The Hillside Roasters Coffee House was bursting with fall festivity, despite the fact that September in Los Angeles is more like a dirty version of July. Hazy, sepia-brown and relentlessly hot. Outside, drooping trees provided spots of shade for old women wheeling overstuffed shopping baskets and street vendors pushing their ringing carts. Inside, orange and gold leaves fluttered in chalk down one side of the menu board. A long line snaked past packed bookshelves, newly adorned with tiny pumpkins and colorful Dia de los Muertos skulls sporting succulent hair. Five yellow-aproned baristas worked fast behind the tiled coffee bar, where Rose Gamboa was elbows-deep into her first day as a.m. manager.
“The sink in back is clogged again,” Gillian said, flipping her long red ponytail over one shoulder.
“Rose, pumpkin syrup is popular AF today and you know what that means,” Marco popped his head over the shiny yellow espresso machine.
“Someone’s kid just threw up,” Abigail looked bored, but that was no surprise.
As Rose rummaged through the cleaning closet for a mop, Leroy Washington swung open the heavy wooden front door, plunked himself down at the only open table, and began to sing. His rich baritone filled the room, unintelligible lyrics to a Motown melody. Or was it a harmony? It was hard to tell. Nobody turned to stare. They were used to people like Leroy.
As the song reached a crescendo, the baristas glanced sideways at Leroy, slightly more concerned with trying to remember whether the new acorn froth required two pumps of syrup or three. Leroy stopped singing abruptly, produced a battered fast-food cup, and set it on the table in front of him.
“That was a good song, right?” he shouted. “You liked it? Well, then put a quarter in the cup for old Leroy!” He grinned from ear to ear, a gap-toothed smile that lit up his grimy face.
All four of the baristas looked at each other, silently drawing straws. Rose stepped away from the group, squared her shoulders and took a deep breath. “I’ve got this,” she said firmly.
Rose wove through the waiting throng to the table, where Leroy jingled change in his cup. “Hello,” she smiled politely. “I’m the manager here.”
Leroy spun in his chair and squinted up at Rose. His dreadlocks stuck out at crazy angles. He smelled so bad. And he was high. Rose knew a junkie when she saw one.
“Well,” he said, slow grin appearing again. “Ain’t you gorgeous! Tell me your name, beautiful!”
“I’m Rose.” She hoped her face didn’t reflect her disdain.
“Ramblin’ Rose, Rose of Sharon, the beautiful Rose of the morning-time,” Leroy sing-songed. “I’m Leroy and I am pleased to meet you.” A bead of sweat dripped slowly down his temple. His hand trembled.
“Leroy,” Rose replied quietly. “You can’t ask for money inside. I’m going to need to ask you to leave.”
“Well, ok Miss Rosie,” he said with exaggerated sadness. “I can’t say you’ve made my morning any better. But that’s all right. I’ll be on my way.” He made a show of standing up, straightening his hoodie, and shuffling out the door.
Rose made her way back to the counter. “Get it, girl,” said Marco from behind a cloud of steam. Rose rolled her eyes and turned her attention to a woman balancing a drooling baby on her hip. “Hello, welcome to Hillside,” she smiled. “Would you like to try one of our new fall creations?”
It went like that for the rest of the day, crowds shifting from suited commuters balancing to-go cups of Arabica, to moms ordering pumpkin-butternut lattes, to writers ignoring the heat in knit beanies, nursing cups of iced chestnut chai. By the time Rose left for the day, she was already late for her one o’clock class.
Rose had stumbled into Hillside after stop-and-go traffic forced her off the freeway and onto the hilly side streets sloping into Downtown. A quick stop for caffeine had turned into a seven-year relationship. Hillside was her community now, a friendly home away from home, not too far from her apartment but close enough to school to cram in an hour of studying before class. She liked the neighborhood, with its mix of carnicerias, tienditas and interesting restaurants framed by tall, shady trees. When Carlos, the owner, had offered her a job, he’d said, “Rose, you’re already part of the family. You might as well work here too.” Grad school was expensive and Rose really needed the second job.
