Saturday, March 2, 2013

The magic, the shitstorm, and a toast to the future of Toast

Some people just have magic, don’t they? They have magic and the minute you meet them, you know. You can just feel it.

My friend Kent has magic shooting from his fingertips. His eyes and his voice radiate heart and soul and warmth and humor that turn strangers into friends and friends into communities. The air around him vibrates with joy and empathy and kindness.

And it’s so funny about Kent -- he doesn’t even seem to try, really. He’s just himself, and the rest simply follows.

Kent’s magic takes many forms. He can spin a story that will have you gasping laughter (Oh my god, the stories…). He can deliver a hug that makes you forget even the most frustrating day at work. He knows exactly when to text and say ‘Where have you been? I miss you!’ He will ask you, every single time he sees you, how you’re doing and how you’re feeling what’s up with you today? And y’all, he really, really wants to know.

And when Kent’s caught in a shitstorm, which he is at the moment, he still does all of those things. He directs his magic outward, and he pulls us all together, toward him and toward each other and toward what’s real and bright.

I’ll get back to the shitstorm in a minute. First I want to tell you about the most potent manifestation of Kent’s magic. It's called Toast. A little café at the corner of Vine and Lindsay streets in downtown Chattanooga. A little café where Kent spins his unique brand of magic. A little café he spent 10 years building and working to support.

And y’all, that man worked. He worked when he was hurt (he has the surgical scars to prove it), he worked when he was broke, he worked when he was tired, he worked when he was sick. He kept going when anyone else would have given up.

He built his little business in addition to doing his “real” job as a flight attendant, and he worked on it out of sheer love for the community he was creating -- for the utter joy he takes in having everyone over for a cup of coffee and a catch-up.

The magic made him do it.

I didn’t meet Kent at Toast. We met through mutual friends. I pretty much wanted to climb into his lap immediately. He made me laugh, and then he told me about his little café, just a couple of blocks from my office, and he said, “Come visit me.”

I did. And my friends came, too. And of course they were his friends, too. And then my friends and his friends were all friends and we were all running together and having lunch together and playing games and drinking beers and celebrating birthdays and laughing and laughing all the time. I couldn't even tell you how it all evolved. It just happened.

Because that’s what happens when you go visit Kent.

Here’s the kind of thing he does: We sneak to Toast for a quick lunch, and he’ll be really busy waiting on the midday crowd, but he’ll slip over to our table with a giant cupcake and three forks. 

Or he’ll bring us coffee drinks we didn’t even ask for. Or tell us he really needs our opinion on these new cookies. Or he’ll sit down just long enough to show us a funny video that makes us giddy before he has to jump back up and get back to work.

We’ll plan to run a half marathon together, and he will volunteer to host a brunch at the café afterward, which means he is up late the night before prepping the food, and then he is up early getting things set up, and then he is running 13.1 miles and then he is making us eggs with pimento cheese in them. 

Oh, and all of this after he just flew in from an international trip for his other job. And smiling and laughing the whole time, you guys. Just reveling in it all.

Last week, as I drove to work, the texts starting rolling in: “Oh my god, the café is on fire. It’s bad. Oh my god.”

It burned. It was bad. No one was there, and no one was hurt, and that’s really good. But Kent’s place burned, and Kent had worked so hard. So damn hard for so damn long.

It takes a while to process that kind of loss. You have to realize it one slow, sad moment at a time. You have to walk through it, ashes on your shoes, gazing, bewildered, at a landscape at once familiar and completely alien.

You have to swallow a few sobs and salvage what you can, sit close by your friends with the smell of smoke still in your hair, wash your clothes over and over to escape it, sort through the pictures, marvel at the melted plastic, the charred wood, the ceiling on the floor, the floor burned away, the things lost, the things spared.

So very few of those things.

I don’t think Kent knew, at first, what he wanted to do. He’s been knocked down so hard. He’s taken bad hits before, but this is such a big one. He had to be tempted to take whatever insurance there is, pay the debts he can, and walk away.

And god, it hurt me to think he would do that, to think that warm, quirky community that spins around him and his place might slowly dissipate. That my friends and I would never again be able to duck out of the office for one of his therapeutic hugs and a quick cup of coffee. 

But I never, ever would have told him what I was thinking. I would only have told him to do what his heart needed, and I would have meant it. He was so hurt, and it was so hard to see.

He’s magic, though. I may have mentioned that.

Just a couple of days after the fire, Kent came to a birthday party for my husband and me, and he talked about Toast 2.0. He talked about how much he already misses it, his employees, his customers, his community. He talked about what it might take to bring it back, to build it even better this time.

I know lots of people believe things happen for a reason. I have to confess to you that I don’t believe that at all. I never have. I just don’t think there’s a plan or a purpose or even a rhythm to these things. We’re spinning together on a rock in space and, y’all, shit just happens. No one is pulling any cosmic levers.

But. BUT.

This is our job as we spin on this rock: To take what happens and learn from it. To find the value in the shitstorm and be better because of what we’ve endured. There’s no reason unless we locate it, unless we sift through what remains and discover it. We make our own reasons. We find our own lessons. The quality of our lives is directly connected to our ability to do that. 

And, because Kent is magic, he’s already hard at work making sure he pulls from this pain all the good there is to conjure.

Here’s what he posted to his legion of Facebook friends just a few days after the fire:

“I want to know what you want... what you want to see and experience when CONSIDERING the ability to reopen the cafe. I want to make this FOR you and WITH you in mind. I want your ideas, criticism, decor and food suggestions, layout and convenience features... I have always made a business FOR the customer and it’s possible that I may have to opportunity to make it better.

“I miss my customers and my employees so much and I am seeing now more than ever how much of a family to me everyone is.”

Kent, we’re with you, and we’ll do whatever you need. It will be OK, friend.

No, it will be better than OK.

It will be magic.