I spend a lot of time in coffee shops doing this job.
Whether it’s conducting interviews, a vibrant place to chat with members of our marketing team or just to get out of the office, coffee houses seem to be my immediate go-to.
Last week, I was walking to one near my office in Center City when a woman stopped me and asked if I could give her a dollar so she could buy some food. Customarily, I never give out money but instead offer a sandwich and a drink as an alternative. For me, I find it part humanitarian duty and part social experiment to see if the person truly wants a bite to eat or if they’re only looking for me to unknowingly enable a bad habit.
I could tell at first glance she needed the help. She was an older woman, could’ve been someone’s sweet grandmother in a perfect world, but in the one we live in she was dressed in two ragged coats, clutching a plastic shopping bag of her life’s possessions. It was her approach that caught my attention, she wasn’t so in-your-face as most on-street approached, instead it was a quiet mumble – the kind you give when you’re too embarrassed to ask for something you desperately need.
I stopped and offered to get her something inside the coffee shop. She followed me into the building and I asked her what she wanted when we got to the counter. But before she could order the barista shouted, “she can’t be in here, sir. I can’t sell her anything.”
I responded that he wasn’t selling her anything, he was selling me whatever she chose. The cold shoulder that followed directed at both of us was as offensive as it was humiliating. The woman, obviously embarrassed with onlookers sitting inside the cafe now staring at both of us, quickly grabbed a drink from the refrigerated shelves and said, “I’ll just take this.”
Defiant, I said, “No, we’ll order you a sandwich if you want one.”
She thought about it for a second and replied, “it’s OK, this will do.”
The barista took my money, handed me the change and didn’t even reply when I killed him with kindness in a reply to “thank you, have a good day.” Before I could get my change, she was already looking to make her exit out.
Look, I don’t know the past history. I don’t know her past dealings inside this little coffee shop, but there was no reason she should have not been allowed service. She wore a shirt, had on shoes and other than the way she looked was anything but a threat. It really opened my eyes to just how many of us treat the homeless like trash and not as human beings with a story to tell.
With that being said, I had some words for that barista, but I wasn’t about to set it off inside the store. So I’ll do it here (and gladly to his face should he ever read this piece and want me to show myself because you know who you are and our papers are in your establishment). Actually, it should be noted that it was my first (and last time) inside this particular shop. If there was a reason for which you can tell me why you would deny that woman service beyond her simple appearance then please, I’m all ears
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God forbid the answer of “company policy,” if that’s what you decide to go with then we have much bigger issues here.
But if the basis was that she didn’t fit the clientele of the downtown socialites, shoppers and tourists who pass through that building on a daily, then you need to do some serious soul searching, my friend.
I’m not saying you need to be Gandhi, and I’m not saying that’s who I am trying to be because of my decision to help her. I, apparently unlike you, are just well aware that most of us not of the one-percent are just a few paychecks away from being in her shoes.
So consider this a friendly reminder of that the next time you put on your apron and stand behind that counter to serve all people of Philadelphia.