The Real Coffee Man

February 22, 2012

“The King was in the counting house, counting all his money
The Queen was in the parlour, eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden, hanging out the clothes
And down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose”

-from a British nursery rhyme, “Sing a Song O’ Six Pence”

Long before Starbucks became a global corporation, with a presence in Malaysia I used to buy my hot sweet coffee in a plastic bag with a straw from a smiling Indian man in a tee shirt and sarung. He worked from a kiosk under the shade of a huge tree. There was a certain romanticism to this that brings back nostalgia. This hawker in Malaysia was a drink maker par excellence. He made every drink imaginable from Milo and Nescafe (yes, instant coffee) to regular brewed strong black coffee, tea, spiced chai and iced drinks. His customers drove up in shiny black Mercedes Benzes, or motorbikes, rich and poor rubbed shoulders as they picked up coffee on their way to work or during their lunch hour. The spoken languages ranged from English to Chinese, Tamil and Malay to various dialects and accents. Muttu, our drink maker understood them all. He even spoke a smattering of each language and found no reason to impose his own or intimidate customers with either a “Speak English” or “Tamil only policy. No need to ‘educate’ customers, he served them all.

I love coffee. I remember my mother making it and pouring it into a bright red thermos flask when we went on road trips traveling from the southern trip of the Malaysian peninsular to Kuala Lumpur, the city and then capital. I drank my hot, sweet coffee with a large slice of bread spread thickly with golden butter and strawberry jam. I loved biting into the roughly hewn slice, about an inch thick and dunking it into coffee. One of my brothers introduced me to bread, butter and brown sugar. When my father pulled up by the rubber or palm oil estates, I ate my bread and gazed up in awe at the trees. Trees were full of magic because of our reading of Enid Blyton who wrote of “The Faraway Tree” and Mr. Pinkwhistle. There were faraway lands to travel to, and many diverse cultures to explore. Diversity, like coffee then, was not a loaded word. Everything was not calibrated and manufactured and factored to an idea of perfection as it is today.

When I returned to Malaysia, after receiving an education in the United States, Muttu was still present. I drove my shiny new little Subaru Justy up and parked close to his stall. He was conducting a brisk business, customers of all races bustled about him. There was even a Mat Salleh (Malaysian term for ‘white’ or western person) or two, acquainted now with ‘our’ ways. Tolerance was not a ‘Transformational Agenda’, then. It was a way of life. Muttu looked up at me as he made ‘teh tarek’, literally translated to “Pulled tea” (this is tea that is poured from one silver container to another quickly so that the tea that is served is hot and frothy on the top). When Muttu saw me in my office clothes, he broke into a warm, wide grin. “Amma, vanthetingalla…” Muttu welcomed me in Tamil. Then, for the benefit of all his customers, Muttu said proudly as if I were family, “She is America returned. Very educated and high class now. I knew her when she was this tall and came here with her father,” Muttu said setting down the drink he was making.

All Muttu’s customers laughed. The joke was that I hadn’t grown very much taller since he last saw me. Then Muttu called out to his wife to come and see me. Mariamma came out rinsing and drying her hands on her sarung. “Hey, careful, careful.” Muttu cried to his wife as she grabbed both my hands, “Don’t dirty her clothes. She is going to the office.” Their obvious pride and joy at my achievement of obtaining an education in America was evident on their beaming faces.

I wonder if Muttu would still be proud of me if he knew. I work in the same industry as he does. Only here we are called ‘baristas’ and calibrate the espresso machine, create enthusiastically satisfied customers out of surly people who order 1/10 of a pump of mocha, give away our kidneys, and write books about “How Starbucks Changed My Life.”

Anushka Anastasia Solomon, ( is a certified barista and published poet working at the Evergreen Safeway/Starbucks.

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