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Radtke: Cuppa Joe

Almost every week, I meet friends before choir rehearsal at a quiet coffee shop in downtown Burlington. Getting to the front of the line, the other day I noticed a little hand-written notice, “Ask about our suspended coffee program.”

So I did. And here’s how it works: you buy your coffee, or soup, or whatever, and prepay for another item to be given away to anyone who comes in and needs it. It seems like a good idea to me. On the way to the café, I always pass one or two young people sitting on the sidewalk with signs asking for money, and never know quite what to do. I make eye contact and say hello, but my wallet stays in my purse. If they knew that they could walk next door, ask for a “suspended” coffee, they could have some time in a clean warm place. Both donor and recipient remain anonymous to each other, and that seems more comfortable and respectful to me than a direct handout.

Of course, we have an obligation to support more substantial programs for our neighbors in need – like food banks and shelters - but they’re often located in isolation from the community and appropriately enough, require documentation and oversight. We need to write checks to these agencies. But suspended coffee, on the other hand, is simple: when you add the price of a second cup to your bill, a bottle cap is added to a little jar by the register, and folks who walk the same street as you do can have a bit of warmth and comfort. Everyone is invited in from the cold, no forms are filled out, and everyone wins.

There is a small drawback: we have to accept the risk that someone might take advantage, but that’s a small price to pay. You may be buying coffee for an exhausted mom who has no extra change for a little treat for herself, or for a homeless person. You get the well-documented “helper’s high,” but the neighbors you’re helping out retain their dignity.

I was curious about the origin of suspended coffee, and discovered it’s long been a Christmas tradition in Naples, where apparently coffee is taken as a sacred rite. With caffee sospeso you can order a whole sandwich, a nourishing cup of soup, fruit, bread, or a whole meal suspended. In Spain, it’s cafes pendientes, pending coffee; in France, café en attente, waiting coffee. And apparently there’s an explosion of suspended programs in China. Everyone wins.

Having coffee, to me, means more than a warm beverage: it stands for, as Hemingway wrote, a clean, well lighted place, a time of respite from our daily struggles, often with a friend or two. Suspended coffee invites all our neighbors into this place of refuge, and allows those of us who have the means, the privilege of paying it forward with a cuppa Joe.

Linda Radtke, the host of the Vermont Public Choral Hour, has spent many happy hours through the years in the Vermont Public studio, singing with Counterpoint and other choral ensembles, volunteering for pledge drives, and recording for the commentary series.
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