In 1996 – ten whole years before I started serving free tea out of my pickup truck on Hollywood Boulevard – Mark Lakeman and other folks at City Repair, were formulating and putting into action a mobile free teahouse called the T-Horse. When I first started serving free tea, my friend Whitney told me about this free tea truck in Portland, but I had no idea as to how interesting it was.
City Repair was formed to reclaim our cities. Our cities have been laid out in a Roman colonial grid, which doesn’t allow for naturally occurring public spaces to occur where paths intersect. This lack of central, natural meeting places for people often leads to people feeling isolated, not knowing their neighbors, not knowing what assets are in their communities, etc. So, why not reclaim what we do have of our commons – the streets, parks, etc? One of the projects that City Repair created, and which has been emulated all over the world, is the idea of painting intersections in neighborhoods with the help and vision of the community. The corners of the intersection are then made into cob benches, garden plantings, free tea stations, community kiosks – anything to encourage genuine human interactions. It encourages cars to slow down, community participation, and that missing link of meeting spaces where the roads and paths connect.
Amongst the madness of City Repair, a butterfly was about to emerge from its cocoon. They were crafting and building a giant winged shell that rested on the back of a pickup truck, reminiscence of the Di Vinci flying machine. The wingspan: 30 feet. From the top it looked like a heart with wings. The idea for the T-Horse was simple: create a comfortable space with free tea, in order to encourage the community to interact. Even though it was a temporary space, it brought people together to help set it up, create the zone, serve and sip tea, tell stories, meet their community members, etc.
Does this sound familiar? I started serving tea because I felt lonely in the city (Los Angeles). I wasn’t having genuine human interactions (think, random girls at a bar asking me to buy them a drink). I didn’t know where to meet people without money involved. I didn’t have a community in LA. (See more on our History page)
The interesting thing with Mark and myself is that we both found tea as a connecting point. It wasn’t necessarily about tea specifically, but it was the qualities that tea has in the social realm that attracted us. It brings people together, helps them relax, talk, and connect. Tea encourages a slowing down, a letting down of the guard, and when it’s free, it allows for a more genuine interaction. But it’s no wonder, because tea just IS this, and that’s why tea is served for free millions of times every day all over the world.
A couple years into serving tea, I actually took the time to learn about the T-Horse. I was blown away. I simply had to find it, and possibly collaborate. In October of 2008, I contacted City Repair to see if the T-Horse was going to be serving any tea as I was rolling through Portland on my way south. Indeed it was. So I met up with Nicolette (who was running the T-Horse then) and enjoyed some tea in Laurelhurst Park with the T-Horse. I wasn’t able to get my bus close in order to collaborate, but I sat, drank tea, and played and sang Have a Cuppa Tea by the Kinks. But this wasn’t enough for me.
As City Repair evolved, they began a 10 day place-making, permaculture, and natural building event with city-wide projects called the Village Building Convergence. I had always wanted to attend, but had missed it on my way up or down the coast every year, sometimes by just a few days. As I drew close to Portland this year at the end of April, I realized that it was taking place in the end of May and it may just be feasible for me to attend. Immediately, I contacted City Repair. “Collaboration?” I asked. “Yes!” they responded. Wow, it really was that simple.
After meeting some folks at a volunteer meeting, they invited me to come make tea at any of the sites or events, and encourage me to attend a T-Horse revamp party. My buddy Owen came with me to the Planet Repair Institute, where Mark lives and the T Horse had been in storage for a few years. The wings needed to be washed, struts painted, and a few minor repairs. We spent part of a day doing this, while being inspired by the first painted intersection right there by PRI (love the free tea station there!). After talking with Mark we decided to take on some responsibility for making the T Horse happen. There was a lack of cups, insulated tea containers, tea, etc. It was fun to get to talk to Mark and hear the City Repair/T-Horse story. It made me excited to connect with another accidental tea man.
My friends Ally (remember her from Rootstalk and Sh’Bang?) and Adrienne arrived that week and were stoked to accept the invitation to help make the T-Horse happen. We scoured the thrift stores for pump top thermoses, cups, and other necessities (Thanks to Teen Challenge Thrift Store for giving us two boxes of tea cups for $10). We gathered herbs for chai, and made plans. It was great! Ally was on her way to California to host a free tea tent at the Blues Recess Massive outside Grass Valley, so it was perfect she could come and stop by to lend a hand.
This year there were nearly 30 sites around the City of Portland that were to be painted, planted, built, or more. In the evenings people meet at the central venue to share, listen to speakers, eat food, etc, except for a couple nights, when the T Horse was to fly and serve tea and community at specific locations. These were the nights we were to help make tea.