The next day, Rose arrived at Hillside in the pitch black before dawn. Street lights pooled onto the sidewalk, illuminating an abstract sidewalk smattering of faded yellow leaves. As she pulled her well-loved Honda into the alleyway, she noticed a figure slumped under the colorful mural next door. He stirred and straightened his hoodie.
The morning crowds had thinned just a little when Leroy strolled in, sat down and began to sing. This time, Rose was ready.
“Leroy,” she said, “Good morning.”
“Well, look who just bathed the golden light of beauty upon my countenance,” Leroy grinned, shaking his cup. “Good morning to you, lovely Rose of the morning-time.”
“Leroy, you can’t ask for money inside,” she replied.
“Ok, beautiful,” he said with downcast eyes, “I can’t say you’ve made my morning any better. But that’s all right. I’ll be on my way.”
It went this way every day for the next two weeks. Leroy plopping himself down at the table by the door, his song unfolding to an audience of nonplussed customers. The jingling cup.
“Leroy, you know you can’t ask for money inside,” Rose would remind as she wiped scattered crumbs and coffee cup rings off the tabletops.
“Ok, baby girl,” Leroy would nod, standing up and straightening his hoodie. “I can’t say you’ve made my morning any better. But that’s all right. I’ll be on my way.” It was a well-choreographed dance in a spotlight of morning sun.
One morning, Leroy did not appear. Rose wondered where he was, but the line was long and steady, and soon it was time to leave for class. Just as she untied her apron, grabbed her backpack and headed for the door, Leroy shuffled in, change jingling in his cup.
“Leroy,” she said. “You’re late today.” He sat down, resigned.
“It’s the twenty-first of September, Rosie.” Leroy’s usual exuberance was hidden behind a mask of sadness. “This day always brings me down. Reminds me of what I used to have."
Rose sat down, feeling the solid weight of his pain settling on the table between them. “I’m sorry, Leroy.”
“Oh Rosie,” he said quietly, “it’s okay. I made my bed, you know how that goes.” He looked utterly broken
Rose felt tears behind her eyes. She swallowed them back and cleared her throat. “Let me ask you something. Leroy. Would some coffee help?”
“Coffee, coffee. Doesn’t coffee always help?” A hint of a weary smile.
Rose jumped up, placed two bills on the counter and returned with a mug. Leroy took it, hugged it with his hands and closed his eyes. Rose took her seat across from him.
“Leroy,” she said softly, an idea forming. His eyes popped open. “You know you can’t ask for money inside, right?” A flash of disappointment. “But there’s something you can do. You can have a coffee.”
“Yes, baby girl, yes I can,” he replied.
“Well, then.” Rose rested her chin in her hand. “I’m going to make you a deal.”
“What kind of deal is that?”
“If you give me one of those quarters in your cup,” Rose said, “I’ll give you a cup of coffee. You can sit here as long as you’d like. If you need more quarters in your cup, you can ask outside. Deal?”
“I like your deal, Rose of the morning-time,” Leroy said slowly. “I like your deal.”
The heat of September cooled into mild October, and November blew in with a cold wind. Each day, Rose added two dollars to the till. Leroy bustled through the heavy wooden door, at the same time every morning, sometimes singing, sometimes swimming in memories. Without fail, he took a quarter from his cup, plunked it on the coffee bar and greeted the yellow-aproned baristas with a cheerful “Leroy’s here!”
“Morning Leroy!” they would chorus back. Sometimes the regulars chimed in too.
Gillian was the first to notice that Rose was slipping extra money into till. “You’re buying Leroy’s coffee,” she said, eyes narrowing.
“I’m buying him three-quarters of a coffee,” Rose replied.
