Written by Amanda Hancock, Class of 2015
A cup of coffee is forgettable. It’s a fleeting liquid that can be found in gas stations and poured down kitchen sinks and tacked onto drive-thru orders and thrown in to-go mugs on the way out of the door. Bags of coffee are tucked away in every household cabinet, purchased on a whim because of the sale price. Pots of coffee are made in the morning, in between showers and the brushing of teeth and the tying of shoes. It’s not a precious or rare or unique commodity.
So it’s a little nonsensical to stop everything and go somewhere, perhaps out of your way, and pay $2 or $3 for a cup of coffee.And it might be even more nonsensical to come here. It’s not as if Kofenya sprinkles its coffee beans with fairy dust or golden shavings. And it’s not like Kofenya is the only source for coffee in Oxford. There’s coffee in every dining hall on Miami’s campus and a café in the biggest library and there’s a Starbucks just down the road. Kofenya also isn’t the only place of its kind; every town has a local coffee shop, vying for customer dollars and the most hipster-dressed human to put behind the counter, all the while looking like they’re not trying too hard.
There’s a lot stacked against Kofenya. You don’t even have to know this place exists. You can pass by it, without flinching, not really knowing how to pronounce the name on the storefront or not knowing why people would go inside. You don’t have to examine the string of faces, young and old or make polite small-talk with the baristas. You can keep thinking Miami is all about the bright brick buildings and the fraternity parties and the long lines of stumbling students waiting to get into bars. You don’t have to think twice about the little coffee shop on the corner.
Oh, but what if you did? What if you walked into Kofenya and sat down on one of the lumpy couches and ordered the house blend? What if you sat down across from someone you like or don’t like, a best friend or a stranger, with only a cup of coffee between you? What if in those moments, that cup of coffee made room for something else: a conversation, a daydream, a story? What if it wasn’t about the coffee at all?
* * *
I’m standing on the light brown wooden floor between a collection of black tables, some with pieces of duct tape stuck to their tops, some with folded newspapers tucked under the thin legs, trying to keep the structure on an even plane. I place my backpack on a table and it tilts to the side. I steady the reverberations and scan the room, looking for someone to talk to.
I see a mismatch of couches and chairs and the mismatch of artwork hanging on the wall, a still life of a bowl of fruit next to nighttime photographs of fireworks. Then there’s a pair of green armchairs and plush leather chairs tucked in a corner like furniture you’d see on the side of the road. The green wall bends into the purple, which is followed by a bright yellow wall and red one.
I move past all of this and I see faces. I see a room full of people. And I’m scanning each face for the signs of someone who has an interesting take on this place, maybe someone with a curly mustache or an inquisitive brow or someone with an especially offbeat sweatshirt on. And then I see someone I know.
As I approach Brenna’s table, she’s typing on her laptop at a steady pace with her eyes locked in on the screen; they only move as my shadow reaches her peripheral. She sees me and throws up a wave, presses a button on her keyboard and says hello.
Inside Brenna’s paper cup is the remaining drops of Kofenya’s flavored brew of the day, which Brenna just tried for the first time. I ask her about it, still suspended in a stance, not knowing if I should sit down.
“It was really good. The guy said I should try it so I took a gamble,” she said, as she takes one last sip. “But now it’s gone and I’m sad.”
“Oh, so you’re only here for the coffee then?” I ask, clutching my reporter’s notebook.
“Well, not really,” she says, and she points to the left of her laptop, where a stack of textbooks and a thick binder of typed notes sit. “I have a lot of work to do and I really needed to get out of the house.”
Back at Brenna’s apartment, she has a French Press and an espresso machine and a line of colorful coffee cups set up on her kitchen counter. She has a cozy couch she just bought from Ikea and a stable Internet connection and a stack of quilts to keep her warm on this snowy February day. There, she can sit around in her underwear if she wants to.
And yet, she’s here, wearing dark jeans and a bit of mascara, doing her Accounting homework at a shaky table. So why does she come here? Why do I come here? Why does everyone, the large mismatch of people in this room, come here?
