“I’ll take a grande, quad, nonfat, one-pump, no-whip, mocha,” the pretty corporate lady says to me without looking up from her phone.
“No problem,” I tell her as I write an abbreviation of her order onto a large Kava Kava paper cup.
She basically wants a lightly flavored mocha with all low-fat ingredients and four shots of espresso. That 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 as a young corporate guy takes her place. He’s tall with tortoise-rimmed glasses, a white business shirt and black 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 barista, Harper.
“Colt, like the horse,” he says.
I stifle some laughter but say “Thanks Colt, ready in a few!”
This goes on for the next 30 minutes of my shift with various simple and strange orders from a variety of both strange 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 don’t mean much anymore, the brothers say. Everybody in Venice Beach has a special two-pump, extra shot, gluten-free, vegan order. The random orders for a simple cup of coffee seem to come from the older folks who are in the habit of living the same day over and over.
My Uncle Gary just came in to pick me up. I could actually feel him walk in before I knew he was here, but then I heard his booming voice and reality caught up with my intuition. A psychic told me once that what I call my intuition is more like what some call “second sight.” I didn’t really believe her. I was only 16 when I saw her with a friend. Gary wasn’t happy with me when I told him I’d seen a psychic and repeated what she’d told me.
“It’s dangerous to play with things you don’t understand,” he said at the time. He wasn’t mad but I could sense he was scared in some way. He was masking it but it was there, right below the surface. I never saw anyone like that again.
“Hey Gary,” my friend Harper says sarcastically to him from her position at the espresso machine.
“Hey girl,” 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.
Gary laughs. He’s always enjoyed her dry sense of humor.
“You know Harper, 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 dryly as she finishes wiping down the machine.
“You’ve got a point there, girl,” he says.
He 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. “Bye, Harper,” he says in a too sweet voice as he gives her a little wave.
“Bye,” Harper says without enthusiasm.
As he turns to walk away, I see her watch him. The pouty, sour expression on her face doesn’t change but her trailing eyes tell me a different story. I’ve been suspicious she’s been into my uncle for the past couple of months, but the thought is so gross to me, I’ve never brought it up.
Harper catches me looking at her look at 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.
“Shut-up, I will not,” I tell her for the 100th time. This is our game. She pretends she’s going to quit and I beg her to stay.
“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.
Satisfied our exchange has ended on the right note, I turn to walk towards Adam and Scott’s office just behind the wall of espresso machines. I walk in and see Adam intently looking at the computer. You 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.
“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 my sarcasm.
“Things are wild today,” he says. “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. 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 Friday, probably around noon. Gary’s got an exhibition in Santa Monica and I promised him I’d help him set up,” I tell him.
He lights up at the mention of Gary’s name.
“Oh cool,” he enthuses. “Where at?”
“18th Street Arts,” I say. “He’s been planning this one for awhile.”
“Oh nice, we’ll be there,” he says.
The “we” he’s referring to are he and his brother Scott. They not only own the coffee shop together, but are inseparable. Neither has a partner and they live together too. They’re an interesting duo who look like opposites (Scott, short and chunky; Adam, tall and thin) but when you get to know them, they seem like twins. 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 want to handle the situation delicately. Adam is my boss.
“Maybe you can ask him at the exhibit,” I say without much promise.
Adam and Scott showcase paintings and sculpture from local artists in the coffee shop, and then sell the pieces on consignment. When I first started working at the shop, Gary agreed to put one of his installations in an empty corner. Gary’s work incorporates old corporate junk (everything from big pieces of equipment like parts from broke-down forklifts, to office equipment like pieces of metal desks, file cabinets or chairs) with electricity. Gary trained as an electrician in his early 20s so he welds the junk together and then lights it up. He supports us with his art and sells his pieces to builders and private collectors. He’s not rich but he doesn’t have to work a regular job either.
When Gary’s piece was in Kava Kava, Adam and Scott screwed up and sold it for way less than it was worth. Then they wanted to take a big consignment cost out of it. Gary wasn’t happy but like he usually is, he let it go and then told me he wouldn’t work with Adam or Scott on consignment 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. Adam and Scott were mostly harmless with boundaries in place. Luckily, I had no trouble keeping strong boundaries.
“Thanks, Adam,” I say. “I’m taking off, Harper’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 Harper.
“Gary,” I say in his direction and nod my head up. Of course, he’s chatting up some older woman. She looks at least 70 and is smitten with my uncle. 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 Blvd. He turns on the radio and I check my phone for any texts.
“Hey,” he says, interrupting me texting with my friend, Maria. “There’s something I wanted 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.
“I had an idea,” he says. “I thought maybe you could sing at my show.”
I’ll admit, I’m pretty surprised. We never talked about me singing in front of people before and I 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 I knew I would be.
“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,” I say jokingly, still not sure where he’s going.
“Sort of,” he says with a smile. “What if you sang and it maybe helped me sell a few of my pieces?”
I am sitting in his car with my head cocked to the side, trying to understand why he wants me to do this when I start to feel a little used. A little unseen for who I am and instead, as a little prop for him. I start to get a bit upset.
“Gary, I don’t understand why you need me to do that,” I tell him.
“I told you, your voice opens up the heavens,” he says jovially. “Having you there could 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 frustration 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 don’t want to say something I’ll regret but I’m feeling offended. I’m feeling 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 tears.
“Woah,” he says and he starts looking over his right shoulder for a chance to pull over.
A skinny tear falls from my left eye onto my cheek and sits there. I don’t like having intense conversations with anyone, but especially not with my uncle. It scares me and makes me feel like things are out of control.
Once Gary pulls over onto a side street, he 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 push the tear off of my cheek onto the back of my hand.
“It’s ok, “ I tell him.
“Just listen for a minute?” 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 rent for the next year.”
“Ok,” 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.”
“How?” I ask, confused.
“Don’t you want to know 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. Gary stares at me with a small grin.
“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. When I was apprenticing as an electrician, I thought the same thing. I did it cause your grandpa did it and I didn’t know what else to do. Your mom told me she thought something else might be waiting for me. She said she couldn’t see me like grandpa.”
“What was wrong with grandpa?” I ask a bit defensively. I had 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 and he settled because he felt he had to in order to support his family. He did the right thing for us by becoming an electrician but it was never something that made him happy. Do you understand?”
“Yeah. Sort of, I guess,” I say.
“The decisions our parents or grandparents make don’t have to be the decisions we make automatically,” 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 say 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 be better about keeping up on where my family is from.
“Yes,” he smiles proudly. “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 confused and even surprised that Gary is acting so serious. He almost never takes our conversations to this level. 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 beams at me. “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 lunch?” 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 the truck, I stare out the window at the cars, shops and people as I think about his proposition.