Caffe sospeso: paying it forward (awkwardly) at Starbuck’s

At approximately 8:30 last night, I approached (more like bum-rushed) a mildly unassuming and wildly unsuspecting young lady as she placed her drink order at Starbuck’s.

I stood next to her and blurted out: “You have to let me buy your coffee!”

caffe-sospeso-suspended-coffeeShe blushed. I could see by her expression that she was processing what had just happened. In her defense, it’s not every day a complete stranger sidles up to you in a coffee shop and offers to foot the bill. Standing there, it occurred to me that I’d done a lousy job of planning and executing the gesture. In that seemingly interminable moment of awkwardness, I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d broken the silence with a “get lost, weirdo.”

But then she said, “What, you mean like a pay-it-forward kind of thing?”

I was off the hook.

I explained to her the tradition of caffe sospeso (translation: “coffee suspended”) that began in Naples some hundred years ago. During the European financial crisis, not everyone could afford coffee. But by some turn of events, a tradition was begun whereby a customer who’d experienced good fortune would order one coffee, paying the price of two, but consuming only one. Later, a patron with no money would enjoy a coffee for free simply by asking the barista if there was a sospeso available.

As we walked to the self-service bar, Ashley introduced herself. I told her about this blog; she asked me what other kind deeds I’d done this week. She told me about Urban Conga, a project created by her friends with the purpose of bringing people together in public places.

Heading for our respective seats, I thanked her for being a part of my little experiment. She told me it made her day.

In the final analysis, paying it forward with coffee didn’t exactly shake out the way I imagined, although it did elicit the intended effects. I feel pretty good about it, and am of the mind that doing random niceties for people is a worthy endeavor, even if it forces you to scale a wall of estrangement and even if it makes you feel like an oddball.

I think it’s just another way of maintaining our collective humanity.

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