I’m begging Brenna for an answer, to give me some big-picture understanding of this place. I want her to say something profound and headline-worthy and perhaps describe a life-changing moment she experienced here. I want this to be easy.
Instead, we keep talking about her exam and how she’s not ready for it yet. We’re across from each other now and I’m showing her a picture of this dress I saw in a store window. We talk about our favorite Chinese food. We talk about renting a movie later.
An hour goes by and I get up and I leave Brenna to her work. I didn’t get many concrete answers, but I leave with this kind of flippy feeling in my stomach. Because I know there’s something happening at Kofenya. Something just happened between my friend and me that wouldn’t have happened if I saw her at the grocery store or the library. So I know this place is different, it has a purpose, a role in Oxford. I just don’t know what it is yet.
* * *
To really get it, I’ll have to go back to the beginning.
I came to college with a to-do list, with all the expected stuff listed in an order. Get good grades, run faster, find my dream job, make friends and maybe a boyfriend.
People tell you a lot about what college is supposed to be like. Best years of your life, they say. You really grow and find yourself, they say. But no one tells you how hard and scary all of that is. Taking the steps toward finding yourself can be slow and shaky.
My first year at Miami was a marathon of meeting people and clinging to familiar faces and trying to figure out this whole college thing. I was also trying to figure out this whole who-am-I-thing.
I came to this school in the middle of Ohio cornfields not knowing anyone. Not a single soul. I was used to knowing everyone, used to going to Kroger and seeing my English teacher in the pasta aisle and used to seeing friends everyday I had known since I was 8 years old. We could make cavalier references to “that one time on that seventh grade field trip” and get nods of approval and make goofy interjections. I could blend into these people, easily, and not give much thought to my own personality.
All of a sudden, I was in a place where those references held no weight and familiarity was a scarce resource. I was on my own. Every face I saw, while walking to class or in my dorm or at the dining hall, was a different formation than I had ever seen before. Everything around me was new and big and scary and uncharted. It made my lungs squeeze up with anxiety sometimes. In the middle of sifting through all the newness, I realized I wasn’t like everybody else in my dorm or my classes.
I wasn’t in the Business school and I didn’t complain about going to my classes or studying. I didn’t use my father’s credit card to fuel online shopping. I called my mom on the phone everyday, because I wanted to. I went to sleep before midnight. I didn’t know what kind of soda to mix with that liquor. It took me about fifteen minutes to get ready for any kind of function. I drank a lot of coffee. The differences became so glaring that I stopped trying to make small-talk happen in the bathroom or in the basement.
At Kofenya, it was like I was being let in on a big secret. Each person was wearing something different, no one was squealing about sorority letters. People were having calm, long conversations.
So I didn’t mind making the 20-minute walk alone from Brandon Hall to get a morsel of comfort. Because when I started coming to Kofenya and selected a go-to coffee drink and a favorite study-spot, it was like being in my living room and hearing the rumble of my garage door.
I started to recognize people’s faces I had seen earlier that week and make idle chatter about the weird book I was reading. I didn’t feel alone or like I was standing out. The holes were being filled. One by one.
Now, when I think about being a senior and leaving Oxford, I think about leaving Kofenya and how it’s like leaving a home. How it’s like leaving a place that saved me a little bit. And I wonder how a place, how a set of walls and chairs and muffin crumbs could bring up that kind of wholeness feeling. How a place could be a character, almost a person, in my story.
* * *
It was 10 a.m. when I walked in to meet Emily Martin for the first time at her place of work. In a collection of faces, I couldn’t find hers and was scrambling. I wandered around the crowded space with plenty of curious eyeballs attaching themselves to me. Then, I saw her wave me down and gesture to a table she had saved.
Without asking, Emily went behind the counter and grabbed a white, worn-in mug for me. I stood in front of the counter as she asked which blend I wanted.
Her boss, Kathryn, looked up at me.
“You like the Highlander Grogg, right?” as she swiveled to start pumping the coffee.
“Yes, I would love that,” I said, trying to hide being pleased that she remembered me.
Emily is my age. She’s poised and smiley and warm. Sitting across from Emily, I watch her thoughts wander from the green chair to the big clear windows and back to the dog painting, the one she wants to steal for her own bedroom, in the back corner. She’s looking around for precise ways to explain why she likes Kofenya so much. It’s all about the colors, she says.
