Tuesday, January 16, 2007

coffee, tea or my ego?

warning—long and self indulgent.

I’m sitting at the newsstand looking across the street at the coffeehouse I managed for years. Or what is left of it anyway. It is being torn down and I’m sure it will be gone by tomorrow.

A good chunk of my identity used to reside in that building.

A little history.
I graduated from Purdue in 1986 with a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management (I was 25).
I worked in Philadelphia for years working for a big old restaurant corporation. I’d gone as far as I could with them. I was opening new restaurants, hiring and training the staff.

I moved back to Indianapolis (1994) and was feeling restless.

I wanted to do something different. I knew that I wanted to work for a small, independent business. A college friend is the owner very successful clothing store in my favorite part of town and I became the manager. I had worked there off and on for years and it was very comfortable.
Kind of.
Marigold is a wonderful store and I still work there occasionally. But I don’t have much tolerance for the questions: “Does this color wash me out? Does this make my butt look big?” Not that Marigold wants to sell people clothes that look bad on people—I just don’t have the eye for that kind of thing. I was the manager for a couple of years, and it was time to go.

CATH Inc was a quirky little coffee company with three locations and a bakery. AVS was the baker and suggested me to the owner (this was pre-relationship days). I loved every second of the coffeehouse world. The days started at 5:30 and I could be home by 2:00. The main shop was three blocks from my house. CATH (acronym for Coffee And Tea House) had been around for fifteen years already. The founder, Cathy Peachy died of breast cancer in 1994 and her husband was a hands-off owner. Cathy was tremendously well loved in the community and CATH had a great reputation.

The uptown location was a storefront operation with the bakery in the back--and the smell of the made-from-scratch muffins baked fresh every day wafting in to the coffeehouse.

Definitely the best smelling job I've ever had.

The original location was in the Indianapolis City Market, which was slowly changing from a market to a giant food court. Before Cathy died she spent a ton of money opening a location downtown right across from the City Market. You could have winged a coffee cup from one coffeehouse to the other. I made the difficult, but financially prudent decision to close that location.

The 1930’s brick gas station turned oil change garage was across the street from the bakery. We’d look across the street and comment that it would be a great coffeehouse. One of the employees was finishing his degree in architecture and drew up plans. The owner trusted me to over see the project and I managed to get it all done for $30, 000—including fixtures, equipment (cappuccino machines cost thousands of dollars) and furnishings.
The new location was a hit. It was a sunny and happy place. The walls were filled with artwork and we started hosting music. Touring singer/songwriters from all over the country stopped on their way through Indianapolis (and often slept on my sofa).

I was dating AVS and I was as happy as I’d ever been.
Then AVS’s band got kind of famous. They were on the cover of the Indianapolis Star’s entertainment section. AVS broke up with me that day. And he quit his job—as the baker.

And suddenly I was as miserable as I’d ever been. I was working a ton, often baking all night and then working at the coffeehouse. My social life totally changed. I was not going to see music at all. Either A’s band was on the bill or he was at a show with a date (I got no satisfaction when his car got repossessed and he had to move to an even crappier neighborhood—I felt responsible—I know, crazy). And A. and I continued a stupid on-again, off-again relationship.

The City Market sales were declining. Everybody and their brother started selling coffee downtown, putting in those fake cappuccino machines and selling “cappuccino” for 69 ¢.
Starbucks came to town, milk prices went up, a coffeehouse opened on every corner and I started not cashing my paychecks. I made sure the employees and vendors got paid.

I got a part-time job waitressing. So now, I was working in a smoky bar until 2:00 three nights a week, baking and working 7 days a week at the coffeehouse—and I was poor and sad. You can imagine my mental state during this time.
And then it got worse.

I got a letter from a real estate attorney that our lease was being terminated because I had paid the water bill late in January (this was in August). That same day AVS moved to Austin. We spent a teary (on my part) morning together. As he pulled out of the driveway, I jumped on my 1960’s Murray bike and rode to the Indiana State Fair—one of my favorite things in the world. I lost myself in the wonderful world of cheese sculptures and 4-H rabbits. I had almost convinced myself that everything would be okay—I’d just paid a water bill late…eviction was pretty harsh, right?
I walked to retrieve my bike—and it was gone, the cut lock lying on the ground.
It was not going to be all right.
We fought the eviction—spending thousands of dollars to do it—and still lost our lease.

I felt horribly guilty. I was putting people out of work. A neighborhood-gathering place was closing. A cool hangout for high school kids was going away. A nationally recognized music venue was biting the dust. All because I’d paid a $45 utility bill late.

I made a deal with the newsstand—they had extra space. They got the coffee equipment and they would hire the employees. I put on a good face to the media—the coffeehouse closing got lots of press.

I turned in the keys to the building on the morning of September 22nd, 2004.
That afternoon the owner had a press conference to announce they sold the property to a grocery store chain.
I felt used.

I was the president of my neighborhood association (one of the largest and most powerful in the state) at the time. I had to wear my neighborhood hat “we are thrilled to have a grocery store on this corner” and smile for the cameras, while the pissed-off ex-tenant Nora was making a fist behind her back.

The City Market location continued to flounder. We found a buyer and I happily walked away.

It was rough for a while. I took a break, working at the Red Key three nights a week, I was able to live on my tips.
It gave me time to realize how crazy the last few years had been—and how crazy it made me.

I’m sitting at the newsstand, looking at my old coffee equipment as I type this--who would have guessed how well it all worked out?

I have a great job. I’m still active in my community. I’m writing for two publications, the occasional musician still sleeps on my sofa and I'm pretty darn happy.

None of that would have happened with out CATH, or AVS, for that matter.

It was time for the building to come down.

1 comment:

Teresa said...

Glad you are happy. Things seem to work for a reason even though at the time, it doesn't seem like it.