As the sun climbs for the third morning out of Balboa Park and warms the facade of our towering hotel, the retreating shadow reveals the face of a tiny 7-11 tucked unobtrusively away in a nearby alley. Invisible in the view trumpeted by the hotel brochures, it had appeared the night before when, weary of room service espresso, I ventured out for some late-night air and caffeine.
I struck up a conversation with the 7-11 clerk, whose dark skin and French accent reminded me of an exotic Caribbean island or a north African casino--anything but a dirty alleyway convenience store.
Jean-Paul described himself as "French," and we talked of the coffee served on Paris mornings with milk and croissants and tomatoes and newspapers. He took his coffee very seriously, and he showed me how to recreate a decent café au lait with two blends of 7-11 coffee and steamed milk from the cappuccino machine. "My coffee iz never more zan sirty minutes old," he boasted with a smile. I had discovered a true French barista, a long, long way from the Champs-Élysées.
It did not occur to me to query what he was doing in a 7-11 smock. Instead I asked, "What brought you to San Diego?" Jean-Paul stopped polishing the shining coffee counter and looked right through me. "Zat," he said quietly, "is a very long story."
Transfixed, I learned that Jean-Paul was not born in France, but in Kigali, the troubled capital of Rwanda. His sisters were raped and murdered by Hutu militants, but he and his immediate family managed to escape to neighboring Zaire. The United Nations Refugee Relocation program helped them move to Moscow, where Jean-Paul earned his master's degree in economics. After years of negotiation with the United Nations, Jean-Paul and his family were allowed to come to America, where they were placed in southern California. After weeks of submitting applications and appearing for interviews, Jean-Paul got a night job at the 7-11 in the alley behind my luxury hotel.
"It's not much," he said, reading my thoughts, "but my family is safe, and our needs are met. I am really very lucky."
Now as the sun creeps over the park and the doorman loads my luggage into the car, I steal one last look at the alley and the store beyond. I imagine that I still see Jean-Paul through the window, smiling at another customer as he shows her how to make a most unlikely café au lait.