Irving Farm’s John Henry Summerour sits down with Liz Dean, Manager of our 79th Street cafe, to discuss nature, coffee, crime, education and life.
There seems to be a formative experience in Liz Dean’s childhood, a distant memory not pinned down by a specific date or singular event, but one that exists in a dream state, floating along the liquid timeline that links one’s birth to the moment when life gets colored in with bolder lines and harder edges. Liz was born in Albuquerque, NM, where she lived until she was 6 years old. Her early childhood memories are dotted with green chiles, mountain hikes, hot air balloon festivals and hard rains, after which the toads would sing into the night as worms slowly rose to the earth’s surface. Her mom would take Liz and her sister into the backyard where they’d collect worms and feed them to the hungry toads. This connection to nature, its structures and systems, the unspoken order of things, established a lifelong relationship to curiosity and discovery.
Liz is a seeker, which is easy to understand when you consider her father’s vivid trajectory, both personal (born in Pittsburgh; lived in Lexington, MA; moved to New Mexico; studied at Tulane and Cornell) and professional (stockbroker, corporate lawyer, yoga instructor, contributing writer for Feminism & Religion). Her practical nature might be passed down from her mother, a book designer at Columbia University Press, who was raised by immigrant parents escaping North Korea and settling in Missouri—at the suggestion of an American colonel—where they reared seven children.
When Liz moved from New Mexico to Ithaca, the worms and toads were replaced by crayfish and neighboring forests inhabited by Romanian and Polish farmers who would catch rabbits with their bare hands to share with Liz and her sister. Conversation in the Dean household circled around philosophy, spirituality and the social responsibility of privilege, while the rooms bustled with dogs, cats, guinea pigs, birds, frogs (one of which is still living and nearly 20-years-old) and a diaper-wearing duck that was in love with their 120 lb German Shepherd. She started riding horses and participating in eventing. She began drinking coffee in high school because that’s what adults did. Her determination to achieve led her to the hallowed campus of Mount Holyoke where she majored in Sociology and Philosophy. It was at Rao’s Coffee, in the Holyoke library atrium (modeled after the Medici Library in Florence, Italy), that she began to understand coffee as a meeting ground, a tool for discussion and debate, an experience that is linked to community and aesthetics as much as flavor.
Her ideals brought her to New York City to participate in the Teach For America program where she led high school ESL classes for two years, but after she was asked to give passing grades to absentee students just to keep them moving through the system (among many other institutional compromises which prioritized numbers over learning) the disillusionment proved too great. Liz began walking dogs in an effort to simplify her life and reconnect to a love of animals. Two of her clients, a pit bull and a Bernese Mountain puppy, lived in Gramercy Park, and even though she was walking up to eight dogs, she was having trouble making ends meet. A friend recommended that she check out 71 Irving Place for good coffee, and she quickly developed a ritual of ordering a small coffee and bagel with butter which would constitute her breakfast and lunch for the day. It wasn’t long before she heard they were hiring…
It’s not unusual for customers to cross the line and start working behind the counter, nor is it odd for your average barista to possess countless stories and complex histories as she crafts your drink. What’s unusual is that the coffee industry is no longer a pit stop for people who are trying to figure out the next step. Liz is now managing our 79th Street cafe where she’s vigilant about sourcing local, quality ingredients. She attends community board meetings to create a bike lane on Amsterdam Avenue. She travels to barista competitions all over the country. She even helps one of her regulars by walking his dog. Most unexpectedly, she recently worked with the NYPD to apprehend neighborhood thieves, going above and beyond her duties as the manager of a coffee shop.
Sometimes life can seem like a collection of disparate puzzle pieces, lacking a cohesive or linear structure, but Liz’s journey is the embodiment of existence as a work in progress, each experience informing the next, the collective whole reflecting a deep engagement with exploration and the application of lessons learned.
This summer she was sitting outside the cafe taking a break from payroll, and for a moment she looked off, quietly considering a thought, and then she said, “I like to feel like I’m part of something,” calling to mind the image of her pinching those wet, wriggling bodies and extending them to the open, croaking mouths in that New Mexico night, making a direct link to the substance of life, the song of survival.