On East Washington street in Indianapolis, among the homeless shelters, drug stores, and sagging rooftops, there sits a little cafe. It’s not what you would expect to find in this neighborhood and that’s what drew my interest to work there for four months as a barista.
My experience was a mixture of dull hours accented by heart-pumping moments.
There were long afternoons where the only people who came in merely asked for a glass of water or the bathroom. Then there were times like the day a fight broke out right outside, and my manager ran to lock our doors before the fight was brought into the cafe. Police appeared, traffic swerved as the fight between two teen-age girls fell right into the busy street.
My heart broke when a little old man come in to buy a cup of coffee with nine dirty quarters. He wore a leather police jacket and never smiled. With his grey mustache pressed against the rim of his cup, he quietly drank his coffee in the back corner of our shop and stared blankly out the window. I saw him every day, and though I never learned his name I did learn how he liked his coffee: a little cream and a lot of sugar.
My heart broke to see a shirtless man, in the heat of summer, walk in looking for something to drink. A baby clothed in just a diaper was pressed to his chest, maybe a month old. The child’s tiny arms ended in tightened fists, his legs far too skinny, his stomach flat and malnourished.
After a while I grew accustomed to this life. Driving through sad-looking streets, passing people I once thought were so scary, but now realized were just lost, confused, or seeking something to satisfy their addictions.
Though I worked on the East side, I had the luxury these people did not: to drive home at day’s end, to a safer, cleaner and more developed area of town.
But eventually I began to see pockets of light in this poverty stricken neighborhood. The church behind my cafe met regularly for bible study at our tables. Wheeler Mission’s staff often came in and shared about the work they were doing, while I fixed their coffee.
Day after day I mopped the floors of my cafe and prayed for the people who passed by the windows.
Morning after morning I clocked in and pulled shots of espresso for our regulars. I began to wonder if this was my calling, to be a barista in a poor area of my city and serve people one by one.
Then one day I was offered a job with the state government. Two weeks later I was clocking out for the last time and moving my career down to West Washington Street on the other side of town.
My new job was a completely different world. I was meeting with state Representatives, Senators, lobbyists, and journalists. I was sitting in a cubicle designing newsletters and writing press releases, responding to media requests, and surfing news outlets hunting for information.
And I was ordering coffee,
standing on the other side of the counter,
knowing how early these baristas woke,
how they brewed the coffee,
and prepped the night before.
I was pulling a few extra dollars out of my wallet for the tip jar, because I too was once the barista counting up tips at the end of the day.
Life on the West side is so different than on the East and they are mere minutes from each other.
How is it so easy to forget the ghetto parts of a city simply because you never see them?
I’ve grown accustomed to this high society part of Indy, in the middle of towering hotels surrounded by expensive restaurants. I fear I’ve become puffed up and have forgotten the little old man with the mustache or the malnourished baby.
But maybe being a part of state government will allow me to make a bigger difference now that I’ve heard peoples’ stories while making them coffee. Maybe since I began at the personal level, it will in turn help me at the thirty thousand foot level concerning government communications and legislative affairs, to help underdeveloped areas like the East side of Indy…