Ito En (USA) — "Kona Espresso"

by Leroy Blanks

kona_espresso.jpg (click can to enlarge)

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So it's a brand friggin' New Year and I'm buying a cold can of Kona Espresso at the Cafe Solmar in Ballard, trying to keep my mind on positive things for a change. The redheaded barista looks at me quizzically as I put the can on the counter. "No one's ever bought one of those before. I don't know if they're any good," she says apologetically. Well dammit, honey, I'm on assignment for, and I'm about to find out, I say to myself. What I say out loud is: "Someone's got to try it, I suppose."

I sit at an outdoor table and light up a menthol — yeah it's cold outside, but the progressives of Seattle have taken away my right to give baristas second-hand lung cancer. A deep inhale. Out through the nose. Long and slow. Ballard was once a working class neighborhood; now it's yuppie city, condos going up everywhere, cops shooing the homeless from corner to corner, rolling ghettos of people living in their cars down by the canal because they can't afford the rent. The old neighborhood bars are losing customers because the new Ballard denizen would rather attend wine tastings with Jean Paul the condo concierge than drink ale at the Jolly Roger Taproom with Leroy the recovering addict.

OK, take a long toke ... that's better. I was starting to sound like Rush Limbaugh there. I apologize.

A young man comes out of the cafe. He's in his thirties, hasn't shaved in a couple of days and has pale, pasty skin. Must work in an office. He holds a leash at the end of which is an angry little dog. A mutt, I suppose, although I have to confess I'm not into dogs at all. I hear Middle Eastern men fear dogs. Me too. I wouldn't last a day in Gitmo.

The man with the tiny, angry dog stops in front of me and delivers the line I've been hearing a lot lately: "You know, you're not allowed to smoke here anymore." I don't even look at him as I get up and walk, the can of espresso still unopened in my hand. We can't even smoke outside anymore. The right-wingers are bad enough, but now the left is messing with my life. Oh Kona Espresso, what is going on?

It's 9 am Jan. 1, 2006, and I'm already wavering on my New Year's resolution. I head toward the bridge.

I walk down 15th toward the city. On the corner of Market is an old woman with an "Abortion Kills" sign. She's halfway gone, that faraway look in her eyes, but her mouth is all pride and spite. Jesus Christ, I think, without a touch of irony. I spot the old cracker's allies — one on each corner — and wonder how people get that way. I mean, as a recovering addict, I'm no role model, but I'm also not filled with hate. Not yet, anyway. The urge to smash the can of Kona Espresso into this self-righteous old lady's head eventually passes. The light turns green, and I keep walking.

Under the bridge, I find a seat on the curb and eye my Kona Espresso. I light another cigarette and think about whether drinking this coffee will do me any good. Three days ago, a goofy looking white guy with a big smiling Indian on his shirt came up to me and offered to float me twenty bucks to drink coffee in a can and write about it. He had a quixotic look about him — yeah, that's right, Leroy went to school; I know me some words — he was like the lady on Market, but minus the hate. I thought, hell, twenty bucks is twenty bucks, so I took his money and promised to go to Solmar on New Year's Day.

Still, it seems so pointless, drinking this coffee and writing about it. So completely meaningless.

Before I can pop the top on my Kona Espresso, I notice a gang of white guys coming toward me. Not good. They have that ravaged look of meth addicts about them, and the gal on the right is one of those scrawny, beat-up hookers you see walking along Aurora Avenue. Mini skirt, bruised legs, needle marks up and down her arms, just a mess. Shit. They're coming straight for me.

I'm sweating. Leroy's met gangs of white guys before in dark secluded places, and the results have never been good. But there is something about the guy in the middle of the pack — have I seen him before? — that calms my nerves. His eyes are soft, his brown hair long and parted in the middle, and he's wearing a robe ... a bathrobe to be exact. It's so absurd, but I feel safe as I meet eyes with this man in the bathrobe. He smiles at me, his teeth yellow.

"Hey brother. What's that you got in your hand? A Kona Espresso?" The man in the bathrobe seems at peace with everything, standing here under the Ballard Bridge with a bunch of meth addicts and a black man clutching a can of coffee. Perhaps that's why I just tell him the truth: "Yeah, that's right. I'm supposed to drink it and write about how it tastes."

One of the meth addicts laughs. But the man in the robe turns to him and says ever so calmly, "Thomas, you are always doubting everyone. Perhaps this man speaks the truth."

"Do I know you?" I ask the man in the robe. He wears Birkenstocks and holds a rolled up exercise mat under his left arm.

"I don't think we've formally met. I go by Jay. This is Paul, Thomas, Kelley, Larvell and Mary."

I stare long and hard at Larvell, and he stares back. I've never met a white man named Larvell. He could be a light-skinned brother, I think, as we stare at each other. Larvell seems unsettled by my presence. Mary puts her arm around his waist and teases him by cooing in his ear, "What's the matter, sugar bear?" The others titter.

"I'm Leroy. Leroy Blanks. Nice to meet y'all."

"Leroy," says Jay, those eyes soft as ever, the smile serene, "allow me to make an extraordinary rendition." He unrolls his exercise mat and lays it on the asphalt. "Hop on," he says, "and don't forget your coffee."

I do as he says, sitting Indian style on one end of the mat, clutching my Kona Espresso extra tight now. Jay sits in the lotus position in front of me, says something I can't quite understand, and suddenly we are levitating two feet off the ground in front of Jay's friends.

