Reasons to Smile

Celebrating an act of kindness after a long mean season

Beach towns are small towns. There’s more under the surface than people see. We were new to Laguna Beach in 2006 when we met Mike the Barista. Work had forced us to relocate and we were plying our despondent kids with hot chocolate; we’d come three days in a row to the same cafe, and the 50-ish Mike had seen all from behind the counter. “The usual?” he smiled, winking kindly. I almost wept, he was so comforting.

We were like tourists in those days. Everything here looked like a postcard. Even the bums seemed picturesque. Standing in line for our cocoas and coffees, insisting to our kids that being uprooted was a superfun adventure, we’d gaze through the cafe window at the almost-fake blue of the blue, blue Pacific. “Trust us,” the waves seemed to whisper. “Life here isn’t like elsewhere. Life here is perfect.”

It had better be, we thought, anxiously eyeing our children. Maybe that’s why months passed before we noticed that Mike smiled more with his eyes than his mouth.

One morning we learned the reason. Someone joked and Mike laughed out loud, and we realized with a jolt that his two front teeth were missing. An accident? Was he homeless? How had we known him for so long without seeing the most obvious thing about him? All Mike would say when he saw me looking was that he’d had a tough childhood. Unable to afford to fix his imperfection, he’d learned to play it down.

And he did play it down. In fact, as time passed, we almost forgot about it, particularly as life toughened for everyone. Oh, the Pacific was as blue as ever, but the Great Recession settled in like a fog bank; anxiety roiled under its surface.

Shops closed. Foreclosure was epidemic. Though Mike hung onto his job, our little cafe sold out to Starbucks. We had hunkered down by then, like a lot of our neighbors, and mostly just saw Mike when we splurged. Still, he’d offer us our usual, and smile with his eyes from behind the counter. If you were a newcomer, on either side of the conversation, you’d never imagine how much we all camouflaged.

Then, one morning around Christmas, we stopped in for coffee. “Notice anything different?” Mike asked with a smile.

It was a big smile. A real smile. In fact, Mike couldn’t stop smiling. Neither could we when we heard the story: One of his customers was a dentist approaching retirement. Like us, he’d once appreciated the barista’s welcome. One day, he took a closer look at Mike and insisted he come by his office.

“I’ve been practicing for 25 years—very few things are complicated,” Dr. Michael Davia explained later. Though Mike tried to pay, there was no charge.

These days, a lot of beach folk are smiling. The gloom has lifted; the economy has come back to life. Spring is warming toward summer, and each weekend brings fresh throngs to the sidewalks. They cluster along Coast Highway, gazing at the blue, blue Pacific as if they can’t quite believe their eyes.

And maybe they shouldn’t. Forget what the waves whisper. No place is a postcard. Life here is as imperfect as life in any other place. Under the surface, though, it does have its comforts. The kindness of strangers. The ebb and flow of mysterious forces.

The usual, as Mike the Barista might say.

This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue.

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