I have yet to meet someone who enjoys the early morning rush hour, be it in London or any other city.
In the midst of the early morning race to get to work, commuters (especially of the public transport variety) are temporarily robbed of personal space and momentarily stripped of identity as we all become part of one big multi-limbed, industrial machine hurtling forth, swarming through and into the city and, in this way, setting the wheels of the day in motion. Such is the mechanics of survival and the routine of everyday life, I guess. Nevertheless, when I find myself marching with the rest of the commuters like disciplined soldiers down the road in the mornings, I know for certain that some of us will never get used to such a rude awakening.
For some Morning Larks out there this might be bearable but for Night Owls, like myself, a kind starting point to our journeys is indispensable to help us into the day. A bearer of good news is needed somewhere along the way to temporarily dispense the early morning gloom and lighten the load of overwhelming expectations, typical of a 9-to-5 world, so suddenly bearing down on one and disrupting Night Owls’ circadian rhythms.
And this is where Sid has stationed himself for the past eleven years: just outside the East Finchley Northern Line tube station, where most needed. Enveloped in a coffee aroma his coffee cart is ever-present and has found its permanent spot. Sid, who had become part and parcel of East Finchley’s High Road, has mastered the art of preparing a coffee in no time and his customers are always happy to see him.
“The best part of my job is the people. I feel part of a community,” he tells me as he makes me a medium cappuccino with one sugar without a pause in the conversation (I don’t have to remind him what I drink because Sid remembers all his regulars’ likes and dislikes.)
He tells me that his customers are as varied as their choice of drinks. “Some people want a straightforward espresso, others want a soya vanilla latte with an extra shot,” he laughs.
But I see how he treats his customers: with a joke, a friendly word, a smile, filling up someone’s flask with hot water, supplying not only hot drinks but also extending warmth and human kindness. The depth of its human touch and its memory enough to last throughout the whole day.
No matter how early, come rain or shine, Sid is always there. A familiar face next to his coffee machine; the steam wand hissing away comfortingly inside his coffee cart as he works his early morning magic throughout the whole day.
He gets up at the crack of down. And even me, who is a self-declared non-morning person can see its appeal. Really early in the morning the streets are clean like a slate. It’s most probably the best time to start work. When you feel like you can actually breathe. In a big city this is quite something. And people, no matter how old or tough, young or weak, are usually most vulnerable and honest in the soft, undisturbed hush of dawn.
But Sid didn’t grow up in England. He’s from Algeria and arrived in London twenty two years ago.
“For a better life,” he answers as I ask him why he came. I should know. I’m an immigrant myself. But what he says next, leaves me with much food for thought: “You know how it is. You come here: you forget to go back.”
If I think carefully, I do indeed. No matter how wonderful a city, it still has the potential to swallow people whole and lull them into an over-productive, thoughtless sleepwalking state. And therefore one has to tread lightly through the big city, at times so devoid of human touch and connection.
When I ask him what he misses most about Algeria, his hands become still for a few moments, the cloth folded between his palms with which he keeps his work surfaces and espresso machine shiny all day.
“I guess I missed what used to be home. What it used to be all those years ago when I left but now home has changed. Everything changes.” A fleeting, far-off look in his eyes, as if he sees something beyond his loyal customers, something which lies far beyond even the borders of the UK. “There are so many people like us here.”
This is true: people who live between two worlds. And like most of us, Sid makes it a priority to return to Algeria whenever he can. “I fish when I go there. That’s what I do.”
Spearfishing. An ancient method of fishing that requires stealth, stamina and absolute focus.
“I love the excitement of spearfishing. You never know what’s around the corner, the next rock. Most importantly, one should never lose concentration because when you least expect it, you are guaranteed to find what you are looking for. It’s a bit like my job,” Sid laughs. “Just when I think I know most of my customers, I meet new people.”
When he talks about his underwater experiences, he is yet again momentarily transported to another place. “When I am below the surface of the water I feel completely apart from history and all my troubles so far away.”
I tell him that he is like an island of calm, rescuing us for a while from the inevitable storm and tumultuous chaos of the morning stampede, a moment of peace in which to gather strength to enter the battlefield of the day. He chuckles and asks, “And who is going to rescue me?”
Maybe we are all looking for a constant, something in life that will stay unchanged forever and maybe, just maybe, if we hold our breath for long enough every now and then and look carefully beyond the surface of things, we might just catch a glimpse of what we’re looking for. Sid might be right: it’s all about timing and staying focused on the important things in life.
And perhaps we rescue each other day by day, kind word for kind word, coffee by coffee.
A famous Turkish saying springs to mind, “One desires to talk with others, coffee is merely but an excuse,” as I take my first sip of coffee for the day, the rich taste confirming that Sid’s skill and timing in preparing his drinks are impeccable. My troubles seem somehow far away as I enter the tube station and, clear as the daylight which is starting to fill the sky behind me, I know for sure that Sid’s skills lie not only in being an adept barista, but, above all, in being a friend to many.