Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Suspended Caffeination ... a State of Bliss

With the new year upon us, I plan to take the goals I laid out for myself in my 10,000-word mega-post and put them into practice the best I can. Tonight, the missus and I already had our first meditation in a long, long time, so that's a big step in the right direction. We plopped down on the rug in the living room and sort of improvised, as the little meditation nook in our rec room is still under construction, but the important thing was that we sat our backsides down and got serious about cultivating our mindfulness. We even cracked open some of my old Tao-a-Day books to reflect on some good, gentle spiritual lessons. I have a habit of letting my plans fizzle out, but Mrs. R. has issued me a challenge to keep up my sitting practice, so I'm determined not to let her -- or myself -- down.

Another of my goals was to be the change I want to see in the world, but to put it into action. It's easy to philosophize about how you might want the world to look, but you can't really expect anything to happen if you don't take the initiative to do something yourself. I'm reminded again of Neil Peart, who said he'd love for everyone to be kind and generous, but even if they aren't, he chooses to live his life as if that's how the world works -- like giving money to the panhandlers instead of questioning their motives. It doesn't have to be a grand gesture. Even a small act of kindness can brighten someone's day, or maybe even change their world.

I thought about that today after seeing a Facebook friend share a post I've seen a few times before. If you haven't heard about the "suspended coffee" movement, here's the narrative as it was presented on my friend's FB page:
We enter a little coffeehouse with a friend of mine and give our order. While we're approaching our table two people come in and they go to the counter:

"Five coffees, please. Two of them for us and three suspended.’" They pay for their order, take the two, and leave.

I ask my friend: "What are those 'suspended' coffees?"
My friend: "Wait for it and you will see."

Some more people enter. Two girls ask for one coffee each, pay and go. The next order was for seven coffees and it was made by three lawyers -- three for them and four "suspended." While I still wonder what’s the deal with those "suspended" coffees I enjoy the sunny weather and the beautiful view towards the square in front of the café.
Suddenly a man dressed in shabby clothes who looks like a beggar comes in through the door and kindly asks, "Do you have any suspended coffee?"

It's simple -- people pay in advance for a coffee meant for someone who can not afford a warm beverage. The tradition with the suspended coffees started in Naples, but it has spread all over the world and in some places you can order not only a suspended coffee, but also a sandwich or a whole meal.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to have such cafés or even grocery stores in every town where the less fortunate will find hope and support? If you own a business why don't you offer it to your clients … I am sure many of them will like it."
Mark Wallheiser/ECHO
Caffè sospeso passes the Snopes test, and it does indeed appear to have originated in Naples. Italians love their coffee, and as one travel blogger reports (as quoted by Snopes), the idea began in lean times several years ago, when many citizens couldn't even afford something so basic as a cup of hot coffee. Those who had the means would pay for an extra cup, and a tradition was born.

The practice seems to be catching on. NPR reported last year that the idea was flowering in Europe during the protracted economic downturn. Similarly, a bakery here in the Seattle area allows patrons to buy a token for a coffee. The tokens are kept by the register, and anyone in need can come in and exchange one of the tokens for a hot cup.

The beauty of this simple gesture, as I see it, is that it's anonymous. And I believe anonymous charity is the best form of charity, because there's no ego in it. You're doing something purely for the sake of helping someone else, not for getting your name put on a building or some other type of public recognition for your actions. I've engaged in my share of anonymous acts of charity down the years, and I'd have it no other way. The point is the gift, not the giver. Moreover, when the act remains anonymous, the recipient feels under no obligation to his or her benefactor.

There have been some critics of caffè sospeso, among them coffee-shop owners who say they'd help people in need who came into their stores anyway. Others say the system will just be abused, or that one's money could be better spent by donating food to a food bank, or that those down on their luck need more than just a cup of coffee.

My first thought is that every little bit helps, and there's nothing stopping a patron from "suspending" just a coffee. You could pay forward a pastry or even a meal if you chose to, and if the café was game. Besides, donating a coffee doesn't preclude anyone from also volunteering time or money to other anti-hunger projects. And if someone's going to abuse the system, well, should those who are truly in need be penalized for it? 

If that last point reminds you of our ongoing national debate regarding the social safety net, it should. How often have you heard politicians trying to justify cuts to financial assistance on the basis that a lot of people are abusing the system? That's what makes something like caffè sospeso not just a simple gesture of charity but also an act of great symbolic importance in our current times. With so many politicians eager to gut our assistance programs while they continue to dole out corporate welfare, and with the gap between rich and poor widening to record proportions, it's perhaps more important than ever that we take matters into our own hands when it comes to helping others. Caffè sospeso is a small but powerful act of social solidarity. 

Now, I would certainly not force this idea on a coffee-shop owner who's not interested in participating. This should most definitely be an act involving only the giver, a willing café, and the recipient. No coercion on anyone's part. For the shops that do actively support caffè sospeso, go and show them your support. The Seattle café, at last report, was eager to get the word out. So if you're ever in this neck of the woods, stop by the Essential Baking Company in the Wallingford neighborhood and buy a token or two.

In these cold winter months, there's nothing like coffee to warm you all the way down to your bones. For those who live out in the cold, a suspended cup of coffee might warm not just their bodies but also their spirits, by knowing somebody out there still cares.


  1. That is incredible! I've never heard of anything like that. When I lived near DC I was approached by a homeless man who insisted on singing me an opera for enough money to buy a coffee. I would have given him the coffee money anyway (he actually pointed to the coffee shop which was right across the street). He sang to me. It was the best few bucks I've ever given :) I am guilty of questioning the motives of the panhandles on the road but I should stop. As I remember that homeless man I realize he had to overly explain himself and stand next to the coffee store as "proof" just to get some help buying a cup of coffee. That is pretty sad. He did in fact go straight into the coffee store and buy a cup of coffee.

    I love how you tied it back politically! That is dead on.

    Side-related: I use to pack two sandwiches when I went into DC so I could give one away to a homeless person and the homeless man I offered my sandwich to stuck around and sat down with us to eat his sandwich. He then proceeded to tell us all about this old lady he protected. It got creepy really fast when he said that he stabbed a man who stole her blanket. Asked us if we've ever stolen anything from old ladies and if we had he'd have to kill us too. I was just glad I was on his good side via the sandwich offering and in a very very busy touristy area!!

    1. Nichole, what great stories! I had my share of colorful encounters with the homeless when I lived in the D.C. area as well. As for questioning the motives of the panhandlers, I've just come to the conclusion that they're the ones who have to live with themselves, and I'm not going to penalize the needy because of a few bad apples. I think it helps if you can give them food or direct them to a coffee shop rather than just handing them a buck or two and hoping they don't waste it -- but of course, that's not always an option.

      Now, I just need to get up to that Wallingford store!