“Well not really, but ok.” Gillian pulled a five out of her pocket and put it on the counter. “How about I buy him two more?” Word got around and soon a mason jar appeared in the back room with a hand-drawn label taped to the front. “(3/4) Coffee for Leroy.” Every time a barista swore in front of customers, a dollar went in the jar. If tips were good, the extra money went into the jar. Pretty soon even Abigail was giving all her tips to Leroy. “What?” she shrugged. “He entertains me.”
Every day, as the morning rush slowed, Leroy would saunter up to the coffee bar and lean on one elbow to chat. As the baristas wiped tables, cleaned up spilled syrup and stocked cups, Leroy told them his story. He had gone to USC on a scholarship, just like Rose. Majored in music. “My trumpet, she was my baby,” he said, touching imaginary finger buttons with his hands. “I called her Sweet Baby Jane. You know every trumpet’s gotta have a name, right?” Leroy had been married, had two children. He'd been successful, singing backup for Earth Wind and Fire for a good part of the 90’s.
“Germany, Finland, France, I’ve been to all of them,” Leroy grinned. “I loved it, I did. But I also loved to have a good time.”
The drugs had been a part of his life for as long as he could remember. He never thought of himself as an addict until he was one. The slide to the streets was slow and painful. It started with a few skipped rehearsals, intervention, failed stints in rehab. The band replaced him. His wife left him, he lost custody of his kids. All his money, everything he had went towards numbing the blooming pain.
“The night I sold Baby Jane was the worst night of my life,” Leroy said, “When I let my baby go, I knew. I knew it was rock bottom.”
“So where are you now?” Rose was cleaning the sink. She paused and put her hands lightly on her hips.
“Well, Rosie, I’m about halfway between where I was and where I’m going,” Leroy replied. “You know, that church down the street? They have meetings. They’re helping me with treatment. I’m doing OK.”
Rose dropped her sponge and ran around the counter, gripping Leroy in a tight hug. “I’m so happy for you,” she said into his shoulder.
Leroy walked a little taller every day, grinning in his gap-toothed way, bantering with the yellow-aproned baristas and customers alike. His songs became clearer, sometimes he got the whole room singing. His battered cup disappeared. He still alternated between muted sadness and exuberance, but his moods were less jagged, his eyes clear more often than not.
On a rainy morning in early December, Leroy swung open the wooden door to the Hillside Roasters Coffee Bar, walked up to the tiled counter and held his hands high in the air. He was wearing a clean button down shirt. His face was radiant. He had shaved.
“Well, morning crew, I’m not going to be here so much anymore, showering you with my presence.” Leroy announced with a dramatic pause “Because I got an apartment. And a job!”
The baristas rushed to congratulate Leroy, hugging him and patting him on the back. Rose ducked quietly into the back room. She returned with the stuffed mason jar.
“Leroy,” she smiled, “We are all so happy for you. We want you to have this.”
“I can’t take that money from you, Rose of Sharon,” he said.
“Take it Leroy,” said Abigail. “It’s yours.”
“We all contributed,” Gillian agreed.
“We want you to have it,” Marco said from behind the shiny yellow espresso machine.
Leroy looked at Rose. His eyes glistened. “This means a lot,” he said. ”It really means a lot. You all have such big hearts.” He trailed off. The baristas were quiet. It had seemed like such a little thing.
“You started this, you know," he motioned to his white shirt. "Because you listened. You gave me a place to be. Everybody else ignored me, you didn't.”
"You're kind of hard to ignore, Leroy," Rose managed a watery smile.
Leroy wiped his eyes and took a breath. “Keep that jar here, Rosie. Someone else may need a little mercy on a bad day.” He leaned one elbow on the coffee bar. “Now, let me tell you something about singing to a big crowd. It’s not as easy as it looks. But, the applause, that is some sweet, sweet music right there.”
The baristas picked up their dishtowels, steam rose from the shiny yellow espresso machine, mugs clinked in the sink and the Hillside Roasters Coffee House hummed with customers coming and going through the heavy wooden door.