So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
—Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”
Cracking three eggs over the griddle and tossing their shells in the compost, I glimpse Kevin and his friend as they step past folks in line, slide up beside the pay-as-you-can sign, and launch directly into placing their order.
“They have the best coffee,” Kevin tells his friend, then turns to me. “I tell everyone you guys have the best coffee in town. I need a cup of that good, fresh coffee, and a waffle with whipped cream and fruit, and eggs with cheese, and one of those buns, and …”
Pirouetting around the galley kitchen, I interrupt: “Good morning, Kevin. I’ll be with you in just a minute.”
I pivot back to my tasks: plate a breakfast stir-fry, flip the eggs, grind the direct-trade coffee, prime the waffle maker, spread cream cheese and Sungold-tomato jelly over a homemade garlic rosemary bagel for Emily, a regular sitting at the bar, and then ask Meredith to dress a few more cinnamon buns and crabapple scones. Despite my efforts to keep my emotions in check, my heart has galloped up under my collar and refuses to settle back into my chest.
Kevin, who frequents the café most days we’re open, always greets me with an easy grin and cheerful conversation as he ambles through the entrance after tying his dog, Molly, outside, where she waits patiently for him. I enjoy seeing him and can usually bottle the frustration that bubbles up when his food orders snowball into long lists that include a waffle and eggs for Molly, several to-go containers, and phrases like “and throw in a couple of those.”
Most of the time, I am mysteriously enlivened by all of the “foolish” work behind this pay-as-you-can, neighborhood-grown breakfast café – by doing something that, in Wendell Berry’s words, “won’t compute” with the economics of the world. And even for the less inspiring parts – like when the baking regimen that begins at 3:30 a.m. compounds the sleep deprivation that comes with having young children – the work still makes a deep-down, bedrock sort of sense to me. But this morning, I feel vulnerable. The café has been slow lately, we have been losing money, and I am exhausted. I remind myself that I signed up for this arrangement, but with my heart thundering in my ears, I fear that Kevin and his friend’s “usual” is going to be more than I know how to offer.
Turning back to them, pen and paper in hand, I offer a half-hearted “good morning” and begin taking their orders. Along with many paying patrons, there are a handful of regulars who pay little or nothing for their breakfasts, which are usually reasonable, single-entree orders with a cup of coffee. This is exactly what my wife, Erin, and I had in mind when we first opened Moriah Pie, the pay-as-you-can pizza restaurant we ran for eight years before switching the format to this breakfast café. We wanted to share the food that we grew here in our urban neighborhood with the people who live here, whether or not they could afford it. We wanted to trust in God’s provision, opening the table to anyone who wanted a seat. But as Kevin and his friend order enough food to feed six people, a dam breaks within me. Putting down my pen on the counter, I can’t help but say something.
“Hey guys, I’m going to remind you again how this works.”
Kevin interrupts, “I gotcha, I gotcha, you know I always take care of you.”
I try to remain blind to what people pay, but having previously encouraged him to pay something, he has on occasion handed me an envelope of pennies, the change he no longer wants to carry in his pocket. I do not feel “taken care of” by Kevin.
Holding up an egg, my hand shaking, I say, “Kevin, this egg here costs me $0.38. That coffee that you love costs me $11 a pound. Your friend Jared here will be washing dishes in a few minutes and I pay him $11 an hour. That money has to come from somewhere. I rely on you and all the people here to pay him, to pay the rent, to buy the groceries, and to take care of my family. If you guys have money for weed or beer, you need to have some for us too. I am busting my butt and I don’t feel like you are honoring me or my family.”
My whole body is lurching with the release of adrenaline. Having been as real as I know how to be, I turn back to the griddle. Later, calmer now, I walk over to Kevin’s table with to-go containers and reiterate that I value his presence at the café. He tells me that he will be picking up some hours at a temp job that afternoon and will pay me some real money next week. There is an honesty between us that I haven’t felt in a long time.
Three weeks have passed, and I haven’t seen Kevin again. I’m sure I could have spoken with more eloquence or compassion. Had I simply named a price, the whole situation could have been avoided. Had I remained bottled up, Kevin would have gone on with his day. But I would have grown hard of heart and he would have continued to take this “free” meal for granted. We would have reduced each other to commodities – something flat, rather than people who reflect the face of God.
So as messy as it felt, I’m glad I lost my cool. At every turn, often without our awareness, we are conditioned to receive the world around us as commodity. As a result, our senses are dulled to the gifts of creation, one another, and God’s dynamic provision. If we are to re-apprehend the world as gift, we must wrestle through this temptation, by engaging in real and often messy relationships. Ten years into this work, I am still learning how to do it well.