Back to the Grind in Riverside

by Brian Clarey

Back to the Grind in Riverside

The Back to the Grind coffeehouse in Riverside Calif. sits in a charming downtown district that’s anchored by Spanish architecture and spotted with palm trees. I’m up in the loft, the pressed tin ceiling just a few feet overhead, looking down on a flank of round tables, easy couches and a tall bookshelf that takes up a whole wall containing hundreds of volumes while the barista — skinny, hipsterish, dressed in black with a short, high ponytail — makes his paces behind the coffee bar.

My sister, who has lived here for almost 10 years, tells me the Grind was one of the first businesses to open when the city pushed to revitalize its urban center. As it flourished, so did the neighborhood around it.

“Just like the Green Bean,” I say, which means almost nothing to her. She has been to visit Greensboro just once in the 12 years I’ve lived here with my family, a short week one Easter when she made an indelible impression on my kids with her extravagant and generous ways.

But she’s one up on me — until now. This is the first time I’ve ever been to visit her in California, a hasty trip booked at the last minute during a time of crisis. It’s good to be here. It’s great to see her in her element. And the city of Riverside charms me like a wonderful, new kind of music.

West Coast cities are different than the ones I know — with a genealogy separate from that of colonial America, a spirit grounded in independence and newness, a culture shaped by Latin and Asian influences, a landscape of lush coast, rocky desert and open, blue sky.

Riverside is in what is known as the Inland Empire, comprising of Riverside and San Bernardino counties, directly east of Los Angeles. Named for the Santa Ana River, which runs past it on its way through the mountains to the Pacific Ocean, the city was founded on abolitionism and temperance in the 1870s by a disillusioned Tennessean named John W. North, who quickly established tax laws that drove the saloons out of town.

Renown came with the introduction of the Brazilian navel orange, which flourished under the hot sun and made the region an anchor of the state’s citrus industry.

My sister has one of these orange trees in her backyard, though since she’s lived here the fruit has gone unharvested.

From my perch at the Grind, I can look out an open door and see the fronds of the sturdy date palms rustle in the hot breeze, watch the crowns of the Queen palms, towering above the stucco and Spanish roofing, gently sway. Ever quarter hour the carillon of the United Church of Christ, housed in a magnificent, three-tiered, open Gothic steeple, plays a reassuring chime. I don’t mind the heat, and the sky is as blue and clear as a newborn baby’s eyes.

I could get used to this. But my stay is a temporary one. I’m here to provide a dose of normalcy as my sister guides her life out of one phase and into the next. We’ve been eating remarkable tacos, touring the city and engaging in an open dialogue appropriate for someone at a crossroads in her life.

Her journey began, as mine did, in the suburbs of Long Island.

She came west almost 15 years ago, first to Las Vegas and then here, to this idyllic enclave, where she’s become comfortable despite desert heat, plunging real estate values and traffic like none I’ve ever seen — and I’m from New York.

I’ve broached the subject of a move to North Carolina, where she can be close to her nieces and nephews, within reasonable driving distance of the Atlantic Ocean, on the shores of which she was raised, and me, her little brother, who ardently misses her presence in his life.

I’ve floated the barbecue pitch, the mountains-and-beach argument, the assurance that someone will rent to her despite the fact that she has three dogs. She seems amenable, but change, as we all know, can be difficult to envision, and even more difficult to enact.

It may happen. It may not. My sister — single, professional, eminently capable — has every corner of the world at her disposal.

But I hope she chooses mine.

Meanwhile, we’re just gonna chill out. There are corners of the city to explore, options that must be hashed out, souvenirs to buy before I board the plane at Ontario Airport for the long, threelegged journey back home.

I miss my wife and my kids, and the work I’ve left behind is still sitting in Greensboro waiting for me. But right now, in the loft of Back to the Grind in Riverside, Calif., I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.