Every New Years Eve, I celebrate the first cups of free tea I accidentally started serving on Hollywood Blvd. in January of 2006 (read more here). As I was serving tea in downtown Athens, GA this New Years Eve, I felt like a tradition was about to start – a tradition of something new happening on this celebratory night. Last year was someone emptying the Gift & Take money drawer for the first time ever. This year, it was beginning to look like I might have to kick someone off the bus for the first time, ever.
The evening was going good, and downtown was getting busy. I had served tea here three or four times already, so I knew my good parking spot, and had made some friends. Folks were coming in and out of the bus, drinking tea, saying hello, having conversations. Plus, my step-sister, Kelan, was visiting from Asheville for the night.
As most tea parties go, there was a lull partway through the evening. The bus was empty. Up came sauntering a Mexican fellow (we’ll call him Renato) who promptly took his shoes off as he entered the bus. “Oh, that’s okay, you don’t have to do that…” My words trailed off as I could tell they weren’t being heard. Renato continued by taking off his socks, then his jacket, sweatshirt, tee shirt, and finally his tank top. His clothes were strewn about the bus. He was mumbling words. Some were directed at me, but some seemed directed at nobody in particular. He put back on one of his shirts. Most of his talking was Spanish, which I barely understand, but a few words were in English. Regardless, he seemed highly intoxicated. My best diagnosis was something harder than just alcohol or pot – perhaps mushrooms or even meth. I’m still not sure.
At first I tried to make him feel comfortable by offering him tea. He sipped it graciously. Then some folks came aboard. I had stepped outside for a moment, and looked over my shoulder to see him come towards a woman standing in the doorway. It looked to me that he was trying to kiss her. I couldn’t tell fully, since my view was through a window and partially obstructed. I immediately went back in the bus, but didn’t sense any real discomfort from anyone, so I figured I must have seen things wrong.
Then Renato began trying to flirt with a woman by asking for her hand, and then caressing it. She pulled back. I kept watch to make sure he didn’t do anything beyond that. Another woman came up and he tried something similar. “Hey,” I said, “she doesn’t want that.” He retreated back to the bench and sipped his tea. The bus emptied again, probably because of his behavior. I tried communicating with him, but the language barrier, combined with his intoxication made it difficult to have meaningful conversations.
From the counter, he grabbed a small jar of really nice unopened honey that Kelan had just brought as a gift, opened it up, breaking the seal, and jamming a spoon in to get some sweetness for his tea. Then he grabbed a kiwi from my fruit bowl and started eating it. He offered half to me, but I looked at him sternly and told him that I am happy to share, but he needs to ask. Our relationship was turning out to be as rocky as his emotions and expressions. One moment he was smiling and joyful, and the next moment he was aggressive.
I find this dichotomy often with people who are mentally unstable or on drugs. It makes me very uncomfortable, as one can never know if what they say or do will make that person your best friend, or make them lash out viciously in physical or verbal attack mode. My approach this evening was to find that sweet spot that would keep Renato calm and not set him off. I knew if I asked him to leave it could set him off, but I was starting to get to the point where that may be my only option. I was firm with him about taking my stuff without asking. He didn’t get upset, but he may have only partially understood me.
Throughout the night, when people came to the bus, or just randomly, Renato would make this incredibly loud knock/clicking sound with his mouth that pierced through any conversation in an incredibly aggressive manner. He looked so intently aggressive as he made the sound that it made everyone uncomfortable, and took the breath out of any conversation.
He began to tell me that if anyone was aggressive with me he would *SMACK* — he made a punching gesture into his open hand. The last time someone said this was the only time someone had been aggressive, and a massive street brawl almost ensued. I was worried that Renato might be the impetus for a tea bus related street fight.
Kelan came back to the bus, and I really had to pee. Normally, I just leave my bus with whatever guests are in it and run off to find a bathroom. I didn’t feel comfortable leaving Kelan here with Renato. It became even more apparent when he started calling Kelan “bonita,” and wanted to touch her hands. When he approached her, I firmly told him she was my sister and was married (which she is). This made him back off a little. When he stepped out of the bus for a moment, I told Kelan to make sure she voiced to him if he was getting close to or stepping across any boundaries with her, and that I was there to enforce those boundaries. I think this helped her feel more comfortable with the situation.
Kelan and I began to try and engage Renato in the ways we could. He had a love for trains, which he and I could relate to on the same level. I even ended up giving him my old train conductor hat. He loved my wooden train whistle, but kept trying to pocket it. I ended up having to take it from his pocket. He talked about his love for Rockefeller and his monopolies and how that inspired him. Although Kelan and I disagreed with his admiration for Rockefeller, the conversations seemed slightly more coherent with time. Then he ate a piece of pie I had hiding behind the stove. “Dude! You need to ask!” I said firmly.
Renato kept wanting me to fill his tea. At first, I felt like if I filled his cup enough he would leave to go pee, and get distracted elsewhere. At some point he had pulled an individually wrapped tea bag out and put it in his cup, packaging and all. He kept having me pour ready-made tea on top of his packaged tea in the teacup. Then he would add some sugar. Every time I poured tea in his cup, there was a deeper layer of sugar in the bottom of the cup, and I giggled on the inside that the packaged tea was still in there.
As the bars let out at 2 am, the tea bus became very busy. Renato sank into his headphones in the corner, only occasionally engaging with people. It was a nice breather where I actually got to interact with guests without as much discomfort.
Finally, some folks came aboard that spoke good Spanish, and chummed up Renato. I could tell from their conversation that it wasn’t sketchy and uncomfortable like most of our conversations had been. Renato was beginning to make more sense, and became a little more human. Was he coming down off of drugs? By the end of the evening, a chef from DC who spoke Spanish had even offered him work at his restaurant as a grill cook. Renato even hugged me before he left and called me “amigo.” He finally left after everyone else had gone at 4am.
I had watched this transformation happen – from belligerent, sexual predator to coherent gentleness. It was like he had been reborn. Even though my early response was to kick him out, I think overall I did the right thing, even though it made me (and a few other people) uncomfortable. If I had made him leave the bus, he would have continued to be sexually aggressive. My firmness, as well as Kelan’s, had helped calm this. Kicking him off also could have triggered him into physical aggression – who knows? I believe that the fact that we took time with him actually helped him come down in a sane manner, to hold him accountable for his actions and make him ground out. I know a lot of people’s first response would be to reject him, to push him out. This was indeed my first response, but by the evening’s end, I was glad he had stayed.
Most of the time when I serve tea, I am in my comfort zone – indeed, I am in my own little world that I have created. Occasionally, as I invite the world into my home, I take on other people’s issues, and I am forced out of my comfort zone. Interacting with Renato could have ended in something bad, but I was willing to take my chances. My discomfort was the source for his grounding. I went out of my way to provide a safe, nurturing space for him. I have always liked holding a space for intoxicated people to sober up and to treat them with dignity. He, in turn, gave me the opportunity to hold the tension of his state of being with confident boundaries, even if at the expense of being comfortable. I’ve been known to say that if you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not learning. Renato taught me something: a refining of what it means to hold space for someone like him in order to help them ground out. Thank you, Renato.
NOTE: Renato was not his real name, nor is he in any of these photographs.