George sold coffee. He had been doing so for the past 15 years, since it had become popular to buy a coffee on the way to work but before the ony place to do that properly was some massive chain that offered 12 options just for a cup of joe.
In contrast, George kept it simple. He had a cart that he wheeled out every morning at the ungodly hour of 5:30am to catch those who were driven to make it to work far too early. He sold good coffee. Recently he had switched to Fair Trade. It cost him a little more, and he'd had to raise his prices to compensate, but nobody was complaining. He still only charged $3 for his biggest cup. The cups had gone from styrofoam to recycled paper with little cardboard sleeves. He tried to be responsible, tried to move with the times. He had slowly added a few extras. In the beginning there had been a thermos of cream and packets of sugar. Now he also had a thermos of 1% milk and packets of sweetener. Anything else people had to supply themselves. Some people did. Some came armed with soy milk or some other form of sweetness that they said was healthier. They didn't mind. It was worth it for the coffee, they said. And to see George.
Before he sold coffee, George had worked as a janitor for 15 years. He had been concientious at his job and pretty good at it. It was something his wife had always teased him about, that he could swing a mop with the best of them but she never saw the benefit in their house. It was not completely true as he did occasionally help out and clean up the kitchen floor, but neither of them really minded the arrangement.
Eventually, however, George had found himself unsatisfied with his job. He was a friendly guy and he had gotten to know people who worked in the building. There had always been time to stop and chat, to smile and laugh a bit, or even do some extra little something to brighten someone's day. Then management changed. His hours were adjusted so that he worked later, more hours when the building was empty. He was told to move faster, to get more done. Be more efficient.
It had been no way to live. So George and his wife, Anna, had talked about it. They talked about what would be good about staying, they talked about what he would do if he quit. They talked about Anna getting a job too. Their son and daughter were still in school but they were old enough to look out for themselves more. College was coming though. There wasn't enough saved up for George to be out of work long.
The idea hit him when he heard a few of the newer people standing around the office coffee pot and complaining about how bad the coffee was. Everyone seemed to drink coffee. A couple coffee shops had opened up, but none of them were that close, and none of them offered coffee to go. George couldn't afford his own shop, but he could afford a cart like those hotdog ones.
He and Anna had agreed, and she'd gotten a job at their local bakery. She was a good baker, and really good with people too. Motherly. It didn't pay much, but it was enough to keep them going while George got things set up.
It hadn't taken long. People in the building remembered George. They stopped to say hi on their way into work, stopped to ask what had happened. Geoge explained, and he poured coffee, and he gave every third cup free. Once they had tasted his coffee it did not take long. They came back. They brought their friends.
So George had settled in to his new life. His kids had thought he was crazy at first, but after his daughter had come down on her lunch break she had understood. Actually, she had skipped a class and happened to be walking down the wrong street and had seen her dad's cart, seen the line of people waiting patiently as her father chatted while he poured cup after cup of coffee.
That was the part George liked best, the getting to chat. Sure, now there were people he knew nothing about, people who stood in line, tapped a toe impatiently, and took their coffee as quickly as possible because they were in a hurry. It didn't matter. George knew them all. He knew the young woman whose baby had colick and who hadn't slept well. He knew the gentleman around his own age who was planning a cruise to surprise his wife.
He knew this young guy who was always in a hurry but never that excited to get anywhere. That morning the young guy had been running late; he always came at 6:30 am sharp so he could make it up to the office by 7 am. That morning he had not arrived until it was already 7:15 am. He had looked so rough that George had even given him a bigger coffee, the extra for free. It had been the first time the young guy had ever actually looked at George. He'd even smiled.
That had warmed George's heart. He could make a difference this way. It might seem like a little difference, but he had learned a long time ago that it was the little things that made the world a better place. He could not cure world hunger or bring about world peace, but he could offer an ear for someone who needed to talk or a nice gesture to make someone smile.
It was the end of the day, the end of the week - George only worked Monday to Friday - and George was filling cups for the homeless. He always gave out the last pot of coffee free to those who needed it most. He used to pretend it was leftovers that were just going to get wasted because otherwise too many of them refused charity, especially from George who it was fairly clear did not have all that much extra himself. Over the years they had simply accepted that George was stubborn but was kind. So they came, and nobody said anything that the coffee had clearly just been made. Some nodded their heads, some mumbled thanks. A few had told George their stories.
It was in the middle of getting ready for this that he had seen the young guy walk out, smiling. That had been enough for George to stare a little. He was pretty sure he'd never seen that young guy smiling. The young guy even spotted George and came over.
"Thanks for the coffee this morning. I needed it. And you know what? I'm not staying late today. I should, but I'm not. I'm going to grab some Chinese, and watch Nightmare Before Christmas. It was our favourite movie, so I'm going to watch it." And with that slightly cryptic pronouncement the young guy dropped a $20 on the top of the cart, flashed a smile at George, and started to walk away. Then he paused, turning back a little hesitantly.
"My name is Adam, and... I don't think I've ever asked yours." The young guy looked a bit sheepish, like maybe he was waking up to being part of the human race for the first time in a long time. Like maybe he wasn't quite used to talking to strangers. That was ok. George was a pro.
"Name's George, and it's nice to meet you Adam. Thank you. You go enjoy your dinner and that movie. Not sure it sounds like something for me, but you enjoy it with your girl." George's smile was warm, and he tucked the $20 into the tip jar one of the customers had finally plunked down on the cart for him. He'd always thought it was greedy, but his customers had gotten tired of trying to randomly shove bills into cups or drop change where he would find it. That day had warmed him all the way through.
Adam looked at George like he was going to say something, protest, but then he looked thoughtful and he nodded and turned away. Off home. George chuckled, thinking that girl of his was going to be in for a surprise when he came home in such a good mood. It made him happy. It made him think that he should do something nice to surprise Anna. Maybe he would rent one of those old musicals she loved so much. Something with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.