10 years ago, I was lonely. I was living in my pickup truck and working 50-60+ hours a week in front of a computer as a video editor in Hollywood. When we finished the rough cut of the documentary, my hours dropped to 30-40 hours a week. With all this free time suddenly dumped in my lap, I realized that I had almost no friends, and no community.
What does a 22-year-old do when they want to meet people? In Los Angeles, like so many places, the best and most acceptable option was going to the bar. I tried my luck a couple times, but the noise and dim lights didn’t help foster good conversation. And to top it off, I was approached both times by women who asked if I could buy them a drink. Wow, was it me, or was that the least genuine human interaction I could possibly have? These people only wanted to talk to me because they wanted my money.
One evening, in January of 2006 as I left work, I ended up driving down to Hollywood Boulevard to cook dinner on my tailgate. As some of you know, the characters who find themselves on Hollywood Blvd. are what give that town the name Hollyweird. That night, and the several nights that followed over the next couple weeks would shape my life in ways that I hadn’t imagined.
When I pulled out my camp stove on those evenings, and started cooking dinner, instantly there were curious passersby who would stop to chat. “What are you doing?” “Why are you cooking dinner here?” There was the Nazi gutter punk street kid, Lefty, and the guy who dressed up like the Christmas Bunny (whatever that was). Then there was the gangster with street names tattooed on his face, and that family from Japan. Oh, and there was the sweet Hispanic family from East LA. Then Rudi from the Erotic Museum, and the Middle Eastern shopkeeper. Geraldine was a German music student, and Lunchbox lived on the street. A club promoter came by, followed by a college professor. Some of them I fed food. Some of them I fed conversation. And after dinner was done, to keep the interaction going, I put on the kettle.
All of a sudden I had community! And so did they!
For the same price I could buy a girl a drink at the bar, I could buy 100 Lipton tea bags and have 100 genuine human interactions.
I had discovered that when my interactions with people had money taken out of them, it made them much more genuine. There was something about unconditional sharing that created trust in a way that no interaction based around profit maximization could. And no wonder, because people have been using free tea for thousands of years as a way to create bonds between people.
All of a sudden people started saying, “Hey, when are you going to be serving tea again?” “Hey, it’s the tea guy!” “It’s the tea man!”
I thought to myself, “I don’t even know if I like tea!” And then I thought about it more, “I guess I could be the tea guy.”
After those three months on Hollywood Blvd, and when I left LA, I served tea wherever I went as a way to meet people. There was never a FREE TEA sign, just the welcoming camp chairs, rug, and steaming kettle. Those first few years, I probably only served tea about once-a-month, but nonetheless, people enjoyed it, and I met the most eclectic people everywhere I went.
After a long stay in my hometown, I hit the road again, stopping in Seattle to serve some tea on Broadway with my friend Elena. After a great evening of street kids, Christian missionaries, and Seattle yuppies, Elena turned to me and said, “You have to do this… more.”
And that’s when I realized that making free tea was going to be the main function of my existence.
As most of you know, I spent the next 8 years building out and traveling the country in Edna Lu, the teabus. In fact, we have served almost 30,000 cups of free tea, which ends up being on average almost 8 cups of tea a day for 10 years! New Years’ has become an anniversary of sort, as the first tea parties occurred in January of 2006.
Last night we drove the tea bus down to downtown Durham, NC to bring in the New Year and celebrate ten years of serving free tea. Wow, ten years! I still can’t believe it. What does this mean? Am I lonely any more? Nope! Do I feel as inspired serving tea as I did way back then? Yup! Every tea party presents new characters and new ideas. I am actually happy to say that something that has never ever happened before happened last night – the money drawer in the Gift & Take was emptied.
As many of you know, the Gift & Take money drawer is for anyone to put in and anyone to take out. There is an allegory about the Gift & Take that I often use: The Gift & Take has never, ever been empty, which says to me that when you trust people, even strangers, they will take personal responsibility for themselves in relation to the whole 99% of the time.
Last night, a nicely dressed fellow came to the bus with a sad story of hard times. He was a minister, one-time staff sergeant, and had done homeless outreach. But due to a series of events, he had been locked out of his apartment for not having rent money. All he needed was a small amount to get his landlord to open his apartment back up.
I told him he was in luck and that he came to the perfect place. “You see that set of drawers over there? There’s one for money, where anyone can put in and anyone can take out, based on excess or need.”
“Wait, seriously? Can I?”
“You don’t need to ask me, you just need to ask yourself.”
He looked half startled and feeling like he was in a dream. At first he took all the cash (probably around $20), and then he asked about the change in the drawer. I gave him the same response. And then, amusingly, he asked for a bag to put all the money in.
I could have been heart-broken that the drawer was empty, and my faith in the goodness of people when given the opportunity to act responsibly could have been destroyed… But, as tea guest Ellen said that night, when you give people that responsibility, inevitably there will be someone who has had hard times compared to the rest, and there will inevitably be people who need everything that’s in the drawer.
I am also amused to think of the sight when that fellow counts the money. People have been putting coins from all over the world, pennies painted with peace signs, parking coins, and more into that Gift & Take for many, many years. He did not take the wooden nickel, nor the coin good for “One Dollar in Trade for Whiskey, Women, or Tobacco.” He also did not take any of the money in the coin dispenser.
Whether the money was for rent or drugs, what this man really needed wasn’t necessarily money, but for someone to treat him as a human being. Just as I was needing to be received as a human being on Hollywod Blvd. ten years ago, I could see from the look on his face that this is exactly what he received.
As I reflect on a decade of sharing tea for free, I can’t help but think about power that sharing has. It has given me purpose and happiness. It has made me realize that sharing is completely karmic, and the reason I can travel around sharing is because of all the sharing that is done with me. You give and you receive – this is how the world works. The tea bus has also created impacts on people that I can only begin to see. Beyond the emails and stories of how the tea bus has inspired people, I can only imagine the effects that it has had. For a culture of hyper-individualism, mega-consumption, and fast-paced lifestyles, the tea bus has been a remedy for many, a natural reaction to our current conundrums. If you feel inspired, check out our Share Page for ways to help the tea bus to keep sharing.
Thanks to decade of tea guests.
Thanks to all of the help from friends, family, and strangers.
And thanks especially to loneliness and Hollywood Boulevard.