Fiction: The Theory of Chai
I’d seen this homeless man once or twice before at the door of Intelligentsia, my local teahouse, but never really looked at him. This time, perhaps because of being bombarded by news headlines about the city’s housing crisis, I gave him a tiny nod. Uncombed and unshaven, with a deeply-lined face, he had clouded eyes sitting beneath a pair of shaggy eyebrows. He wore loose overalls whose color I couldn’t tell. A garbage bag, piled high with his possessions and a dog-eared paperback, squatted next to him.
As I reached for the door handle, I smelled him and recoiled. He turned, all six feet and 200 pounds of him towering over me. “You can’t go in, young lady, unless ...”
Unless what? I shook a bit inside. You didn’t see too much homelessness in this part of Clement Street. I wondered if I shouldn’t offer to buy him a beverage. After all, I had a half hour to kill before having to report at the office. A counter-argument stormed inside me. Why be intimidated by this guy? Go grab a corner table and a padded red chair by the tall bamboo plant in that bright, airy room. Let your eyes graze the wall shelves lined with jars of teas in black, green, white, and red colors. Open your iPad. Erase all else from your consciousness and dive into your writing. Remember you have a deadline for a short story, even if it’s only a contest deadline. Remember you’re a blocked writer. Remember your story has stalled.
Then, maybe because I wanted to do some good this morning, or maybe the guy had something compelling about him, or because I plotted fiction in my spare hours and had an open mind about crazies, or because I wanted to avoid writing, I said a little abruptly, “Can I get you something?” Whatever you might like. I sounded downright patronizing to my ears and had to bite my lip.
“Yes, young lady,” he replied haughtily, with a European accent. “A sixteen-ounce chai, extra hot, 180 degrees, no foam and no silly design on top.”
I took a pace back; I needed an instant to process such a precise order. Coincidentally, that was also my standard order here, save for the size—eight-ounce was all I could handle—and I didn’t mind the silly design; they made me feel special. And I was young, urban, and weight-conscious, so, of course, I opted for nonfat milk.
Minutes later, we sat at a small round sidewalk table. This man, my grandfather’s age, took up more than his share of the space. I looked around to make sure John, the barista and sandwich artist, hadn’t spied him occupying a table. I wasn’t sure how John would react, if he’d throw him out for changing the ambience of this shop, ask him never to come back, or give me dirty looks. After all, I mused, squirming in my seat, we San Franciscans were polarized when it came to tackling our homeless. Some asked, “Where’s the police?” Others battled issues such as public health and safety vs. consideration for the disadvantaged, whether to allow sidewalk tents or not. I supported the disadvantaged.
The man, perhaps oblivious to my discomfort, took a big gulp of his chai and studied my face. I saw myself through his gaze: petite, thirty, tanned, big eyes, and shoulder-length, brownish-black hair with no flirty curls. And also, company for a few minutes, an easy mark, an unlikely date, and quite possibly a meal ticket.
“Born in Austria,” the man said. “Traveled the world looking for my shot. Ran a teashop in Heidelberg. They like their tea there. I served the best chai, including the rare pink variety. Have you ever had pink chai?” Without waiting for my reply, he rushed ahead. “And now I’m a ‘blanket man.’ I sleep in doorways and tents of the great City by the Bay.”
I took a tiny sip of my chai; it burned my tongue. Born and raised in the Bay Area by Indian ex-pats, brought up with manners training—keep your head low in front of your elders, don’t tear down their walls—I couldn’t go personal. Couldn’t ask him how he ended up that way, what he thought of the city’s decision not to raze the tent encampments, or if he ever longed for a spot to call home.
For now, I clung to the safe ground. “So you’re a confirmed chai drinker?”
“More than that. You could call me a chai connoisseur, chai prince, or chaioholic.”
Yeah? Among my circle of friends, I was the acknowledged chai authority. My mother was born in Kolkata, India, where imbibing chai was a national pastime. I had experienced the ritual when we returned to visit her hometown. Each family gathering began with a big pot of chai made with rich milk, a touch of sweetener, and the finest black tea specially flown in from Assam. My mother had educated me on tea etiquette: how the color had to be a certain shade of amber, with a pink undertone. The temperature should be hot enough for the lips to shrink a bit, but not burn them. The taste that would rush to meet the palate should be creamy sweet, maybe even a little unctuous and balanced by a robust, spicy ambrosial pungency. The cup must be made of delicate porcelain, the rim on the thin side, and the handle would encircle your finger like a lovely ring. Most of all, you, the taster, must be in a serene mood—mindful, if you will, the opposite of restless and bitchy—to take chai.
