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How a coffee shop saved my life

James DeKoven at Peet’s on Fillmore in 2007.


On February 4, 2000, I arrived in the Fillmore under dire circumstances. Six months earlier, my fiancee had given the ring back — a devastating blow that occurred weeks after I gave up a well-paying job to write fulltime. Broken-hearted, half-mad and facing an uncertain financial picture, I fled from Santa Barbara to San Francisco.

At the time, it was more of an escape than any sort of plan for the future. For better or worse, I’ve never had many long-term goals. I just needed to get my head together. Once healthy, I could have clarity about the next step. But as I found out, sometimes destiny provides the relief. Who needs a personal coach, Jungian therapy, psychedelic journey, or self-help book when there’s Peet’s Coffee at Sacramento and Fillmore?

I’d go there to write, and I noticed the same gathering of grizzled philosophers holding court each morning. Anything seemed to be open for analysis: politics, books, film, music, travel, capitalism, science, history, religion, relationships, neighborhood gossip. Fierce debate was peppered with lighthearted personal jabs, a little yelling, and a lot of laughter. It was better than mere discussion — it was bullshitting of the highest order.

One by one I met Fred, Guy, Pete, Kameron, Hilly, Richard, Mal, Tunde, Duane and Denny. They were intelligent and opinionated, and like all deep thinkers, had the ideal skepticism-optimism ratio. More importantly, they were friendly and welcoming. Once they realized I had something to say — albeit often bizarre -— I became part of the club and, by extension, part of the community. Those characters helped me climb out of the wreckage of the past and build a new life.

But I have more than the crew at Peet’s to thank. My gratitude extends to the entire neighborhood. Almost every day for 16 years, I sat on the bench outside Peet’s. I spent thousands of hours there talking with friends, waving to familiar faces as they walked by, greeting the parade of dogs and pretending to work.

It was tough to get much done when, every five minutes, I was interrupted by neighbor after neighbor for a chat: with Joseph to debate the lack of fundamentals in pro basketball; with Jesse to rap about 1960s and 1970s soul music; with Ken to analyze an avant-garde jazz record; with Cathleen, Erin or Caryn to plan our next excursion to the Mission for a burrito.

The truth is that whenever I walked the two blocks from my apartment to Fillmore Street, I actually wanted to be interrupted. Being part of this community means constantly running into someone you know. Someone who shares an inside joke, or stops to ask how your mother is feeling. And in a society that’s increasingly connected by devices but less by the soul, this is a quality about the neighborhood I’ll forever cherish.

In April 2016, I moved to Ocean Beach. On the surface I was breaking up with the old neighborhood, but I was really following a dream — an actual long-term plan of sorts. For years I would spend a few days a week there, going to the beach and working at my satellite office at Java Beach Cafe. I grew up on the coast and have always been more comfortable in a slow-paced beach culture.

Destiny had intervened again. By dumb luck, I had come across a once-in-a-lifetime apartment for rent: on top of a hill, a block from the sea, around the corner from Land’s End, with sweeping views of the Pacific and large sliding glass doors that open onto a wood deck. I could go to sleep to the sound of crashing waves and wake up to the smell of ocean air.

Fillmore Street was hard to give up. It’s the perfect neighborhood. Within minutes on foot, I could catch a French film at the Clay, see a funk show at the Boom Boom Room, eat lunch on a sunny day at the top of Alta Plaza Park and get a little exercise on the Lyon Street steps. I miss my regular visits to La Med and Dino’s. I miss my pals at Browser Books, the guys at Jet Mail, the gang at La Boulange. Everything I needed was right there.

As it goes with many love stories, hindsight separates fact from fiction. My fiancee and I weren’t right for each other — not even close. Tearing my heart out turned out to be the best thing she could’ve done for me. I was free to write a fresh chapter of my life — one that brought me dozens of friends and countless good memories.

It’s strange to think I’m now about as old as those philosophers were two decades ago. To them and to the neighborhood, I raise a glass, toes in the sand.

James DeKoven is a writer and strategist in San Francisco.