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124 JUNE 2009
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The coffee shop

Zerban's Coffee Shop was, in the language of the time, to die for. “Meet you at Zerban's” was the sort of invitation you longed for “from anyone. Whether it was the cutest girl in the class or your boring great aunt, you dropped everything and made for the tryst! The shop led off an unpromising looking passageway at the end of the mall, and as the passage began to lighten, there it was, the tinkle of cutlery and crockery, the discreet background music, the pervasive rich fragrance of freshly brewed coffee “

.. and then, as you walked in through the doors you eyes were immediately seduced by the ever-fresh range of chocolate and cream delights on offer, from huge cakes laden with dark chocolate and which could be ordered by the slice, to smaller eclairs and truffles and what-have-you. Dragging yourself away, you now entered the restaurant proper, far larger that you would have expected, but hushed by rich carpets and deep red brocaded wallpaper, table-tops covered with dark grey tablecloths and napkins, the city beyond the windows stilled and blurred by heavy crimson lace curtains “Apart from the tables and chairs, the walls were lined with high-backed private banquettes forming cubicles which could comfortably seat six or eight visitors each.

And all around was the sacred ritual of coffee, each customer satisfied by his or her own preference of blend, strength, country-of-origin, method of presentation, etc, and the chosen side order! And over all this, the place was affordable! The price ticket at the end of the repast belied the opulence and distinctiveness of the setting and service. The proprietors and waiters remembered you from visit to visit and got to know your likes and dislikes, and welcomed you as family when next you came.

Why on earth am I telling you all this?

* * *

The telephone rang.

It was an unwelcome time for any Child and Youth Care worker. It was about six in the evening, and there were all sorts of comings and goings. Afternoon groups were finishing, casual staff were leaving and stopping in with brief change-over reports, other kids were arriving from afternoon sports and activities in the community, all were making for bathrooms and bedrooms to prepare for supper, many were excited, some were distressed by endings and beginnings, others were coming in with stories of dissent, with remnants of arguments which had originated “out there”, and it was a critical time.

–Hello, Richard here?” I said testily into the phone, hoping the party at the other end would pick up the inconvenience of the call.

–Hi Richard, it’s me, Mary,” came the breathless reply, “Sorry for the bad timing. I’m afraid it’s a rather serious therapy session “it’s Gillian “”

–I'll be right there,” I shot back. “It–ll take me nine or ten minutes,” and put down the phone.

* * *

When I got to the cosy corner recess which we thought of as “ours” there were only four people present: Dave Woods and Mary Robbins (who had phoned me) from the Jewish agency on the hill (where they were experimenting with small houses in ordinary streets to replace their old institutional buildings), Mike Hedges from the local “teen centre” and another Mary, Mary Poplinski whom we called “Poppins” (in honour of yet another Mary!) A steaming pot of the house brew stood in the middle of the table with eight cups, and eight side plates spread around the table awaiting our respective wishes. Yes, we were at Zerban's Coffee Shop! In three or four minutes, Ian arrived, swinging his car keys around on one of his fingers, and with him Gillian, her eyes clearly red and swollen. We stood up and made mixed solicitous and cheery noises as we made her comfortable at the table, knowing that she was the centre of today’s concern.

Mike announced that he had simply ordered us all a cake slice, and as Mary Robbins poured coffee for each of us, Ian said “Thanks for all getting here “and Gillian, suppose you fill us in “–

Gillian, we knew, had been working with a particularly difficult youngster over the past nine or ten months, a fifteen-year-old who had got stuck in his past hates and angers and who couldn’t be dislodged from his hurtful and destructive reactions to life. She had gone into dark and scary places with him, and been generous in her understanding and patience, often rebuffed and rejected but always willing to stay with him. About three months ago she thought she could discern a thaw and the relief of having an end in sight showed on her face. She had been through a hard time, and she knew that it had taken its toll. But today the boy had suffered a relapse, and it seemed that he had gone back to a point several months earlier, and although she had dealt with it in her usual constructive way, as she came away, she felt sure that she no longer had the capacity to stay with the task. The boy had sworn viciously at her and seemed immediately to revert to the self-punishment and expectation of others” punishment which had had him in its vice-like grip for so long.

All of us around that table knew that we had little to offer. There could be no soothing “there, there” noises, no encouragements like “you can do it”, no advice. She knew the terrain intimately; we did not. Our response was limited to the strictly non-verbal. We sat there with her. Mary filled her cup. Ian held her hand “

* * *

It had been one day, seven or eight months previously, we had all been at Zerban's after a class in the morning-release Child and Youth Care course we were attending at the nearby college, and in the middle of things one of those present (Ian, as it happened) had asked, quite unexpectedly, “Can I just run something past you guys while we are all together “” and proceeded to fill us in on an issue which had arisen in his staff team at St Martin's. It was one of those convoluted problems which often arise in children's programs, a mixture of clinical/authority/ethics issues clustered around the management of one kid and which had various staff members at odds. The subject had evidently touched some raw nerves in all of us and we had an animated argument that went on for an hour and a half as we thoroughly tore the subject apart and then stitched it back together again in what we thought was a rather promising resolution. Two things made the discussion memorable: one was the gallons of coffee (and the accompanying bakery products) which fuelled our energies; the other was that we had found it enormously stimulating and enjoyable.

–I’m at peace!” sighed Ian. “I feel that I can go back to our team with a grown-up attitude to our problem. Thank you, guys!”

–Let’s do that again ““suggested Poppins.

“Oh please God no!” said Dave, rolling his eyes upwards. “I’m all through and I want to go home!”

“Oh, I didn’t mean now,” protested Mary. “I meant that next time any of us has a “thing” like this, let’s use this format to go through it. I felt that today I learned ten times as many things as Ian's problem.”

Everyone agreed, and as we gathered coats and cases before making for the door, we sealed the arrangement: if any one of us was in difficulties “over a kid, a treatment issue, a colleague problem, or anything “Zerban's Coffee Shop offered quite the best playing field for the match, and the coffee and cakes provided just the right “care for the caregivers”! The meetings became known as therapy sessions, and were our way of beating a strategic retreat, when really necessary, from the harsh rigours of “on the floor” and “in your face” Child and Youth Care practice.

* * *

Zerban's Coffee Shop is no longer there. It’s pleasant ambience has been quieted, and its premises are now used by some large computer company, though I swear the lingering aroma of coffee still hangs in the air like incense in church days after the last Mass.

I didn’t mention that all this was in the late 1960s and 1970s, long before there were things like proper training, staff meetings or supervision. Those of us in this coffee-shop gig (which came to include many more Child and Youth Care workers, but groups of seven or eight could always be assembled) were quick to transplant the experience back into our programs where it more properly belonged, and formed the first seeds of proper training courses and supervision (both individual and team).

It probably also sowed the seeds of today’s world-wide tradition of there always being plenty of coffee and cookies in any Child and Youth Care transaction, whether it involves management, care workers and/or kids!


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