“And I just think the windows really open the space,” she says. “You can’t get that feeling at other places.”
Or maybe, it’s all about the chairs. Or maybe, it’s all about the paint on the walls. Or maybe, it’s all about the people. Or maybe, it’s because she spends roughly 10 hours here every week.
“The way I see this place has evolved. I’ll never be able to see as anything but behind the counter,” she says. “But it’s become something more to me now.”
I look behind the counter at a few baristas ambling around the dishwasher or putting a lid on a fresh cup of tea. Emily looks at them too, smiling, thinking of a lonely freshman girl who didn’t join a sorority and craved a place of her own.
We’re both thinking of that younger, pre-Kofenya version of ourselves.
“It feels really cool to be able to come in and walk behind the counter and know people,” she said.
Emily and I are both thumbing oversized mugs, letting the remaining contents grow to a lukewarm state. Inside her blue, sparkly stone eyes, I can tell she has that feeling too, the feeling that Kofenya filled an empty spot for her. But this place means different things to us. And it means something else to that person over there who I don’t know.
* * *
This is something I wrote in my journal on a chilly November morning, holding a tea and sitting in a corner at Kofenya.
Date: January 20, 2015
Part of growing up is a long list of questions. I was always questioning myself. Is this the right thing to wear? Does this make sense? Should I do this or that with my life?
I don’t really know what I’m after at that point. But I want things. More than a specific career or relationship or tangible item, I want to know exactly what I want. I grew up with a cookie-cutter plan embedded in my mind: go to school, get married, do whatever job. I don’t want that plan.
I want to have a presence, to have an identity, to be certain of something. I’m jealous of those people who grew up wanting to be a doctor or to travel the world or those people who had the best stories at the dinner table.
I feel like I’m doing all the right things, in my mind. I’m running faster on the team and I’m getting good grades and I have a routine and friends.
But it feels less-than. It feels like something is missing. I want that feeling, not in a boy or a person, but just overall. I want a spark. So where do I find it?
* * *
From top to bottom, Kofenya is of the misshapen sort. There’s not one style or theme. Really, anything goes.
Maybe to define this place is to define what it’s not: a corporation.
Taped to the front door of Kofenya’s entrance is a poster with the Starbucks logo, with capital letters “Don’t bring it in.”
They want people to get the message that walking into Kofenya is a different experience. It’s not rigid and structured. It’s not a place to anxiously buzz through the line just to get a jolt. It’s not about talls or grandes or the status of holding a Starbucks cup.
“If you like Starbucks, that’s cool. I’m not going to judge you,” says Tim. “But when you choose a chain over a local business that has to fight very hard to stay alive, it’s like a slap in the face every time.”
Both are coffee houses and both reside in the small stretch of Uptown Oxford. But they couldn’t be more different. Starbucks is like the big bully at school and Kofenya is like the smart but shy kid sitting in the back row.
When I walk in Starbucks, there’s always a long line of people, whose eyes are stuck to their phones. The space is small and the walls are dark and every order is a weird mix of adding shots and taking away sugar. People zoom in and out with forlorn and frazzled faces, stopping in this place for a second on their way to something else.
“The worst is when people bring a cup of Starbucks in and sit in the window and put their drink on the ledge,” says Tim.
Dean and Co. might not have the manpower to overtake a multimillion-dollar chain, but they do have freedom. They have the ability to add flavors to the menu and a variety of pour-overs to find a blend for any customer. They don’t have to match aprons. They can make everything Starbuck makes, and do it in their own way.
“I will judge you if you say you don’t want something we have because it’s not like Starbucks,” he says. “Just give it a chance.”
Everyone behind the counter believes Kofenya’s coffee is better. It’s not as bitter and it has more flavor, they say. They believe that. And their belief runs over. They see how these cups of coffee can make room for human connection — and, we start to see it too.
