The makings of a friendship and a coffee shop during the pandemic
No Latino in the history of humanity has ever pulled off an ascot. That’s, of course, until my friend Juan Carlos Vinueza put one on and went about town.
I speak on such a topic with authority not only as a Latino but as someone who has pulled off wearing a pink tie, a goatee, a hoop earring on each ear, and capri pants.
Not all at the same time, of course.
That would be something only Juan Carlos could pull off, but not me.
I met Juan Carlos shortly after he opened his coffee shop in downtown Petaluma early in the pandemic. He named it Grand Central, an homage to New York City, where he met his wife.
You read the statistics everywhere: 90% of small businesses fail within four years. Those scary numbers have to be worse for coffee shops. And when you add that to the fact that he did it during the pandemic, the odds are not ever in your favor.
I mean, who does something crazy like that?
Only someone who can grow a full beard and pull an ascot over his chest hair.
That’s Juan Carlos.
I still remember those quiet days, and I’m ashamed to admit that I hoped it would stay that way: quiet, secluded, private. It was one of those locales only a handful of locals knew about.
I enjoyed spending mornings there with uninterrupted views of the river in a city that has forgotten that it has one, exquisite bean-to-bar chocolate, delicious coffee, and, of course, wifi because I wanted to feel like I was somewhere exotic but not be actually somewhere exotic.
But no business survives with the support of a few patrons, and my desire to have a private place for myself in this city was only overcome by a stronger wish: the hope that they would do well so they would stick around, that they would become everyone’s secret favorite place because you’d rather see them busy than not to see them at all.
In those early days, I had opportunities to talk to him and learn about his past for coffee and chocolate, about his exclusive deal with Pacari, the Ecuadorian chocolate company he represents in the United States. He also told me about the importance of this location, not only on the river but also one block from the train stop and between the city’s east and west sides. One day, he would like to have a local artist paint a mural in the shop’s backyard with features from Petaluma and the words “East Side” on one end and “West Side” on the other.
I told him about my dream of becoming an essayist and how I already had a collection of essays out. I gave him a copy just for him, but before I knew it, he had displayed it for a few weeks next to his register. This was huge for me.
My mom didn’t even buy my first collection of essays.
My wife didn’t have to buy it because I gave her one of my author copies, but she disinterestedly flipped through the pages without ever finishing it.
It’s not a big book.
In fairness, my wife is not a big reader, but every now and then, I see her reading articles from Oprah magazine, and I’d always think, “This time you are using to read that article, you could’ve finished one of my essays.” But I get it.
Who can compete against Oprah?
Sometimes, I imagine the self-help titan stepping into a wrestling ring with her hair fluffed up, a leotard with the letter O!, and a knowing smile. She is there for an elimination match with Anthony Robbins, Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Brené Brown, and other self-help gurus like DJ Khaled. She enters, bends at the waist backward, and shouts, “Everybody gets an uppercut! You get an uppercut! You get an uppercut.” Then she pulls her signature move, the Round-O!-House kick, finishes all of them, and is declared the champion for the 40th year in a row.
So I get why my wife doesn’t read my insightful essays like “Looking at Other Men’s Bananas or Why It’s So Hard for Men to Buy Underwear” Because who can’t compete with 112 crowd-pleasing gifts that are Oprah’s favorite things?
But not Juan Carlos. He displayed it right there in the most prominent space in his coffee shop.
I titled my first book after one of its essays. It wasn’t the central essay of the collection. It was more of a “disjointed” series of ontological and epistemological jests about how we will never get to find out what hurts more, whether birth or a kick in the balls.
The jokes a way to discuss our lack of respect for self-determination that characterizes our modern post-pandemic times.
I could’ve gone with a more appropriate title or one that seemed more representative of most essays in the collection, but why be marketable when I can self-sabotage and have fun?
The title, you ask?
“A kick in the balls.”
Juan Carlos displayed it proudly for several weeks, even though he runs a family establishment, and that earned him a place in my heart.
I will never have to worry about this coffee shop going away.
This is no longer my secret spot but a place where the community meets. Many parents around town come to witness Santa’s arrival and the lighted boat parade, toy swaps, wellness events, and many other cultural celebrations.
This coffee shop has become an important feature of the city’s landscape. That’s because of Juan Carlos and his wife Natalie’s hustle.
Every time I am there, I see them running around but also taking a moment to be present, to connect with their customers.
They can go from being behind the bar, running out speakers, tents or chairs, to looking at you and asking you how you are doing and listening, to offering you a square of chocolate and instructing you to let it sit on your tongue while it melts or to tell you about what’s coming next in their always packed event calendar.
If you are ever in Petaluma, you have to make it a spot to stop at. There, you will see the man I’m talking about, and on a good day, you might even see that he can not only pull off an ascot, but some days, he can even pull off a Panama hat.
Juan Carlos invited me to play my ukulele on his 40th birthday. I asked him, “Why do you want to punish your family and friends?” I wrote him this story instead.