A Vagabond Teahouse Pours Camaraderie, One Free Cup at a Time

151125Free Tea 3

Giuseppe Spadafora opened a side door of his white Ford bus, spread a light blue carpet on a sidewalk near McCarren Park in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and placed a small wooden sandwich board next to it reading “Free Tea.”

Curious passers-by approached. One woman asked about the purpose of the vehicle; Mr. Spadafora’s traveling partner, Ally Rugge, replied that it was “a mobile teahouse.” The woman promised to return after she finished meditating. A second woman entered, saying to a friend, “This is what my mother warned me never to do.”

Inside the bus on Sunday afternoon, the woman, Arielle Swernoff, 23, of Williamsburg, and her friend, Patrick Rheaume, 33, of Park Slope, accepted the cups of genmaicha tea offered them and embarked on a discussion that included references to the small towns of western Massachusetts, where Mr. Rheaume once worked, and the story of how he became friends with Ms. Swernoff while sharing a can of beer during a train ride in New Jersey.

The conversation was one of thousands that Mr. Spadafora, 32, has experienced over roughly the past decade while operating the bus, which he calls Edna Lu. It is part of a continuing project and social experiment he calls the Free Tea Party, meant to encourage people to step outside the channels of mainstream commerce, he said.

“I’d like to live in a more sharing world,” he told a visitor. “So I’m trying to create that by sharing.”

Mr. Spadafora once worked full time as a video editor, in California, but gave that up for a more peripatetic life. Since 2006 he has crisscrossed the country distributing tea, first in a pickup truck and then in the bus, an 18-and-a-half-foot 1989 Econoline with a Thomas body. He bought the vehicle in San Diego for $2,900 then modified it with mainly salvaged materials to include a skylight, rooftop solar panels, an engine that runs on used cooking oil obtained from restaurants, a bed that lowers from the ceiling, a wood-burning stove and a guttural horn that sounds like a submarine’s klaxon.

He said he was influenced by do-it-yourself and “permaculture” aesthetics and by systems of thought that included the so-called slow movement, which asserts that many people experience stress because the world is moving too quickly. Above all, he said, he wants to challenge Adam Smith’s notions that people are universally motivated by self-interest and the unyielding pursuit of maximum economic return.

Since embarking on the free tea project, Mr. Spadafora estimates he has served close to 30,000 cups, including black, green, white, herbal and oolong. Typically, he shows up in a city or town with his bus and begins offering tea to passers-by, hoping to engage in conversation and form relationships — “the highest form of currency” — that revolve around trust, collaboration and reciprocal altruism. He will not accept money for the tea but includes some currency, along with stickers and herbal tinctures, in a drawer full of items that visitors are allowed to take with them.

He works every day, Mr. Spadafora said, but rarely does so for pay. He said he was occasionally hired to do video or building work and earned an average of $6,000 to $9,000 per year. Much of his food is donated or comes from discarded supermarket or restaurant provisions, and he does repairs on the bus himself.

Mr. Spadafora and Ms. Rugge, 31, arrived in New York City just over a week ago after serving tea to hikers in Maine near the starting area for the Appalachian Trail and to people attending the International Herb Symposium, held at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass.

In New York, the two served tea in SoHo, on Halloween night outside the Bowery Ballroom during a performance by the folk band Elephant Revival, and in Bedford-Stuyvesant, near a similarly themed project known as the Free Store, run by a group called In Our Hearts. One night in Brooklyn, a graffiti writer used the side of the white truck as a canvas, but then helped Mr. Spadafora wash the markings away after he objected.

More than two dozen visitors stopped by the bus over about three hours on Sunday, to drink tea and chat. Alia El-Kadi, 27, from Park Slope, chatted with a 27-year-old fiddler from Washington Heights who said her name was Ula Zoola. Lee Maicon, a strategist at an advertising agency, visited along with his daughter, Anna, 11, who said she liked the bus because there was “no catch” beyond the conversation. Dave Deporis boarded with a guitar and played some songs.

As the afternoon progressed, visitors exchanged views on topics like global economics and ways to preserve the world’s resources. Several also exchanged email addresses.

Around 3:30, Mr. Spadfora and Ms. Rugge took their sandwich board and carpet back inside the bus and began washing out teacups. Mr. Deporis, the musician, thanked them as he departed and said he hoped they would meet again.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/10/nyregion/a-vagabond-teahouse-pours-camaraderie-one-free-cup-at-a-time.html; http://freeteaparty.org/blog/



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