It had been a long, stressful afternoon, and now it was almost 5. Too early to show up at a friend’s house for dinner, too late to go home first. What to do? Something out of the ordinary, maybe a little reckless, but as soon as the thought arrived, it sat itself down and would not budge. Go to the bar for a drink.
I’d seen the bar earlier, on the way to a weekly communal dinner. I pulled over a block short, parked, fed the meter, grabbed my bag with the novel inside it. There might be time to read the week’s assignment. Walking as snow began to fall, I formulated a plan: Sit at the bar instead of a booth. Greet the barkeep and ask him for a recommendation, straight, no chaser. “You know when someone walks into the bar stressed out after a hard day, feeling a little run down, and wants a shot of whiskey but probably really needs a hot toddy? What would you recommend for that situation?”
I walked in. Two young guys sat at a booth in the window. One young guy sat at the near end of the bar, engrossed in his laptop.
I took the barstool at the far end, unzipped my snow-dusted coat, set the bag on the floor. “Hi,” said the bartender, a lanky guy with curly hair and a kind smile. He slid a menu across the bar. I pulled it closer, perused. I didn’t even have to ask. There it was under the herbals.
TULSI (HOLY BASIL)
organic, great for stress
“I’ll have a mug of Tulsi.” He nodded. I pulled out the book and a mechanical pencil, found the first page, jotted the date and time and location.
Bantha Tea Bar, in the Garfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The bar was made of concrete and stones and the bottoms of colored glass bottles; light from the other side glowed through. Shelves on the opposite wall held large glass apothecary jars with the tea blends: Focus, Ageless, Sunnyside, Aperteaf, Russian Caravan (labeled large in Russian and small in English). Some had creative names: Phlegm No More!, Licensed to Ill, All Systems Go!, (Not So Rude) Awakening, Bantha Fodder.
He set a mustard and tan stoneware mug before me. A stainless steel infuser topped it like an inverted hat. The rim had cutouts of stars and crescent moons. Accessories materialized: a little cup to set the infuser in, and a board game timer to know when the tea had steeped enough. He didn’t say a word.
The mug’s shape was a perfect fit for a palm’s caress. I started reading, and glanced up in time to see the last white crystals falling through the timer’s hourglass waist.
Until two days earlier, I’d never heard of tulsi. It came up in a class discussion of teas, and sent me Googling. From descriptions of Organic India’s bagged tulsi teas, I learned a little about its origins: “Throughout India, Tulsi is acclaimed as ‘The Queen of Herbs.’ … Traditionally grown in an earthen pot in every family home or garden, Tulsi (also known as Holy Basil) makes a delicious and nourishing herbal ‘tea’ abundant in a vast array of health benefits.” Among the benefits, according to the box: It reduces stress, supports the immune system, abundant in antioxidants, builds stamina, aids digestion, anti-aging, balances metabolism, balances energy levels and uplifts mood.
That is quite a list. I hope it is true.
It’s often said that we taste food first with our eyes. I think we taste tea first with our noses. As I set the infuser full of water-fluffed herb into its drip cup, my nostrils drank in the aroma. Mmmm. Not exactly familiar, but comforting.
My home tea bar includes delicious aromatic loose herbal teas, even a blend named Self Care. But Sleepytime remains my go-to for the tea equivalent of tucking a fleece blanket around raw emotions. And tulsi? It was better than Sleepytime. If Sleepytime is a 48-crayon box, tulsi is the 96 with sharpener.
When I got to the end of the ten pages I’d wanted to read that evening, there were two swallows left in the bottom of the cup. One … two … A bit of leaf-dust dregs surfed that last swallow-wave onto the tongue. It was time to go, by the clock. Dang clock.
While the mind stilled, the body went through the necessary motions, the way a person might silently clear a table and throw trash away as a kindness to a person in oblivion. Reach for bag, slide book inside, pat coat pocket for wallet.
At most tea places, I pay when I order, before I receive my tea. The bartender was engaged in lively tea talk with another customer. Clearly one of his superpowers was accurately gauging which newcomers wanted conversation and which needed mostly kindness. I didn’t want to interrupt. As I stood to signify I was ready for the bill, there he was. He smiled again, and gently asked, “Would you like a second steep?”
“Yes! Could I get it to go?”
“I can do that for you.” He paused, possibly gauging whether I was on the cusp of impatience. “It’ll take a few minutes.”
I nodded and sat. I could wait.
“Three dollars,” he said as he gathered my tea things. I gave him a five. He brought change back and laid it on the bar. I studied a blue laminated paper over the small sink. It was a passage from Moby Dick, ending with the announcement, “Herman Melville and the Allegheny County Department of Health remind you to wash your hands.” A tube of falling salt later, he brought me a beige paper cup in its corrugated jacket.
“Thank you.” I put a buck in the tip jar on the way out.
Bantha is a member of the Pittsburgh Tea Association, and I intend to visit each shop on that list. Later I would learn that the bar was constructed mostly with recycled materials, fueled by solar power, committed to local sources for its light food menu, and named for a beneficial animal in the Star Wars universe. (That would explain the stuffed toy, like a woolly mammoth with curly horns.) That night, though, as I stepped into the darkened evening, something tight and anxious in me loosened and let go, and it was enough to know that I’d found whatever it was I’d been looking for, near the hourglass.