Tea and Life, Tea Retail, Tea Stories

Charity begins at homelessness

A few years back, we ran a tea and coffee shop, and for the most part, the people who came into it were within the range of ‘extremely pleasant and well mannered’ down to a ‘trifle surly’.

Once a man came in, shouted that our range of gelati was not vegan – not that we’d ever claimed it was – and then left, still shouting. My only conclusion was that he was a professional vegan gelati agitator.

Other than that, not much. But there are exceptions.

I did have one customer turn violent and threatening. It was Saturday morning, and it was just me and one employee, Nick.

As well as being a Masters student in forensic chemistry and a comic fanboy, Nick was a great employee. He has since gone on to work as an analytic chemist for a company that mines uranium, and I believe it’s not the massive salary or love of working in the Outback that attracted him to the position, it’s the hope that a nuclear accident will transform him into a superhero.

An added bonus on this occasion was the fact that he is about 7 feet tall, about 5  feet across the shoulders and at the time was more or less dressed as the comic book hero “The Punisher”, as per the picture I’ve pasted in. Note that Nick was carrying a spoon and milk jug as opposed to a pair of massive pistols, but everything else was similar.

A customer came in. It was his third visit, and the first two hadn’t gone well.
The customer in question was most definitely NOT a tea drinker. He had requested a Yergecheffe, and was quite upset that we did not have any. Neither of the other two Ethiopian coffees appealed,or any others from our range of 46 coffees, which I think most would agree, is a lot of choice. Reluctantly, he agreed to our Velvet Kilimanjaro” blend.

What actually sent him over the top was my insistence that he have the coffee to take away, and, well, take it away. We were the only café in the area that would actually serve homeless people, but this guy’s personal hygiene was at an all-time low. He also used to sit there muttering into his coffee and staring at other customers; in a not dissimilar way to “Castleton” in the Tea Writer’s Collective’s story The Tea Rooms

Pretty sad really. The guy obviously had mental issues.

When he threatened me, Nick moved out from behind the counter, and our customer-not-to-be decided to decamp, spitting wildly but seemingly without saliva.

A few moments later I stuck my head out of the door. He was 100 metres up the road. He saw me, started screaming and running towards us.

We did have to call the police – and bear in mind, we were 15 metres from SA Police Headquarters and 50 metres from the Adelaide Police Station. The guy ran past more or less without stopping and twenty minutes later the police arrived.

The two who turned up were on pushbikes and wearing shorts. I wanted to ask them if their parents knew where they were, or if the male one had started shaving yet. They both looked like they wanted to run in same direction as our (ex) customer; not so much to catch him but because they were scared of “The Punisher”.

The whole incident left an unpleasant taste in my mouth.

A year before we’d bought the shop, I’d heard a woman on the radio. She’d been approached on Norwood Parade (that’s a street, not an event) by a homeless man to “lend her $3.75 for a semi-skim latte” and she’d taken the novel approach of saying. “I was going to get myself a coffee anyway, let’s have one together, I’m buying”.

She left him sitting at an outside table. When she returned a few minutes later with two lukewarm and bitter coffees (justified editorial comment, I’ve always thought that place had rubbish coffee) the owner was just ejecting her erstwhile sipping companion. He told her that homeless people disturbed his other customers.

I always promised myself I would not take the same tack. With the shoe on the other foot, I was forced to consider all of our customers collectively, not just one.

It was the time of the financial meltdown. A few days earlier, I’d heard a radio report from the US that included audio of people being ejected from their houses with nowhere to go. I’d actually run my car off the road after being so affected by it. They were dark times for many people.

When we bought the shop, it had 2,660 teabags in it. I refused to have them there, and I donated 1,330 of them to a local homeless shelter. I guess I felt good that some homeless guys could have a Taylors of Harrogate Assam or Lapsang Souchong bag, or a Pickwick Earl Grey, instead of supermarket home brand stuff.

I still think about Yergecheffe Man vs The Punisher. I think I could have handled it better. It also could have ended up worse.

After Yergechaffe Man ran past our window, I never saw him again.

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