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Alice O. Steep slowly inhaled the steamy scents wafting from the searing hot mug cupped in her hands. It was her favorite tea; an extravagant blend of hand-wrapped Jasmine pearls and blossoms, clover, and cornflower petals left to steep in a pyramid-shaped silk tea bag for the very best quality tea. Add a touch of natural honey and she had a perfect cuppa’.
“Mmmmmm...,” Alice took a long sip of her tea; a subtlety succulent taste with a slight perfume. It was a chilled morning in early October and the leaves on the Japanese maples outside Alice’s café were lemon yellow fading to the rich color of dried saffron. Alice curled her toes in her slippers hidden by the marble counter and wrapped her maroon cardigan tighter. In just a few moments the café would be open for business and the first unique and unpredictable pedestrians of New York would find their way through Alice’s door. Padding over to the large window, Alice turned the window sign from “Closed” to “Open”.
Somehow fitting perfectly between a serious brownstone publishing office and a politically incorrect Chinese laundry, Café Character was a very special place; Popular yet not infamous, humble yet posh, welcoming yet challenging, a special drink and niche for every visitor. A curly wrought iron fence stretched from the side of the office building to the laundry, making people feel like they were returning home and closing the low gate behind them. The lawn, verdant and fertile, was a rarity in the metropolis of concrete. An awning of stripes in alternating moody colors hung over the door, green as an Irish man’s eyes and with a leprechaun’s golden bell that chimed. Long oval windows stretched the length of the café so that you could still look out at the passing people while sipping your steaming drink.
Shuffling back to the counter, Alice appraised the wall of jars, cups, mugs, tea pots, tins, spoons, vials, and all kinds of whimsical trinkets. Shelf upon shelf of raw tea ingredients for specialty mixing and whole coffee beans stretched over a back counter of stainless steel machines and industrial sized sink. To anyone else it would take forever to find a specific tin or tea pot, but everything had it’s place and was in order to Alice’s way of thinking.
The bell tinkled, and Alice turned to meet her first customer of the day, a guy in his early 20’s perusing a menu by the door. “Welcome to Café Character, a cup for every character!”
Papers and textbooks flew everywhere as the jittery young man jumped in surprise. “No! My manuscript, my manuscript!” the guy dove for his papers, gathering them up and stuffing them carefully into his valise.
“Do you want some help? I could get you a-,”
“No, no! I’m just fine, thanks.” The guy pulled together his books and papers, looking doubly nervous at the thought of a stranger touching his precious papers. He finally collected the precarious stack and teetered over to the counter. Up close, he looked terrible. Dark bags hung from his bloodshot eyes, and it didn’t look like he had slept or brushed his hair for days.
“I’d like a tall black coffee, extra sugar no cream. I’ll be here for awhile, too, so keep the coffee coming. I’m going to need a lot of caffeine to get this term paper for my philosophy professor done by tomorrow morning,” the guy, rubbed his eyes and frowned over his stacks of books, “A whole lot of caffeine.”
Alice rested her chin in her hands and smiled sympathetically. She had graduated with a bachelor’s degree in literature three years ago and understood the depression of late papers. “Could I make a suggestion? You see, this is a unique café. You can order anything you want, but usually you get something completely different. Why don’t you go find a booth and settle in and I’ll fix you up something that will get an A+?” The student looked dubious. Alice wiggled her fingers. “People say that I have magic hands.”
The student sighed hopelessly and started collecting his papers. “Fine, just get me something hot. And remember the caffeine!”
Alice flexed her fingers and turned to survey her shelves. After only a moments thought, she flew into action. Hot water was boiling, tea tins opening and closing, and brews were vigorously stirred. In just a few minutes, Alice set down a tea cup on the student’s philosophy textbook. “Here is your perfect match. The chamomile tea will calm your nerves and pump you up with some long lasting energy. The lemon slice will add some zing to keep you awake, the honey sweetens the deal, and there may or may not be a little vodka to help you sound like Socrates. All the great philosophers were drunks, you know.” Alice winked.
