In A Land Where They Don't Belong

An essay by Dail Bridges

Neva Dail Bridges was born and raised in North Carolina and moved to Seattle, Washington in 1984, when she got a job with the National Marine Fisheries Service working on Japanese and Soviet fishing vessels in the Bering Sea. Dail has spent much of her adult life adventuring, working, and living around the world--locations include New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Africa, Russia, Ukriane, and the Caribbean.

Dail currently resides and writes in Seatte, where she has taken on a whole new adventure--her son, Willis, was born three months ago, with a passport clasped in his hand!

Mama said there were no lattes in town. And she should know, being the unofficial Chamber of Commerce of this small southern coastal hamlet. If it existed, she knew about it.

I wondered, though. Adelaide had changed greatly in the past five years—from a small fishing village to a town bent on attracting tourists, with an influx of Yankees intent on making it happen. Though not as good as transplants from the Pacific Northwest, surely these Northerners would bring with them gourmet coffee and all its trappings. After all, hadn't Starbucks recently bought out Boston's famous Coffee Connection? I found it hard to believe that Adelaide could still be insulated from the coffee craze creeping across the country.

Having spent nine years in Seattle, like any good Seattle-ite, I was addicted to lattes. I frequented my neighborhood cart on a regular basis. I knew I spent at least one third of my annual income on insulated cups of steamed whole milk with just a bit of coffee flavor and creamy foam on top. In other words, a single tall regular with foam, please. I had been away from Seattle for some time now, and I longed for the savory sensation of hot, milky coffee sliding down my throat. Determined to leave no stone unturned, one hot August morning, I set out to walk the sidewalks of my Mother's town, in search of a latte.

I found several tourist shops that sold imported gourmet coffee. Shelves were lined with small bags bearing the proper, exotic names like "Jamaican Blend" and "Kenyan Gold." Two shops even offered free samples of their fragrant coffee, thrusting lukewarm Dixie cups into my hand when I uttered the foreign word "latte."

Then I saw it. A carefully scripted window sign in a small, upscale tourist restaurant that read "Espresso, Cappuchino, Full Service Bar." This meant they had to have an espresso machine, which meant they had to be able to make the beverage of my desire. I swung open the heavy wooden door and stepped into the cool dark interior of the restaurant. A neatly dressed woman with just the right amount of make-up stood behind the cash register counting money. I waited patiently until she finished with a stack and glanced up at me.

"I saw y'all's window sign and wondered if you made lattes?" I smiled.

"Of course we make lattes, back at the bar. We're open from 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Come back then and we'll be happy to make you a latte." The woman waved dismissively and fairly sniffed as she spoke. She also pronounced latte with the accent heavily on the second syllable. It seemed rather exaggerated; perhaps she hoped to point out what she assumed was my incorrect inflection on the first syllable.

Mama finished up at the bookstore around 5:30 and was eager to accompany me on my quest. We both strolled into the restaurant and made our way to the back bar.

There were two women seated on stools in front of the bar with a laundry basket between them. They both had naturally blonde hair pulled into pony-tails and small gold hoops in their ears. Pink fingernail polish matched frosty pink lipstick. Petite and suntanned, they reminded me of Barbie dolls as they sat with neatly crossed legs folding white towels and placing them in tidy stacks on top of the bar.

Standing behind the bar was a man of medium height with a closely clipped beard and moustache and slightly balding head. He was neatly dressed, as were the two women, in pressed khaki shorts and a navy blue polo shirt bearing the restaurant name. His knit shirt stretched comfortably across the paunch of his belly, which rolled only slightly over his belt.

"Help y'all?" He looked me up and down.

"Yes, please. My Mother and I would like lattes—I understand you make them here?" I thought about batting my eyelashes at him but could not bring myself to do it.

His eyes met mine only briefly, then they flickered toward one of the women in front of him. "Sure, sure we make lattes. One of the girls here will fix you right up. How about it, Sherry Babe?"

A white towel snapped in mid air. Sherry Babe, whose back was toward me, hissed at the man in front of her. "Mike, I don't know how to make lattes. I thought you did!"

The woman on the other side of the laundry basket reached across it, grabbing Sherry's shoulder and pulling her close. I could only understand a few of her whispered words as I stood awkwardly off to one side. "...simple...use hot coffee...instead of..."

Perhaps, after all, this restaurant only had the sign in the window and did not make what they advertised. I did not see an espresso machine anywhere in the vicinity.

As Sherry slipped off the barstool, I hesitatingly said "Do y'all have an actual espresso machine?"

Sherry glared at me, ponytail swinging. "Of course we do. Y'all passed right by it on your way in."

Chastised, Mama and I trailed meekly behind Sherry as she marched across the restaurant, her Topsiders slapping across the wooden floor, and laid her hand on the gleaming, industrial-sized espresso machine that was angled into the far corner of a shelf behind the displays of gourmet food items for sale.

Sherry adjusted knobs and punched a few switches but nothing happened. Reaching above the machine, she opened a cupboard and clanked around among stacks of coffee cups.