I summarized all this by saying, “I grew up with chai.”
“I can see that, young lady. Can I call you young lady? You probably have an unpronounceable first name.”
Unpronounceable name? Anita? (Okay, pronounced more like Anitha in India.) Stung by the insult, I went silent.
He said, “I have my own theory of chai.”
That sounded so last century. I replied, “If you’d be so kind as to—”
“A good cup of chai takes me to my real home, like few things can. Home is a feeling, not a space, mind you, and it’s never permanent.”
“Explain it? Gladly.” The man raised a hand in the fashion of a philosopher. “A good cup of chai takes me to my real home, like few things can. Home is a feeling, not a space, mind you, and it’s never permanent.”
A rush of air hit my face as a cyclist shot past. “How did you come up with this—?”
“Having a bad turn. Being stoned out of my mind. Getting into street fights. And having too much time on hand which people of leisure like me can always count on.” His eyes rested on mine. “You’re a writer perhaps?”
I nodded. Did he notice the brilliance in my eyes? How leisurely I took my sips? The eager questions? “How can you tell?”
“Easy. All thirty-somethings are into writing. You have that MFA-privileged look, as if you’re pondering your characters, keeping them on a tight leash, and wondering why you’re getting nowhere.”
I knitted my brows and looked away for a beat. “Huh. You think I’m privileged? I work ten-hour days as a financial analyst. Write from eight to ten p.m. and only once in a while do I get anything accepted.”
I didn’t tell him that literary magazines paid mostly contributor copies or pennies, if they paid at all. The paycheck I brought home from my day job mostly went toward my rent. But money wasn’t the reason. I caught the writing fever from my mother. A shy poet, she kept her poems about flowers, candles, hand fans, and other tender things locked. I, on the other hand, concocted outlandish stories from wherever I could find them. The story I was working on right then centered on two refugees, a man and a woman, both young and attractive, from two different corners of the world. Seated next to each other on the bus taking them to the Immigration Office, they felt each other’s presence, the way you feel a storm was about to land, but neither spared a word.
This overbearing man sitting next to me was right; I was a Chain Lady. I kept my characters on a leash, holding them to the spectacle I’d created for them— instant love without a common language—even when they didn’t want to cooperate. Did I do it for a sense of security?
Again, he scrutinized my face. “Have you ever asked yourself why you’re stuck on your story?”
I stared at the ground. Yes, I’d posed a similar question to myself countless times about writing—why didn’t I give up this charade when it mostly dumped misery on me—and hadn’t dared to look at the answers. A little delusion was necessary to keep oneself going. I resorted to the standard answer. “Oh, I’m one of those people who must—”
“You don’t have to must anything.”
To fill the silence, I took a few more sips from my cup. Each tasted muddy and oversweet, nothing like my mother’s. Still, I didn’t mind listening to this guy. I was getting a hint of something that I needed, though I wasn’t sure what.
He looked down at his empty cup and stood up quickly. “I have to go now. Let’s talk more the next time.”
What made you think there’d be a next time? That you could string me along for more chai? You didn’t exactly build my confidence, did you? By then, he’d turned the corner, with all his belongings, the paperback wobbling on top, and was gone.
Home is a feeling, not a space, mind you, and it’s never permanent.
I pulled out my cell phone to call my mother and tell her about this encounter. She had a sense of humor although, on second thought, I decided not to make the call. She’d probably say something like: Listen up. Maybe the universe sent this chai prince to deliver you a message.
I could never fathom my mother’s universe or why and when it sent emissaries. I put the phone back.
