Zen Moment: Tea House Turnabout

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Can you master your mind as the tea leaves steep?

Last week I stopped at a Denver tea house to write.  Expecting to stay a while, I ordered the tea service which, the menu said, included a full pot and a treat.  That turned out to be a handful of mouthwatering Earl Grey cookies.  The cheerful employee delivered it all to my table on a square wood tray.  Later, she offered to refill the pot with hot water.  For four dollars and change, I felt like royalty.  A few days ago I was nearby and decided to visit again.

“I’ll have a pot of white tea,” I told a different gal behind the counter, one with kohl-rimmed eyes and two-tone hair.  I watched as she arranged a white ceramic mug, tea pot and miniature hourglass on a tray.  She poured hot water into the pot, turned the timer over and pushed the tray toward me.

“I thought it came with cookies,” I said, more than crestfallen.  She said nothing.  To lighten the mood, I added, “It’s the treat that’s the draw.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” chimed in another customer.

The employee looked up, her face clouded. Perhaps she felt outnumbered. Sighing, she bent down and reached into the display case, pulled out a glass cookie jar, placed the contents in a small dish and put it on my tray.

“Sorry,” she mumbled.  “I forgot.”

I now had my tea and cookies, too.  Case closed?  Not for my ego, which wanted to have the last word, even though I was the only one who could hear it.

You shouldn’t have to carry the tray, it kvetched in my head as fine grains of white sand drifted to the bottom of the hourglass.

This forgetfulness would never happen in _______ (insert name of European country), it complained, as if all servers, even in hipster tea joints, must behave like Buckingham Palace butlers.  It had conveniently forgotten that when I was in Spain a few months ago, walking the Camino de Santiago, service had ranged from doting to downright rude.

You shouldn’t have had to ask for the cookies, it said, ever so protective of my inner princess, who simply wishes that the world would anticipate her needs and do everything right.

Then it suggested that I write a Yelp review and dock them one star for inconsistency, as if that were a cardinal sin deserving punishment.  It’s addicting and even cathartic to compose capsule reviews and assign ratings; in recent years, I’ve churned out hundreds and been rewarded with theater tickets, parties and other freebies.  But after the Camino, I lost my appetite for Yelping; I was tired of approaching my experiences as a critic (even a gentle one).  The advice to type a review, familiar and compelling as it was, did not have my interests at heart.  Neither did my ego’s other lines.

It’s a good thing I caught on to my mind’s mishegas.  The tempest over a pot of tea was designed to keep me from simply enjoying the cookies and the tea, which getting cold.  Contrary to my ego’s desire to give the evil eye to this “wench”, I struck up a conversation with her when she replenished my pot.  She was new to both this job and to town.  Like me, she had moved to Denver on a whim. We chatted about the spell of warm weather, Denver’s unique and friendly vibe, and about other cool establishments nearby.  The wall between us had collapsed.

About an hour before closing she asked if I’d be interested in some soup and/or a quinoa salad which she’d otherwise throw out.  The salad was in a small plastic cup with a lid, easily portable.

“Thanks,” I said. “I can take that off your hands.”

“Are you sure you don’t want soup? It’s black bean.”

“Is it vegetarian?”

“Yes.”

I wasn’t terribly hungry but I was curious.

“OK,” I said.  She asked if I wanted it to take it with me.  I figured it would be a small amount so I decided to eat it there.  Minutes later, she arrived with an enormous bowl, covered in foil to keep it hot until I was ready to dig in.  Not wishing to waste it, I ate every delicious drop.  As 5pm neared I packed up the salad with my laptop, pulled out some bills for a tip, and piled the bowl and spoon atop the tray, happy to carry it to the counter.

“How was the soup?” she asked.

“Excellent.”

“Do you want to take some with you?”

“Sure.” I watched as she ladled the rest of the pot into two pint-sized containers.  I assumed one was for the other lingering customer.

“Do you want me to put these in a bag?” she asked.

“Please,” I said, astonished that she was giving both to me. “I would hate for them to spill.”

“I’m glad the soup is going to a good home,” she said.

She handed me a small paper bag with handles.  I clutched it as if it were a gold medal, a prize for being present.

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