was that grandpa was meant for more, but he settled to support his family. He did the right thing for us by becoming an electrician, but it was never something that made him all that happy. Do you understand?”
“Yeah, sort of,” I say.
It’s strange to think about my grandpa Alika not being happy as an electrician. I always thought he liked it.
“The decisions our parents or grandparents make don’t have to be the decisions we make,” he says. “You’re a young woman with the whole world open to you. You can be anything and do anything. And I think singing is your gift.”
“I know, I know,” I say a bit mockingly. “You always tell me that.”
He stops smiling.
“I’m serious, Josie. Don’t diminish your gift. It was given to you by Lono and you have to respect it.”
“Lono? The Hawaiian god?” I ask, trying to remember some of the Hawaiian history mom taught me when I was little.
I barely remember any of it and should probably know more about my heritage.
“Yes,” he says as he beams at me. “Each of us is given a unique gift that we are meant to better the world with. Don’t let it whither inside of you. Share it.”
I’m surprised Gary is acting so serious. He almost never takes our conversations to this level. Because of that, I know what he’s saying is important to him. And that he wants it to be important to me.
“Can I think about it?” I ask him.
I surprise myself with the question.
Gary’s smile widens to full wattage. “Of course, take all the time you need. You could probably even decide the day of the show, if you want.”
Satisfied he got the answer he wanted, Gary turns his focus back to the steering wheel and the traffic that’s starting to get heavy around us. He pulls out onto the side street and then back onto Abbot Kinney.
“You want In N’ Out for dinner?” he asks.
He doesn’t need an answer. He already knows what I will say.
“Oh yeah,” I say. “Double-double animal style.”
“You got it, girl,” he says.
As he drives, I stare out the window at the cars, shops and people, and consider his proposition.