Usually they make all the tea beforehand, and wash all the dishes afterwards. To me it made more sense if we were to make the tea and wash the dishes onsite with the tea bus. This was we didn’t need the 300 cups they usually needed, or have to haul hot tea around. It also allowed for us to make blends based off of what people were wanting and how they were feeling.
Our first event was at a park at 34th and Yamhill, just off Belmont. It was a block from an intersection that was painted the day before. We pulled the bus onto the grass and started making tea. Owen had received a 6-7 gallon stainless turkey fryer pot as part of a bulk purchase of tools on craigslist. It had never seen a turkey, and was in great shape! Perfect for chai! My 1.5 gallon tea pot takes 20 mins to boil, so you can imagine how long it took for the 5 gallons of water in the turkey fryer.
The T-Horse takes a bunch of people to set up the wings, which makes it a community effort from the start. People were also setting up awnings, a potluck, a silent dance party, and more. I brewed tea all night, with visitors coming into the bus, but most of the tea was served from the T Horse by Ally and Adrienne. Owen was our back and forth person, bringing tea, pump tops, and messages back and forth. It was a really hectic, but amazing evening. We made so much tea! People danced to music in their headphones. New friends were made. Wow!
Five days later we setup at Last Thursday Art Walk on Alberta St. It turned out to be a little crazy. We arrived super early (with 5 gallons of chai masala already brewed) to make sure we got setup and going in time. Through some miscommunications and who knows what, the ¼ of a block that we were supposed to occupy wasn’t blocked off. Therefore, there were cars parked on the street, and almost no hope that there would be enough room for the T Horse to setup. I snagged an open parking spot right there, and when Mark pulled up in the T Horse, a bunch of us began to setup the T Horse, but it was going to be tight, angled, and potentially blocking part of the crosswalk (although most people walk on the blocked off street here). Kindly, a woman moved her car from right behind Edna, and so we seemed to have enough space.
As we were setting up the second wing, a man sped up on his motorcycle yelling. He was yelling at us that he was a Last Thursday Ambassador and that nothing was allowed to be in the street before six. We were trying to explain to him that we had special permission to use this block for the evening and we weren’t going to be on the main street. He was ridiculously angry and argumentative, despite the calmness on our end. In the end, he decided to speed off in a huff, but a fellow was kneeling on the ground working on a T-Horse wing kind of in front of him. As the angry man put on the throttle, he managed to run over the guys foot. He had to stop a the stop sign right there, and, as several people were taking his license plate number, he tried to say he didn’t see the guy… Then he sped off.
Needless to say, tensions were running high. The man came back shortly and started talking about how he had poured thousands of dollars into Last Thursday last year and wasn’t getting proper respect. I was a little unsure why people should kneel down for him, if he was just going to be combative, angry, and going to run them over, regardless of his financial investments.
Shortly, a couple Fire Marshals showed up, as well as some police presence. My connections with the Portland Fire Department didn’t really pay off here… Not that it would. They wanted to be able to pass by with a fire truck or engine in case of an emergency, so we ended up taking two wings off the T-Horse and pulling it right behind Edna. We raised the one side wing higher and the Fire Marshals seemed pleased. One of the Marshals had been on the bus just a couple weeks before sipping tea outside a Dalai Lama event (Free Tea-Bet!), where he was working. I reintroduced myself and we had a good chat. A Last Thursday organizer came by later that night and was a little frustrated with the Fire Department. Regardless of the dispute, I assured him that the Marshals were friendly and fair and not to blame.
Once we actually got rolling with serving of tea, the night was a blast. All that tension blew away with the beauty of the night unfolding. Although both events with the T Horse had me inside Edna making tea and washing dishes for the most part, I was stoked to step out and see all the wonderful faces downing tea, and deep in conversation. A fellow named Jonathon who I had met while on Common Vision’s Fruit Tree Tour was there to do a puppet show. My dear friends, the Shook Twins (remember them?) and most of their band, showed up to jam some tunes and hang. I love those folks. Thanks to Chris for being our runner!
Wrapping up our time with the VBC I attended the last central venue event on Saturday. Pandora Thomas (permculturist, teacher, activist, etc – who I met at Last Thursday) gave a great inspiring talk, which ended the event right. She was excited to show her mom Edna, which was great. It was also, fun to share gratitude with people who helped make the event possible. It meant a lot to me to get to work with Mark, my fellow tea man, in an awesome collaborative way. Thank you, Mark, and all the VBC peeps for letting this happen! We are truly blessed in this world by the work that City Repair does. Thank you!