By John Thomas Tuft

Simone breezes in singing the old Marshall Tucker Band song, “Heard it in a Love Song,” then segues into Stevie Nicks’ “Leather and Lace” as she ties on the green apron and surveys her kingdom, because she is an old school soul when it comes to music. At twenty-three, her preferred pastime is to curl up with a good book and her cat, Mr. Beeges, while the loud, crowded city streets outside her apartment window offer no cure for the loneliness that haunts her. In the Classique Coffee Shoppe, she turns on the music of Dobie Gray singing “Drift Away” over the sound system, pours some exotic beans into the grinder, pumps up the espresso machine and checks the supply of scalded milk. She starts to sway to the music of “Lady” by Little River Band and imagines herself dancing in the ballroom of the royal baroque palace of Luserta. Her long, dark hair tied back with a lavender ribbon given to her by her most favorite person in the world, Aunt Nataya, sets off the deep blue eyes that are filled with perennial concern. And delightful mischief, if you are lucky enough to see them in just the right light.

In a world of baby boomers, millennials, generations X, Y and Z, Simone is a rare find in the natural habitat of baristas. As the season accelerates from Thanksgiving through Christmas and points beyond, her disposition rarely falters, always a smile for the customers seeking comfort in her magic. She is saving her earnings for a plane ticket to Colorado to visit Nataya, because family matters. As the reigning queen of latte art at Classique, the tips are generous and compliment the framed certificate declaring her the ‘bestista barista’ of the Lower East Village throwdown. For the uninitiated, a throwdown is a competition among baristas, head to head, pouring designs with milk into espresso. Factor in the blend of espresso, the cup, the pitcher, temperature, technique and milk being poured, and stand back for wizardry. And community, because community matters.

As Cat Stevens sings ‘The Wind’ Simone pauses to look out the window at midtown in the early morning street steam and shadows of silent strangers with sepulchers of shattered dreams. Unbidden, her heart reaches out to them, because though she be young, she knows what E. Hoffer spoke of when he said, “It is loneliness that makes the loudest noise. This is as true of men as of dogs.” She unlocks the front door and the 5am crowd filters in, trailing the echoes of Shakespeare’s “we know what we are, but know not what we may be” in their wake. Aunt Nataya imbued a love of reading in Simone early on and the characters populating the coffee shop stoke the dialogue of her dreams. Her fingernails, painted a pale blue, dance over the machinations of the perfect brew, while her rolled up sleeves reveal tattoos of longing for definition of the possibilities for being what she may be.

Silent Suzanne and Hipster Henrique come through the door, hoping today will be the same as yesterday, as Bob Seger belts out ‘Night Moves.’ Simone knows their order by heart but asks with a smile, from the heart, “How can I help you?” Steam belches from the brewing as she falls into the rhythm of meeting needs while sequestering her own. The old man she calls Charlie Chaplin comes to the counter in his ever so threadbare coat. She adds a dash of cinnamon to his order just to let him know that she knows who he is. As light breaks over the city, Simone wonders who out there knows who she is. Who she wants to be.

Crazy John strolls in right on time, as usual. She greets him with a smile and pushes the button on the sound system. The images of the video for Tim McGraw’s ‘Neon Church’ appear on the flat screen above the counter, pulling them into a private dance of imagination. At the end, where the neon angels from the dive bar sanctuary are revealed in all their glory and longing, he stops and stares at her, in  recognition. “You do know,” he says, picking up his double mocha with extra cream, “you are an angel.” He takes a sip and smacks his lips. “Don’t you?” She dips her head shyly as he raises his cardboard cup in recognition and homage and goes out the way he came. Then she turns to the next human in line. “How can I help you?” she asks. It is the voice of a queen. Simone the Barista. Niece of Nataya. Queen of latte art. Angel unaware.

Dire Straits start to sing ‘Sultans of Swing’ as the dance goes on…and on.

Words are magic and writers are wizards.