The student raised an eyebrow at the delicate concoction, but took a sip anyway. He perked up right away. “Wow, that really has some zing. I want a refill in a few minutes,” he smiled a little,”thanks.”
Before a heartfelt “You’re welcome” could be imparted, the bell rang again. A shadow slithered into the café, a feeling of depression almost tangible as the dark figure slid to the counter. Alice hurredly shuffled over to greet her grim visitor. “Welcome to Café Character, a cup for every character! What can I get for you?” Alice’s smiled brightly. The shadow, a boy of 16 or 17 years old, looked like he was about to cry and smudge his black eyeliner. He dramatically turned away, hiding behind a curtain of spiky jet hair. “I want a cup of bloodroot tea, iced. Extra lemon. Can you do that?” He looked up again, apparently expecting a no.
“Well, I could get you that. But,” the teenager’s face dropped and he stuffed his hands into his skinny jean pockets,”I think I have something better for you. I promise you’ll like it. Wanna try?”
The emo sighed. “Sure, whatever. I don’t care…” he gazed longingly into space. He must have been thinking of something else, because the thing he was staring at was a tea pot in the shape of a pig with little holes in the snout where steam puffed out.
There was no doubt what this little ghost needed in Alice’s mind. Selecting a valentine’s mug from her stacks, she began to mix and boil and stir her concoction. In almost no time, she handed the steaming mug into the leather gloved hands of the wandering soul. His permanent scowl lifted a little, and he cradled the mug in his palms. “What is this stuff?”
“That, young sir, is a concoction of warm chocolaty goodness unlike you have ever tasted. It is a special mix of Ghiradelli dark chocolate and steamed milk for rich flavor, nutmeg to spice thing up, hand whipped cream to elevate your troubles, and-, oh! One more thing,” Alice grabbed a tin from the back shelf and plopped some if it’s contents into the mug, “Some skull marshmallows.”
For a moment the boy smiled, just a flash of teeth and then the mask of oppression was back. “I haven’t had hot coco in…like, forever. Uh, thanks.” He grabbed a straw and slid into a nearby booth, his many chains clinking.
Something else was making a metallic sound; the door bell. The pleasant tinkling sound was cut off as the woman slammed the café door behind her and began stalking towards the counter. Her purse was overflowing, her clothes wrinkled and stained, her legs unshaven, and her curly bob was frizzed to epic proportions.
“Welcome to Café Character, a cup for every character! How can I help you?” Alice smiled and took a calming sip of her tea. This woman was a hurricane of emotions and frazzled nerves, obviously a recipient of the unwanted monthly visitor Aunt Flo.
“I…I don’t know what I want. Isn’t that miserable?,” The woman started to tear up. “I can’t even decide what I want in my coffee, let alone what to make for dinner. Oh, speaking of that, do you know if the deli across the street is any good? My sister’s neighbor’s wife said it had a perfectly delectable rump roast.” The woman smiled conspiratorially and giggled behind her hand. “Not that my husband would eat it anyway, such a picky eater.” A disdainful scowl captured her face again. “The food is too greasy, the vegetables are too cruncy, the kids too loud. What does he want, anyway?! I’m not wonder woman, you know!”
Alice laid a calming hand on the lady’s shoulder. “And no one expects you to be. Why don’t you decide on a drink, hm?”
Her apparent anger subsided, the woman wilted onto the counter. Of course, so sorry. I’m not usually like this, its all so stressful today! Anyway, I’d like a large- no wait, make that medium, cup of black coffee, no sugar. Put a lemon on the side, honey too, but not too much. Watching the waist. Ooo, and one of those peppermint sticks,” the lady pointed to a jar of cadies, “those look good.”
It was Alice’s turn to raise an eyebrow. Obviously this woman didn’t know what she wanted. “You know, I don’t think that’s exactly what you need. You’ve obviously had a hard day, so just go relax on the sofa over there and I’ll make something special for you. Go on, I promise you’ll like it.”
The woman was already sinking into the leathery arms of the peach sofa and kicking off her sandals.