"Umm...excuse me," I carefully approached her from the corner into which Mama and I had retreated. "Could we get these to go, please?"

Sherry sighed and slammed the cupboard door shut. "Mike, I need some styrofoam cups!!" She shouted back toward the bar.

Mama motioned to me from our corner haven, which was behind a display case full of gourmet mustards. Her eyes were wide as she waved at me over the jars of Gray Poupon.

"Could I get mine with decaffinated coffee?" She whispered guiltily.

It was clear that my usual lingo of "single tall regular/decaf" would be understood here about as well as Kiswahili in Iowa City. But Mama wanted decaf and I hated too much coffee in my latte. Throwing back my shoulders, I circled the mustard once more.

Mike and I arrived at Sherry's side at the same time. He handed two styrofoam cups to her, and she, in turn, whispered something to him. Trying not to sound whiny, once again I said "Excuse me, could you make those with single shots of coffee and could you make one with decaf?" I held my breath.

"Well, the coffee's already made, and it's expresso. And I don't know if it's regular or what." Sherry narrowed her blue eyes at me.

Nodding and smiling, I stepped back and almost fell over Mike, who was crawling around on the floor with a black electrical cord in his hand. He plugged it into the wall socket and stood up, booming "There you go, babe. That should work for you now."

Sherry's blush spread from the neckline of her polo shirt to her forehead in a matter of seconds.

The mustard case now felt like the only safe place in the room. I joined Mama in a defensive huddle behind the top shelf. I couldn't bear to view Sherry at work, so I examined mustard contents while Mama gave me a blow-by-blow description of the action.

"I think she's got the machine turned on now...oh, yes, look she's pouring something into the top—it looks like water from the coffee pot..."

Water? I thumped the Honey mustard jar back onto the shelf. Then I heard it: the unmistakable sound of the espresso machine steaming liquid. I smiled at the thought of hot, foamy milk with just a hint of coffee flavoring, sweetened with a dab of sugar. I closed my eyes and thought of Seattle, my adopted home, the place where, when I first landed, I knew instantly I belonged. I smiled as I envisioned sitting with my close friends in Capitol Hill espresso shops, our hands folded around lattes and cappucinos while we solved the problems of the world.

I opened my eyes as Mama nudged me. "I think she's done."

I watched as Sherry smashed two flat plastic lids on top of our cups, dashing any hopes that I had about foam on top. The small styrofoam cups reminded me of church socials where stacks of them sat beside tall metal coffee urns. The size of the cup enabled you to taste the beverage but not get a large quantity, which was OK, considering it was usually lukewarm water flavored with instant coffee.

"You can pay back at the bar." The relief was evident in Sherry's voice as, glaring, she handed over the two beverages. I wrapped my fingers eagerly around the two cups, waiting for the sensation of warmth to seep into my skin. Instead, the smooth styrofoam slid coolly against my palms, without even a hint of heat.

"Thank you so much, dear." Mama smiled ingratiatingly as we turned to go to the back of the restaurant.

Mike stood, unsmiling, with two palms flat against the bar top and watched as we wound our way over to him. The laundry basket was still in position, as was Sherry's companion, who continued to fold white towels. She did not turn around as we approached.

"So, how much do I owe you?" I handed Mama my cup as I fumbled for the wallet in my pocket.

"Two lattes? Those are $2.50 each, so that's $5.00 total." Lord have mercy—Mama and I could have both eaten a meal at Elwood's Drive-in Barbecue for that amount of money. I squeezed my eyes shut, thinking back on those church socials where you threw a quarter in the basket beside the coffee pot for a beverage this size. Grimacing, I pulled out a five dollar bill and grudgingly handed it over to Mike, who nonchalantly took it out of my hand, nodded and turned to the cash register. The laundry basket nudged against my hip, as the woman on the barstool shifted, recrossed her legs and patted her stack of towels.

Mama handed me back my cool stryofoam cup and led the way toward the back door exit. I pushed open the heavy door with one hand, cradling my prize in the other. We stepped out of the cool dimness of the restaurant into the late afternoon sunshine. I stopped and examined my lid for an opening through which to sip my latte. Nothing. I carefully pulled the lid off and gazed at the muddy brown liquid in my cup. Sprinkles of nutmeg blended in with its surface. I raised the cup to my lips and took a sip of the barely-warm drink. I swirled the watery, weak coffee around in my mouth; nutmeg was the strongest flavor that greeted my taste buds. I detected not even a hint of any sort of dairy product.

"Hmm...mine tastes just like a cup of instant coffee. Sort of like what I get at the drugstore soda fountain for thirty-five cents." My Mother wiped her lips delicately with a handkerchief she had extracted from her purse.

I knew then that some things about the south would never change. Like Jesse Helms and Sherry Babe. Like the cicadas just beginning their chorus, ushering in the sultry evening. Like trying to find a latte in a land where I should have known better.

"Mama, you said there were no lattes in town, and you were exactly right." We dropped our nearly-full cups into a nearby trash can and headed for home.

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