Reporter's Notebook: A Friendly Cup of Joe

Jeff Goldblatt

Saturday, February 25th (New Orleans) — “What’s up man?” he screamed with a tone of brotherly familiarity. “How you doing?” the customer replied with a wide smile on his face. “Coolin',” he replied. The words rolling out of his mouth in a fashion just as smooth as the man who said it. His name is Joe Bridgewater, Jr. And this 20 year old, life-long New Orleanian serves one of the friendlier cups of “joe” you’ll get in a lifetime.

“He’s just exciting,” says customer Sandy Chiancone, a six-month “resident” of New Orleans, who works for an engineering construction firm. I had barely spelled Sandy’s last name correctly, when I hear Joe yell, “MOCHO.” Boom. The hot drink slides across the counter. No questions asked. “Usually, he’ll wave to me from across the lobby, and by the time I get to the cashier my drink is made,” states Chiancone. “He entices people to come back. He has very few down days.” He certainly could.

Like every other New Orleanian, Joe’s life was rearranged by the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. But in terms of sheer property loss, Joe is an anomaly. No flooding. No evacuation. No homelessness. Katrina cracked his bedroom window. That’s it. That’s all. So, why do you need to hear Joe’s back story? Because he MATTERS. Because he’s an unofficial ambassador. Because on the smallest of scales, he is contributing to the rebirth of New Orleans.

Five days a week, Joe works two jobs, 20 hours. Most days end after a full shift as a housekeeping supervisor. But Joe is about more about beginnings. This is the time of day that I always see him. His days start at 5 a.m. at the Sheraton Starbucks, where nowadays, Joe seems to serve more happiness than coffee. Business is considerably off because of Katrina, and the hotel is jammed with evacuees and construction contractors. Joe knows life is a struggle for his customers. “If I’m the first person to greet them in the morning, why not bring smiles, than just frustration,” he says. “If you continue to think down, you’ll never get anywhere.”

Joe was starting to go places himself when Katrina hit. Four months before the hurricane, Joe was promoted “upstairs” to food and beverage supervisor at the Sheraton. The new job entailed duties of “floating” between the restaurant and bar. “Checking on things,” is how Joe described it. But the understaffed Sheraton faced the same labor crunch squeezing nearly every other business in New Orleans, and so after Katrina, Joe returned “downstairs.” Like the king enrobed in a majestic cloak, the signature Starbucks green apron proudly hangs from Joe’s well-chiseled, six-foot three-inch tall physique. “I like it down here. I’ll get back up there, once we get business again.”

“He should run for mayor,” stresses a serious Norman Taylor, the whiff of java overpowering any hint of sarcasm. “He has a great attitude. He cares a lot about people.”

“He’s one of those guys I can’t wait to see where he is in ten years,” said a beaming Mary Serougi, Sheraton human resources director. “He’s our poster child. I wish I could duplicate him.” New Orleans would benefit from that.

Over the next two weeks, I hope to be able to share with you my thoughts about the “New” New Orleans. If you have questions, please feel free to e-mail me: