Monday, January 24, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood

Traveling without leaving Des Moines


joes1He was an old man when I lived with him years ago. But I suspect this was his pattern even as a young farmer. Up early in the kitchen. Mandatory dress of union suit, ironed pants and dangling suspenders. Two white bowls placed on the table. No one washed. No one shaved. The smell of sleep strong in the air. Coffee was put on. Toast was brought out for dipping. And, at last, Grandpa and I could look life in the eye as we smelled the coffee percolating.

Traveling into the past is inevitable if you’re on Ingersoll Avenue and the wind is blowing. The smell of roasting coffee wafts up and down the street — beckoning memories. The source of inspiration can be confusing as you make your way past the smells of pizza, pasta and tacos, but it’s somewhere in there. A dark smell. An acrid smell. A smell that is so good it is almost bad. But there it is. Zanzibar’s.                

Julie presides over this world — a world of coffee. When you walk in the door these days, she is not the greeter, she will not likely wait on you, but there is no doubt who is calling the shots as she briskly manages the whole enterprise. More often than not, she’ll bring your coffee and clear your table as she is moving between tasks. A few kind words are spoken, and she moves on. She is just a little daunting in her demeanor of quick efficiency wrapped in a small-boned, porcelain frame — a quick gust of wind across the field.                

“I’m most proud that this actually works,” she says while carefully considering the advantages. “I’m gainfully employed, I provide employment for others and I’ve created a comfortable place where people can come.”                

You think? And any disappointment?                


“That I’m still here 20 years later,” she says.                joes2

Is she kidding? Nope. You see, Julie is a traveler. You probably know a few folks like her. They’re frequently hidden among the laborers cleaning your motel room, or pouring your drink, or delivering your pizza, or washing your car — jobs that provide a quick getaway. They’re generally well-educated, smart and looking ahead to that next trip. They want to go. Anywhere.                                 

Julie spent her younger years roaming, interspersed with college. A stint in Australia (yes, even working at a sheep station), in Europe and then in California. Her time in California as a barista gave her a passion for coffee. So, using her college degree in international business without the “international” part, she decided to open a coffee shop in her home town of Des Moines. She’d do it for five years.                

“I never had any intention to live in Des Moines, but I knew I could make this work,” she says.               

In any case, it was “just for five years.”                

And now, 20 years later, what happened?               

“When I was younger, I was always looking ahead. But one of the things you give up with that approach is attention to today… . This thought allows me not to be so angry that I’m still in Des Moines,” she says.                

Really? Is that why she is here? Zen and the Art of the Coffee Shop? Perhaps. But then Julie starts glowing as she talks about Zanzibar’s, her blue-collar background and her struggles to succeed.                

“My first requirement for this shop was my own roaster. If you’re not roasting, you don’t have control over the freshness,” she says.                 joes3

And so she bought the Big Red Roaster, which she placed in the center of the coffee shop. And she exposed the tin ceiling, and she laid the wood floor, and she built the counter, and she bought an espresso machine, and she hired help, and she solicited artists to hang their works. Whew. Catching her breath for a moment, she gives a tight smile.                

Then she speaks with pride of the woman who does the roasting, who took over after her then-retired father retired from roasting. She ticks off the names of her employees who are all important to her, not least because of their individualism (“I’m not interested in having everyone the same behind the counter — I want different looks, different personalities, and different styles — and I don’t want to babysit them”). She speaks of her customers and her devotion to making a visit to her shop “comfortable,” “accepting” and an “experience.” This thought sends her off on the importance of customer service and the lamentable loss of such skills and the importance of exposure to people and the danger of the cell phone age and the concept of living a sustainable life and…                

joes4Excuse me, and travel?                

“Every day you could have an adventure just by having a cup of coffee.”                

And so my Grandpa would fill the white bowls, and we’d savor the first shared sip in the cold, early morning air. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:

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