I stayed away from Intelligentsia for two weeks and went to Sulawesi instead. My reasoning? I needed a change of scenery. Sulawesi was renowned for its coffee, which reportedly came straight from the town of Kalosi in Indonesia. There it was called brown gold or something like that. Not being a coffee aficionado, I almost felt apologetic when I stood at the marble counter and squeaked out an order for an extra-hot, eight-ounce chai. The barista would give me a look, get a carton from the refrigerator, pour into a carry-out cup and steam it. I felt miserable downing the lukewarm, chemically enhanced, and frothy liquid. Then there was the noise level. Coffee people talked louder, their music more on the hyper side. Still blocked, still unable to get my characters to speak to each other, my deadline unmet, I scowled at the hapless iPad in frustration.
At work I confided in Lilly, a friend and colleague. Petite, dressed in a neat pencil skirt and a round-collared jacket, Lilly looked as though she’d slide perfectly inside a gift box. She had dense smooth hair, like a jar of black tar laid on its side, and complexion as shiny and golden as the bangles she wore. I envied her. Whereas I was lonely, misunderstood, and smart, she was less clever but more popular.
Lilly listened carefully, then said, “Why don’t I ever run into strange characters on my coffee runs like you do?”
I registered a trace of jealousy in her tone and that secretly cheered me. “Do you suppose I should talk to him if he happened to show up again?”
Lilly sighed. “I would. Try to find out if he’s for real.”
Staring at Lilly’s made-up face, I could see her façade crumbling a bit. It was as though I had the passcode to the messy real world she wanted to hack into.
Finally, today I went back to Intelligentsia. There he was, the chai prince, standing outside the door and looking in, wearing the same overalls, and the same trash bag resting next to him. For all I knew, he’d waited like this for the last two weeks.
“Same order?’ I asked from behind.
He turned, looked at me, and smiled big, a genuine smile that touched me. “That’s a lady.”
Within five minutes, I’d put down the cups on the outside table, along with my iPad. We drank silently, then I went straight to the point. “Remember last time? You said—”
“What did I say?” He drew his cup closer; his voice rose. “That I go blank when I have to scribble a return address on my envelopes? That some days are like hanging by a thread from the sky over the San Francisco Bay, sharp knives in rich people’s boats beneath my feet? That all through the night traffic sounds lacerate the atria of my heart?”
A street person composed better sentences than I did? A gust of wind blew away my napkin; I didn’t try to chase it.
“But you, young lady,” he continued, “you’re on the same boat. A homeless orphan—that’s what you are.”
I looked into his colorless eyes and gave out a sarcastic laugh. “Both my parents are alive and they live only an hour away. I see them all the time.”
“You’re a good kid, but you haven’t found your home—”
“I don’t buy that,” I said, interrupting. “This city is my home. I love my family, my friends, my apartment, and my life here.” I have occasional dates. Some creepy, some timidly nice, and they’re always different from what I expected them to be. They don’t last long, but so what? I have time on my side.
He shook his head. “Those are all illusions. Writing is your refuge, your true one, but you haven’t reached it. And that’s why you’re unhappy.”
He made me question the sidewalk beneath my feet. “Unhappy, I’m not.”
He took a gulp of his chai; his face looked blissful for an instant. “I was the same way when I was your age, trying to figure it all out.”
“How many people find the true place where they belong? Is that ever so easy?” I could tell my voice had an edge. “I’m still young. I’m searching.”
“Now do you see there’s no difference between me and people like you?”
“I never said you were different. I only want to—”
“You want to write? Feel the feeling. Yes, stab it. Hold onto it like it’s a little birdie.” He laughed. “Then you’ll be at least one step closer to ...”
Breathlessly, I waited for him to say something like, ‘Where the story will pour out of you.’
Instead, he looked distracted, changed his position. “For me this chai will do for the rest of the day. Good luck, young lady. I don’t meet very many like you.” He picked up the paper cup and his belongings and lumbered off around the corner.
The wind howled. A motorcycle thundered down the street. And I sat there alone for a long moment, nurturing the unexpected sweet feeling inside me, holding it gently, just as he’d insisted, like a bird, listening to accented dialogue. Then, with a friendly glance to my iPad, I drew it closer.
Bharti Kirchner’s novels include Shiva Dancing, Darjeeling, Sharmila’s Book, and Goddess of Fire. She has also written four nonfiction books. The Seattle-based author’s latest mystery novel is called Season of Sacrifice.
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