Tough economic times and growing poverty in much of Europe are reviving a humble tradition that began some one-hundred years ago in the Italian city of Naples. It’s called caffè sospeso — “suspended coffee”: A customer pays in advance for a person who cannot afford a cup of coffee.
The article goes on to explain that the barista keeps a log, and if someone pops their head in the door and asks if there’s any cups suspended, the barista gives them one for free. Apparently the tradition is spreading across Europe.
Well, I love this idea. One of the reasons I love it so much is that I spend a lot of time in cafes with students, listening and talking. Sometimes they buy their own coffee, but sometimes I do. New York is expensive and money is tight, but I can usually swing an extra $1.50 for a second cup – but for undergraduates, that $1.50 can be a substantial part of their food budget for the day. So it’s nice to be able to do it. Or, sometimes I’ll be rushing into a coffeeshop and through the train station on my way out of town, and a homeless person will stop and ask for a buttered bagel. I rarely have cash on me, but I can get the bagel.
But sometimes the person who might need what I can give – that $1.50 worth of bagel or coffee – might not be around. It would be really cool to be able to pay it forward, to suspend a little sustenance. I can only imagine how that would change the ethos of a place like downtown Manhattan.
It reminds me a little of the Biblical injunction (most well dramatized in the book of Ruth) for landowners to not “reap the corners” of their fields, leaving a little around the edges for the poor. Nobody really needs that last little corner, and leaving some space around the corners of abundance for those who don’t have enough reminds us that we don’t own everything we have. I can’t help wonder if a tradition like that would change the ethos of a place like America.
What do you think of that tradition?