Coffee connections

by Emily Schwartz, Editor-in-Chief

Whenever I drink coffee, my hands shake. My knees hammer. My mind races. My chest tightens. Ironically, I recently started as a barista at a local coffee shop

My cold brews and lattes, cappuccinos and mochas are still messy, made by a beginner’s hand. These concoctions, however, have bridged gaps that I barely knew existed.

After my first shift, my grandfather sent me texts upon texts of advice and fun facts about coffee. A self-proclaimed “coffee enthusiast,” he seemed more excited for my job than I was. 

His obsession with coffee wasn’t new, I realized, as I remembered the hotel coffee we used to make when during trips, a three-year-old me woke up at 5 a.m. and refused to go back to sleep. My grandfather, my Agong, was the only other soul awake. He hoisted me up to the chair in front of the vanity mirror and showed me how to pop open the top of the hotel’s coffee machine, how to put a cup of water underneath and how to press the button labeled “brew.” 

After I cleaned coffee machines, grabbed cups and pressed “brew” more times than I could count during my second shift at work, we went to my aunt and uncle’s for dinner, and they asked about the job. To my surprise, I learned that my uncle, too, was a coffee enthusiast. We joked about my grandfather and the coffee beans he had recently roasted in his popcorn maker and about the coffee roasting tips he had been sending my uncle. After dinner, my uncle showed me his new coffee maker — a beautiful white, Italian model. We made coffees together, exchanging tips and critiquing the procedures we had both just recently learned.

I talked to my uncle more in those 10 minutes than I had in the past 10 years. We finally had something to share after years of just pleasantries and group conversations. I realized the bare extent to which I knew him, and that the same went for many of my other relatives. 

We had dinner with my adult cousins the next night. One had come to visit me at work the day before, and we dissected the cold brew I had shakily made him. Through fits of laughter, we discussed the late-night school projects that catalyzed their respective addictions. We argued over the appropriate coffee to milk to sugar ratio and whether 8 p.m. was too late for a hot coffee.

Coffee became a bridge, a point of connection, among my family members. Over the internet, the dinner table or the phone, spanning a 50-year age range, we could relate to each other. Something so universal, so trivial, so personalized, so inoffensive, started conversations. It broke the ice.

The world has felt especially icy in recent years, as hate-filled tragedies perpetually occupy the headlines and human rights become political issues, resulting in an angry, numb and isolated population desperate for change but unwilling to reach across the aisle to make the connection required to protect people.

We are a generation drowning in social media and still feeling the effects of missed interactions due to COVID-19. Establishing genuine connections has never felt harder.

To stay in contact over quarantine, we had to choose to connect, to reach out, to check in. More recently, I have embraced these purposeful connections — I force myself to say hello or ask about a classmate’s weekend. No matter how much they don’t want to talk or how low energy I feel, it always feels better to have exchanged energy.

You can be sure that I will be talking about my job at every chance I get. I’ll be asking about your coffee order. I will show off my burn from the steamer, proud of my very first battle wound. I have claimed coffee as my ice breaker.

I am like my grandfather in that way, I realized. 

Through emails, he has continued to teach me about coffee, from a link on YouTube to latte art, to a TED Talk entitled “Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about coffee,” to a history of coffee documentary, to a reminder to actually watch the documentary so that I will have something to talk to my boss about.

Through all these years, from the hotel coffee to now, he has been trying to connect with me over coffee. 

I wish that I’d have recognized my grandfather’s attempts at connection, just like I try to connect with others. I wish that it did not take me discovering coffee on my own to feel that connection.

I am grateful that it is not too late. I cannot wait to make my grandfather a cup of coffee. I cannot wait to share coffee tips, to hear about his stories, to impress him with my latte art (which will hopefully be better than my current lines and circles). And I know now that I will pay more attention to connections: to reaching out, but responding, too, because there is no better feeling than exchanging a good cup of coffee with someone you may not expect.