Serving a Community in the Shadow of a Hurricane

Coffee Organizing

New Orleans  It’s a Tuesday, but the City of New Orleans is shutdown.  I drove down Esplanade Avenue to Fair Grinds Coffeehouse this morning at 5:30 AM through dark and deserted streets.  The donut place on the corner of Broad Street had been hopping with a dozen pickup trucks and cabs at that time on Monday morning on this same route.  Our Baton Rouge-based chain competitors were already opening, even earlier than our 6:30 AM scheduled time on Monday, but now they were locked down tight with not an umbrella or a table in sight.

At 630 AM when I was still hustling to get the “bank” for the cash register and make the last of the four types of “house” fairtrade coffee we brew every morning (medium, dark, chicory, and decaffeinated), strangely no one was at the door yet, which never happens.  I was opening because the barista staff was scattered to the winds or hunkered down before the storm.   For some crazy reason I thought it important to have the coffee good, hot, and ready for what I call the Fair Grinds Community, the people who seem to care deeply about the coffeehouse, feel fully able to express their opinions loudly on issues small and large, including making sure that I know “what the hell I’m doing,” and whom, I swear to goodness, I’ve come to think really in fact, depend on us being there for them.  Sure enough, 630 AM was the classic “lull before the storm,” because from 635 am until 10 am there was never a break for air, and it largely stayed that way with our makeshift crew of “draftees” (my daughter, Dine’, and Emily came in for a bit before 8 when I was soloing to lend a hand, and at 8AM Chaco, who was the one barista, I could lean on to work, showed up to save the day, and finally when we closed, we even had the family matriarch cleaning places that needed a firm hand!), until we finally had to lock the door, exhausted at 230 PM as the wind started picking up.

So, am I crazy to think that our “community” at the coffeehouse which supports community organizing around the world is also like the membership organizations in workplaces and neighborhoods; I’ve organized and served all of my life?  A day like today makes me think no.

At one point a photographer for The Times-Picayune yelled from near the front door, “Hey, Wade, do you mind if I take some pictures,” and I yelled back, “No problem, but no rabbit ears or tongues sticking out, huh, gang!”

photo from the The Times-Picayune

Looking at the picture that went on their website within hours, the picture tells the story of places that opened as usual in the face of the storm.  To me the picture speaks to the Fair Grinds Community.  There’s the table at the back with regulars that have adopted Fair Grinds over the years and come on a daily basis, and care deeply about issues large and small at Fair Grinds.  When we first took over they lived in fear I was going to paint the front room, now almost a year later, that is the only area not painted.  Sometimes they will reach out with preferences on music or other opinions, like all of the members I’ve served in organizations in the past.  At this point, “we’re good.”  On the right of the picture is Mark Herman and “his” table.  Mark makes sure our toaster is on target for his daily bagel and acted as the sales agent for the property and guide to the history of the coffeehouse and counselor to me on many things.  The man with his back to the camera with no interest in the picture or anything but his morning chicory coffee (and evening chai) making notes in his book, handling his phone calls, and reading his papers, is Jerome Smith.  I’ve known Jerome for 35 years or so from the time I returned to New Orleans after a dozen year hiatus in Massachusetts and Arkansas.  Jerome was a legendary SNCC organizer and freedom rider from the 1960’s in New Orleans, and inspiration for youth, cultural icon with Tambourine & Fan, and teller of many truths to all powers in the city.

Yes, that’s a community, if you ask me.  Students, bloggers, writers, musicians, lawyers, retirees, activists, organizers, and the whole assortment of unique and special people that you come to know and appreciate.  Scores of them caught me at the counter or out among the tables, and literally thanked me for opening on this hurricane-watch today.  I’m sure I blush, and say, hey, no problem, or something glib, but I hear it all, and I remember it, which is why I postpone other work, and ride into open at 530 am.

If you look closely and zoom into the back of the picture towards the counter, that blurry somebody in the gray Fair Grinds t-shirt is me making sure there is a place ready to serve and protect the whole community that in Mark Herman’s works to me some months ago is “even better than home.”