Bright colored houses line the narrow street. I pass a red table covered in perfect white sand dollars, twisting trees, succulent gardens, a weathered wooden door set into a wide brick wall, and a mural of black-and-white faces curving toward the sky.
I’m drawn here time and time again.
Anytime I’m within an hour from San Francisco I must make the trip.
Each time it feels like a sort of pilgrimage.
Today is no exception.
The line snakes out the small door and I cue up behind several groups of people talking quietly to each other. It’s windy and blustery. Pulling my sweater tighter around my shoulders I wonder if everyone in line has come for the same reason.
The owner of Trouble Coffee, Giulietta Carrelli.
Since hearing her story on NPR in 2014, I haven’t stopped thinking about her.
She calls her shop Trouble in honor of all the people who helped her when she was in trouble. It’s more than a coffee shop—it’s a movement with a manifesto. Everything from the menu to the artwork has meaning and purpose; all designed to help her manage her schizoaffective disorder.
To oversimplify, there’s cinnamon toast for comfort, coffee for communication and speed, and coconuts for survival. Her cups say “Thrash or die” or “Live fast, die old” in her own handwriting. She’s cool, interesting and inspiring.
I feel a kindred spirit with her despite having nothing in common and not actually knowing her. I’m magnetically drawn to her and her space.
It makes no sense.
The shop has been remodeled since I’ve last visited and when it’s my turn to enter the small building my eyes sweep over the new black and white motif. There’s splashes of pink and yellow, artwork, books, photographs, and a collection of cassette tapes.
I love the new space.
Then, I see her.
She’s making coffee with cutoff jean shorts, a headscarf, and her quite recognizable tattooed freckles on her cheeks. It’s like seeing an apparition or a ghost and it temporarily stuns me.
For years I’ve traveled here and thought about her, but this is the first time I’m seeing her in person.
I feel weird and transfixed.
I know her life story, yet I don’t know her at all.
It’s an uneasy feeling; a false intimacy of a creative muse I’ve never met.
Her shop has become synonymous with art for me and somehow tied to my own creativity. I’ve watched it from afar, following her and her dog on social media, and somehow feeling part of her movement.
I can’t explain any of it.
I watch her now, in person, with a mix of awe and self-consciousness. Part of me wants to bolt, and perhaps I would have a year ago, but I don’t. I step forward and order cinnamon toast and an oat milk latte from a young man I barely look at.
I can’t take my eyes off her, and for some reason, she locks eyes with me and smiles. I pull down my mask for a moment and smile back.
She switches the music to her favorite band, talking to me as she does. She rattles off the name and I nod as if I know it, but I’m too stunned to hear it fully.
She tells me she accidentally met her musician idol outside his concert years ago. She didn’t have tickets and when he arrived she did not recognize him and they began chatting. When she realized who he was she felt terrible embarrassed. She laid on the ground to try and hide from him. He laughed.
“I can see you,” her idol said.
He let her sell merchandise and gave her a ticket to the show. They became friends.
It was a funny story, told well and I wonder if there’s something in my eyes telling her the story was for me and for the moment I was experiencing with her.
It feels as if she’s saying “I see you.”
I say nothing.
I barely breathe.
She shares a few more stories with me in the effortless way she does and I can’t stop smiling. She’s so cool and wonderful—exactly as I knew she’d be.
So we jumped up on the table and shouted anarchy
And someone played a Beach Boys song on the jukebox
It it was California Dreamin’
So we started screamin’
On such a winter’s day
We end up singing part of Punk Rock Girl together for a brief magical moment before she hands me my coffee.
“I have to tell you I love you,” I say.
My face turns red. I didn’t mean to say it out loud. I don’t know what I wanted to say, but certainly not the weird and creepy thing I did say.
She laughs and looks at me in the way people who can see you fully do—a penetrating gaze which oddly doesn’t feel uncomfortable.
“You don’t know me,” she says. “Do you?”
It could have felt stinging or biting, but it felt more like “you don’t know me yet.” She smiled and her blue-eyed gaze felt approving and kind.
“Thanks,” I say.
“See you around,” she says.
Holding my coffee and cinnamon toast out in front of me, I walk into the biting wind and barely feel it. In a daze I pass the same landscape as before but I feel less removed from it now.
The last few months I’ve been making huge efforts to step fully into my creative self and to be vulnerable and seen.
It feels scary but right.
Seeing Carrelli was the message I needed.
I’m on the right track.
She saw me and I saw her.
I didn’t shrink and I didn’t run.
Two palm trees cast their feathered shadows across the sidewalk and my new blue converse.
It feels amazing.