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Alem’s Coffee in Oakland

on February 22, 2018

In the corner of Vicente Way and Claremont in Oakland lies what is a hidden treasure to many, but to others, a jewel in plain sight: Alem’s Coffee, which serves Eritrean food and is a gathering spot for the East African community. As you enter the strategically-placed corner coffee shop, the scent of coffee hits you in the face, then the scent of different spices punches you in the stomach. The sun shines brightly into the seating area through the giant windows and reflects on the display tubes that line the walls. The tubes look like candy dispensers with brown coffee beans inside. Behind the counter, family pictures of smiling children are hung with pride.

Although all of the seats inside the coffee shop are empty, two women work furiously to brew coffee and serve plates for customers who are sitting out on the patio. The older woman, with her copper skin and long black braid, works efficiently with a younger woman. When they stand next to each other, it seems like the older woman is looking into a mirror 20 years ago. Their hands move quickly, but their lips move quicker as they gossip in their native tongue and laugh.

As they enjoy each other’s company, a tall, slim man walks behind them and looks over their shoulder at their work as if he is supervising them.  He then sits behind the counter on a stool next to the window, facing the sun. He breathes in slowly as if he is absorbing the sun. The older women pass by him with three plates in her hands. She drops off one plate to the man and walks outside to the patio to deliver the other two.

Outside, three men sit around a small round table. All three of them arrived in separate cars, but as soon as they sit, they seem to continue a conversation that they had been already having. All three of them are the same height, have the same beautiful big-brown-eyes and copper skin, the same curly short black hair and are wearing black skinny jeans. One of them wears a shirt with white and black squares with pictures of the Mona Lisa all over it. Another wears a black dress sweatshirt and the third a plaid button-up shirt.

They chat in their native tongue and laugh, showing their white teeth. While I don’t speak Tigrinya or Arabic, the languages of Eritrea, it seems that two of the men have teamed up to pick on the man wearing the Mona Lisa shirt. After many laughs, a waitress places two plates on the table. The man with the Mona Lisa shirt eats his plate while the other two share one. They use their hands to cut small pieces off their loaf of bread, which they dip into a red-orange soup known as shihan phool. After enjoying their breakfast, they have a drink for dessert. One of the men pours the liquid gold drink into glasses for all three of them, and they continue to drink, talk and laugh.

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