* * *
I’m all about the big scene, the big moment. Like that moment in “Sleepless in Seattle” when Tom Hanks is on the phone with the radio personality and he’s explaining how he met his wife. “It was so clear. I just knew. I knew it the very first time I touched her. It was like coming home, only to no home I’d ever known. I was just taking her hand to help her out of a cab. And it was like… magic.”
Sometimes, I have this daydream that this happens to me, that a handsome young man will walk into Kofenya and spot me from across the room in one of those really obvious ways. I don’t really know what happens after that, but I think we get married and he keeps telling the story about how we met and it’s really cute.
So that’s how I expected it to happen when I started dating one of the Kofenya baristas. It would be a big moment and I would finally tackle that one item on my college to-do list.
But eight months later, we broke up in one of those amicable ways without much of a reason. We weren’t moving forward. We weren’t carrying out a plan. We were stuck. He said all of these things in a vague order while I poked at my straw. It was at a Starbucks, which should’ve been my first clue something bad was going to happen.
The magic I daydream about isn’t just about boys. I thought another big moment would be running at the conference meet for my cross-country team. I thought it would be getting the most prestigious newspaper internship or earning all As or having the most likes on my Facebook profile picture.
Weeks before the big race, I felt a shooting pain in my leg during a long run. It turns out I had broke my sacrum, which is basically your pelvic bone, which means no running or walking. It meant crutches and time off. It meant lots of ice cream.
And you know what else? I didn’t get the fanciest internship and I got a C in my Economics class and people don’t seem to religiously follow my social media. I was searching for the big moment, but here’s what I know. I find a lot of joy in a plate of blueberry pancakes or an ice cream cone or a throwing frisbee with my dad or an hour-long phone date with my best friend while I’m stuck in traffic. I find more joy in the before of the big moment. And I think the small, tiny, ordinary moments can hold more ounces of magic.
* * *
The first time she walked into Kofenya, Emily kept her head down, ordered a tea and blushed at the tall guy across the counter.
She took a picture of her cup and posted it on Instagram and sunk into a big chair, content with being alone but also being somewhere with humans around her.
“I remember sitting that green chair, drinking from my cup and feeling like I had found a place to fit in,” she said.
She had been homesick and a bit lonely staying in her dorm room while her friends joined a sorority.
“And then I found this place,” she said.
Now, as a senior and a person who knows Kofenya’s walls well, she understands that it gives people a home. From behind the counter, Emily has witnessed breakups, awkward first-dates and those serious-kind-of-conversations.
She’s watched these two teenage brothers come in on Friday nights and play on their iPads. They don’t talk much to each other, but they sit on the same couch and they both let out of giggles every so often. She’s memorized this older man’s order and he gets so excited when he comes in and she’s already putting the whip cream on the top of his caramel frappuccino.
She’s seen prom dates come in; they’re dressed in glittery dresses and too-big tuxedos and they nervously order vanilla lattes while they’re holding hands. She’s seen moms and daughters come in, the younger one pointing around at the menu trying to find something they would both like.
In between each pair of people, in between each conversation, sits a cup of coffee.
It gives each person something to do with their hands or to sip in between thoughts or to hold for comfort.
“No matter why we’re here, we can both order something we like, like chai is a super cozy drink and if you’re feeling blue it warms you up,” Emily said. “I’m not really sure why having that makes such a big difference, but it does somehow.”
* * *
If we let it, our days can be defined by getting in and out of cars and opening building doors and turning our laptops off and on. Our days can become a nagging series of lingering questions: Is anything due right now? What’s the email I should be sending? What should I be doing right now?
When we let all of that go, we can suddenly look around us and sit and revel in what’s happening around us. Sometimes, all it takes is walking into a place and sitting down across from another breathing person.
“Being with people is a really huge chemical thing,” said Emily. “After a good conversation, I feel kind of like high a little.”
And when these conversations finally happen, we don’t want to feel like we have to whisper or watch over our shoulders. We want to feel comfortable.
And that’s what Kofenya brings.
“You could be most comfortable in bed,” said Emily. “But you don’t want to invite someone to hang out in you bed with you to break some news.”
* * *
When I came back to Miami for junior year, I moved into an old house on Church St. with the sign “Bourbon Legends” nailed to the front. There were six of us and we had no idea what we were getting into.
