I Bought a Bag of Beans / Chris Kornman

https://copticlight.org/pages/coptic-light-artworkOne of the core perks -- forgive the pun -- of working for a coffee company is the free beans.

And so, in quarantine, I’ve been well stocked. Brewing coffee in isolation is marvelous. Every waking moment of the job hinges on whether it’s done just right. At home, there are no judgements. Just hot, brown caffeine. 

Yet I bought a cup of coffee the other day from a local roaster, a comrade at arms, a weak gesture of support. Take out orders and the occasional delivery aren’t sustainable solutions for the service industry. Coffee roasters are going to need to pivot to wholesale, grocery, subscriptions, direct to consumer coffee beans.

Take it from me. I’m no stranger to this business. Slinging drinks since ‘03 but I’ve been BOH (that’s back-of-house for y’all normies) for a long time. Quality control, inventory management, production, sourcing, logistics.

Esther came from the statistical sciences -- Chicago public schools student placement, or something. There’s no good reason she got that job in the coffee quality lab in 2010, as far as I could tell.

It was a nice job, though. Micro batch roasting samples for purchasing decisions, some excel work, a lot of face time with the travelers. Celebrities of the coffee world, the coffee buyers. Globetrotters with a blank check from the company.

Esther took to her role in the lab. She had good mentors, I’ll include myself on the list, but I certainly wasn’t the only one. She also had raw talent, understood how to taste for defects and nuance.

I’d been sweating it out, dragging around 150 lb jute bags loaded with unroasted beans, hours face-mashed against a 400-degree cast iron roaster with a 200lb capacity. Legit sweat equity.

We had each others’ backs in the offices, and in the bars. We even ended up playing in a few bands together. Turns out she was a prodigy -- suzuki method violinist. Played her first gig with our dopey little outlaw country band for my girlfriend’s birthday in a dive bar in Boys Town.

Flash forward a bit. We both left Chicago; years pass in waves now. She’s got a new beau, they’re strung together by the bleakest, heaviest of music and some mutual tragedies. Death, darkness, demons. The usual. Off to New York for her, with tours of Europe where the audience seems receptive.

I’m off the band gigs, on the left coast, making a go of writing and education to make ends meet. Got a partner in life and business -- same girlfriend from that dive bar so many years back. It’s good. Really good.

And then this virus. This soul-crusher, harbinger of unseen destruction. Death, and not just the literal one -- though there’s plenty of it -- but the subtle kind that erodes normalcy, independence, the things that made life so liveable. It’s bad. Really bad.

I read the article in the Times, the one about Queens at the epicenter and oh shit it hits like a jackhammer. Esther.

Sent a note. “Hugs, hit me with a reply if you get the chance.”

“Hi Korn Man!

I miss you!  It's so nice to hear from you. We’re holding up fine. We were super anxious the first week but we are now more accustomed to this holding pattern. I still hate venturing outside and get really paranoid, so I only go out for groceries, practice/roasting at Pulley, and birdwatching at the cemetery.

We both lost our jobs…”

Bleak stuff. Pulley’s the coffee co-op. She’s still roasting. I bought a bag of Ethiopian beans.

Coptic Light. That’s the brand, and maybe a sign. Hard to say these days.

It’s warm, fresh, aromatic, bittersweet like cedar and rosemary and spiced chocolate. And like memories.