Thomas shakes his head in frustration, the others wave, and then we zip away, out from under the bridge, over the traffic and across the canal. I'm airborne on an exercise mat on New Year's Day and Seattle looks beautiful. We soar by the Fisherman's Terminal, over the trawlers and yachts and out toward Discovery Park.


I look west toward the Sound and the islands, spellbound by Jay and his flying mat. Has my luck finally changed? Decades of self-protecting cynicism start to peel away and I feel ever so light as we begin to pass the mansions of Magnolia. "That's Ronald Reagan Jr.'s house," says Jay, pointing to one of the multimillion dollar homes below. Fear surges through me again until I realize he's talking about the son. Wasn't he gay or something? The elation returns.

"Jay, where we going, man?"

"Hang on, Leroy. We're almost there," he says as he leans into the wind and steers the mat into a downward slide toward a little village with a Starbucks on one corner and a Tully's on the other. Could Jay be taking me to Starbucks?

But at the last minute, he leans forward and now we are flying straight down. Jay is chanting something as we head straight for the roof of a four-story condominium. Words can't quite capture what happens next, but let's just say Jay and I are flying straight through the walls of these condos, right through the living spaces of these strangers, feeling absolutely nothing, until we land ever so softly on the hardwood floor of a bright room with white paper blinds on the window. I smell incense and hear water dripping. A stone sculpture of a female nude is by the entranceway, and a middle-aged man with close-cropped white hair peeks from behind a curtain. He wears an Indiana T-shirt and sweatpants and has those same soft eyes as Jay. "Hey, nice to see you Jay. I'll be right with you."

The man from Indiana comes over and shakes my hand -- no soul shake like some white guys do in the presence of a brother; just a firm old-fashioned handshake -- and says, "Welcome, I'm Jacob."

"Uh, Leroy. Leroy Blanks ... nice to meet you ..."

"Grab a mat and make yourself comfortable," Jacob says as he walks over to the stereo, crouches down and puts on some sort of chant or something. Slow, mellow music with long, deep aummmmmm sounds. Leroy has seen a lot of crazy things in his life, and usually weirdness means trouble, but this time, I just feel that things are alright. I settle in on my mat, close my eyes and let my head clear.

Jacob and Jay spend the next three hours or so teaching me about breathing. I breathe through one nostril, then the other; I breathe from the belly, deep, like when I smoke, but without the nicotine and other carcinogens. Then we do something Jacob calls a sun salutation. We follow with balancing poses — I keep falling over, so Jay places the can of Kona Espresso on the window ledge and tells me to use it as a drishti, which I figure means stare at it and keep your balance. It works. This goes on and on — the stretching and breathing, the different positions — and it just feels like something good is happening to Leroy.

Finally, we unwind, just lying on our mats and breathing. Jacob calls it shavasana. As we rest, he talks about the third eye and tells me to envision a light there, in the middle of my forehead. For a few seconds I do, and then it turns into the light blue Kona Espresso can, hovering in my mind's eye, refusing to be ignored.

Jacob rings a gong and tells us to sit up. We bow to each other, then Jacob looks at us and says, "Thanks for coming guys. Got time for a beer? There's this bar across the street that has flat panel TVs on every table! You can tune in any game you want. And the Cotton Bowl starts in 10 minutes. "

I mumble something about needing to get back and review the can of Kona Espresso, and Jay says, "You'll have to do that here. Your extraordinary rendition isn't finished yet."

I grab the can and open it . For some reason, my senses are alive. I smell hints of chocolate in the espresso, then take my first tentative sip. The chocolate taste is strong but then gives way to a watery, disappointing finish. I repeat the process several times, trying to find something surprising or complex in this coffee, and each time I gain a little confidence in my skills. When the can is almost empty, I decide that my sweet little Kona Espresso is a coffee for babies and chuck the can in the garbage. "I'm ready for that beer, y'all."

Jacob and Jay are just staring at me. Jay says, "You serious about that being your job, Leroy?"

I look at Jay, still in that bathrobe, and ask, "What is your job, exactly?"

"Extraordinary renditions, man. Let's go finish yours."

On the way to the bar, Jacob says, "I can't wait for that Ohio State-Notre Dame game tomorrow." I catch myself before I blurt out that I grew up in Columbus and love the Buckeyes. For some reason, I just know Jay is for Notre Dame. And heck, it's only a football game after all.

At the bar, I sip my beer, look at my newfound friends and say, "Man, I gotta admit, I didn't expect to be drinking microbrews in Magnolia with two white guys today."

Jay just smiles serenely and says, "Leroy, paradise is always right in front of you."

Jay is a trip. I swear I know him from some place. But that doesn't really matter, does it? All I know is some strange thoughts are creeping into Leroy's head. The cans of coffee, the flying exercise mat, the Cotton Bowl in Magnolia with two white guys — yes, I am ready: I will allow myself to think that this year I'm gonna be just fine.

This year will be different.

Leroy Blanks is a freelance writer and frequently unemployed bass guitarist who has settled in Seattle somewhere near the Ballard Bridge. He has spent his life heading west: born in Ohio, he moved to Chicago when he was 12, spent a few years in Missoula, Montana, and moved to Washington state in 2002. Perhaps Japan is in his future?

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