Tea with Al and the Depth of Tradition

In recent months I have been luring a coworker of mine into conversations over a spot of tea. Al is an old black man endowed with a fine sense of humor and a slow silver tongue. He is a waiter in the Hotel where I work and embodies the sense of class, tradition, and elegance that any first rate restaurant would strive for. His voice is a root, deep into the history of the south, his hair is mostly white, and his eyes are soft and honey warm. He has, as far as I can tell, worked here nearly forever, and each time I introduce him, I add five or six years to the count, just to see how he will react.

The first time he shuffled into my consciousness, I was walking through the men’s locker room and I heard the quiet, tinny strains of a music box playing “Putting on the Ritz”.

“What’s going on here? I asked as I came around the grey bank of weathered and beaten lockers. There at the end of the row, was AL putting on his Tuxedo. In his locker was a small music box picking out that tune, and Al, as he buttoned up his shirt and straightened out his bow tie, was doing a subdued little dance in time with the music.

Of course I knew who he was, but I had never really stopped to talk before. ‘What?” I asked with some sarcasm, “Are you doing?”

“Well…” He said with a wise eye and small proud smile, “I’m getting ready to go to work.” Then he went on to explain, “Long time ago my wife gave me this music box, and I didn’t know exactly what I should do with it. So I brought it to work and left it here in my locker. Then one day I turned it on while I was getting dressed, and everybody seemed to like it, so I just kept doing it. Well… It became… You know… A Tradition.”

AL said the word tradition with a drop of tone as if he had placed it on the table as the main course. It was a tone of accepted and understood finality. There it was…that unquestionable word coming at the end of the sentence like “amen” comes at the end of a prayer.

I felt honored by this little bit of history in this venerable and elegant Hotel. I had found a small piece of the Hotel’s heart. I had brushed against a beautiful and enduring bit of Hotel folklore.

“Wow” I said, feeling a good deal younger than my 47 years, “Al… How long has this tradition been going on?” AI tilted his head back a bit and stared off down the corridors of time. He nodded his head sagely and said in thoughtful tone, “I suppose it must be almost six months now.”

Damn! Six months… Long time… So now every time I get a chance, I catch AI in the lunch room, deep in the Bowels of the Hotel and I ply him with a fine tea. I seduce him with Golden Yunnan. I lubricate his history with a cup of Kenilworth. I steep his memories with a measure of Assam, and if I’m lucky and the moment is ripe, AI will roll out some tidbit of profundity.

Conversations over tea. As if it were a key to the heart. To coax from the tightly curled leaf the memory of the sun and the rising mists of the sacred hills. A cup of tea and a sigh.

Things we learn from Tea.

Tea Saint

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