In that house, things started to click.
We went to Kofenya just about every day, for a few minutes or hours or just passing through on the way to class. If one of us was going to grab a coffee, we all grabbed our purses and our books and went together.
There was such a connectedness in going to my favorite place with my favorite people and never having to go alone. Before this year, I searched for a sense of wholeness in a lot of ways that didn’t quite fit. I tried on different personalities and thought I’d find praise for grades or running or clothes. And when those failed me, all I could do was walk to my favorite coffee shop.
Now, I didn’t really need to escape to Kofenya and I wasn’t searching because I had found that feeling right here. I found it in these people and our house. I spent every moment with my housemates, even when we were grumpy or annoyed or tired. I wrote a lot in a brown journal. I sent my resume to dozens of newsrooms. I talked to a string of less-than-perfect guys. I started running again. I learned how to make a really good batch of scrambled eggs.
My own small world didn’t really matter because I had five people around me and we were doing life together. We made pizzas from scratch and watched old episodes of every TV show on Netflix. We huddled up in scratchy blankets on passed-down couches and did our homework in between talking about our plans and worries and thoughts.
We made big brunches with bacon and pancakes and fruit and a huge pot of coffee that always got empty too soon. We stayed in our pajamas with messy hairdos until someone came up with an idea good enough to leave the house. We drank Blue Moons on the front porch. We asked each other hard questions about fears and failures. We had too many bourbon shots and sat on the staircase until 4 a.m. We circled in and out of each other’s bedrooms, looking for a sweater to go with these shorts or a necklace or just someone to talk to. We drove around campus in a big maroon Jeep with the top down even when it was 30 degrees outside and our stomachs ached from laughing.
I knew in these moments I had found some small slice of magic. It just didn’t show up in the mold I expected. That year wasn’t about to-do lists or grades or being put-together. It was about being connected to people, a part of a unit, in a way I had never even knew existed.
* * *
Walking into a crowded room can be scary. The moment you recognize a face, it’s like the biggest sigh of relief. That’s how it feels when I walk into Kofenya today, with only a few weeks left on the calendar before graduation. I see a few people I know and I wave.
I know this place, in small ways and bigger ways. And it knows me.
The counters by the windows are for open laptops, but straying and wandering eyes. They are for people-watching. For looking at the sky in one of those contemplative ways where all the thoughts in your head creep out. You look in while you look out.
That corner over there is where I held Caitlin’s hand as she cried about that breakup. I went on the most awkward first date of my life over there. I spilled my entire Chipotle burrito bowl on the ground near the booth in the back. I wrote my favorite song lyric in chalk on the bathroom wall.
I don’t come to Kofenya every day or crave its special coffee blend, but I go a lot and I feel a sense of ease every time I open the door. Two or three days a week at 9 a.m., I meet Jess on this couch and we talk. With no agenda or homework in front of us, we just talk.
What I’m finding is that these small conversations give me a sense of fullness and peace that isn’t found in a cup of coffee or grades or partying or trying to fit the mold. We’re all made up of the places we go and our favorite clothes and songs and books, but we’re more marked by the people around us and their stories that blend into our stories. We’re distinctly marked by those crystallized moments that can barely be explained.
We have to meet people we think will change our lives, but break our hearts. We have to find our own way. We have to ask ourselves big questions. We have to cry in parking lots and smile for no reason. We have to have these crazy movielike expectations in order to see the beauty in reality. We have to say really hard things out loud. We have to leave parts of ourselves behind: those things our parents want us to be, the to-do list in our head, the things that we will never be.
And we can’t do this alone. Sometimes, we need to leave our house, walk outside and go somewhere that lets us think, talk or read or just sit. Every time I’m at Kofenya and the door opens, my head turns in that direction, looking for someone I know, looking for a sense of familiarity, hoping for some glimpse of magic.
This time, I hear the door creak and an older man with gray scraggly hair walks in, looking around the room. He throws the remains of his cigarette in the trash. He takes his place again, across from his friend.
“I have one more story for you, if that’s all right,” he says.
The other man nods, takes a sip of his coffee and gives his friend a smirk.
“What’s your story?”