This, Alice knew, would be a more difficult cup. She needed something that would stabilize the woman’s rushing emotions and make her feel special. Ah-ha! Alice pulled a gold key out of her cardigan pocket and unlocked an antique box on a high shelf. Exotic scents wafted from the box’s open lid. A pinch of this and a dash of that all steeped in a neutral, Zen green mug and the drink was ready.
Alice had to discreetly shake the woman from her cozy slumber, then presented the mug, “Take a sip, I think you will find it quite calming.”
The groggy woman eyed the mug. “This isn’t some kind of herbal drug, is it? Because if it is there is no way I’m drinking the vood-doo.”
Alice laughed. “No, it’s perfectly safe. Actually, Chinese royalty usually drinks this blend of tea. It is made from an especially rare tea called the Jun Shan Golden Needle. Some people claim that it is the rarest tea in the world. The aroma is especially soothing and the taste has slight narcotic qualities, so don’t drink too much all at once. Do you like it?”
The woman took a sip, then another. “This is fantastic! Its like taking a hot bubble bath.” The woman breathed deep and settled into the sofa again. “I feel better than I have in days…”
Alice left the woman to her tea, satisfied of a job well done. She was just pouring another cup of tea when a rude voice made her slosh the hot water over the counter. “Hey, you! Can I get some service? I’ve been waiting an awfully long time.”
“Ahh! Yikes, that’s hot.” Alice turned to the impressive business man at the counter. “Sorry sir, I didn’t hear you come in. Welcome to Café Character, a cup for ev-“
“Yeah, yeah. The bell was annoying, so I did you a favor and took it down,” the man smiled smugly and plopped the door bell onto the counter.
Alice’s cheeks flushed with anger, but she took a deep breath and tried to be hospitable. “Yes, well, how can I help you?”
“Well, I’m in the mood for something expensive. Then again, I’m always in the mood for something expensive!” the man’s corpulent belly jiggled with hearty, egotistical laughter. Alice was not amused. “Say, do you have some of that gold coffee I’ve heard about? The bitter blend with gold flakes?”
“The Kinpaku Kanazawa Gold Leaf Blend? Of course. Though, if I may suggest something…?”
“Yes? Do you have something better? No price is too high.”
Alice smirked. “I’ll have your coffee ready in a few minutes. And believe me, it’ll be perfect for your tastes.”
The man made a show of checking the time on his overpriced gold wristwatch. “Make it snappy, I don’t have all day, missy.”
Alice could barely contain her laughter as she reached into her box of more expensive goods and pulled out a smelly woven bag of peculiar coffee beans.
The ornate gold filigree tea cup, appropriately posh, wafted with a mysterious aroma as Alice set it before the businessman. Trying hard to appear a fine connoisseur of coffee, he sniffed ridiculously and swished a sip of the coffee over his palate. “Ah, a rich blend indeed. It has a very earthy base, slightly musty. And…is that a hint of caramel? What an intriguing taste! What is this?”
“It is a rare coffee from Indonesia, Kopi Luwak. It is between $100 to $600 dollars a pound, depending on your sources. The process of making it is fascinating, actually. You see, it’s made by harv-“
The businessman’s face lit with delight. “My, my! An rich coffee indeed. No need to go into the boring details, the fine aroma speaks for itself. That is all, miss. You may leave me now.” The businessman rudely unfolded his newspaper and ignored Alice.
“You’re welcome, sir. Enjoy your coffee.” Alice laughed mischievously as she put away the sack and locked up her expensive spice box. If only the businessman had been as interested in his coffee as he was the stocks, he might have been more open to hearing that the Indonesian locals named the coffee “Kopi” after the Indonesian word for coffee along with “luwak”, animal.the local name of the a common palm civet, a weasel-like animal which eats the raw red coffee beans. The coffee is then made from coffee beans eaten, partly digested and then excreted by the luwak. In other words, the egotistical businessman was drinking $100 cup of cat poop.
Alice settled down behind her counter and nursed a refreshed cup of jasmine tea. Each of her customers, in one way or another, had found their perfect cup of tea and were having a better, more productive day because of it. Alice toasted herself to a job well done.