As a psychic medium and life coach, I’m often giving insight, advice, and guidance to assist the people who schedule a reading with me. But, I’m okay admitting that I don’t have all the answers, and sometimes the best teachers are those who are comfortable being the student every once in a while. Here’s an example of a time when I learned (or rather, re-learned) a valuable life lesson.

“Rim or no rim?” asked the peppy barista behind the coffee house counter. Her pupils were dialated and she seemed like she’d had one too many double shot espressos. I secretly wondered if the employees were allowed free coffee during their shifts. Judging by her enthusiasm, I bet they were.

“Rim or no rim?” This time, she said it with a little more urgency and a little less patience. I froze like a baby raccoon caught in the beam of a flashlight. I had no idea how to respond. The high-octane employee looked at me with sympathy. I was flustered, and she knew it. She called my bluff. I’m not a coffee expert. I drink medium roast Maxwell House from my safe little house in the Midwest; and here I was standing in ground zero of the coffee world – Portland, Oregon. Next to Seattle, this was virtually the Machiatto Mecca of North America. The Pacific Northwest is good at two things – growing trees and making a mean cup of Joe.

Rim or no rim? I wondered what the hell she meant. I nervously glanced at my wife who was standing beside me, hoping she would wisper the answer to me. She was still trying to select her drink from the overhead menu, which looked more like a roadside billboard. I went spelunking into the deepest crevasses and reveenes of my memory, searching for an answer to the barista’s question. Rim or no rim? I’d never heard of such a thing. I nervously squirmed in place, unsure of what to say. I was self-aware enough to know I was holding up the line and needed to make a decision. I felt like a little-leager who was up to bat at Yankee Stadium.

Suddenly, I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye. The figure was shadowy and tall. It was a man in his early 30s. He wore black pants and a black t-shirt that displayed some sort of punk rock band logo. The shirt was faded and paper thin, as though it had been washed a thousand times. The guy had more metal on his face than Darth Vader. He sported a lip piercing, eye brow ring, and a half-circle piercing right through the center of his nostrils – like an angry bull. The piercings in his ears were so wide you could have slid a AA Energizer battery through his ear lobes. The man didn’t look particularly friendly. His pant legs disappeared into his tightly-laced black combat boots. He was quite a specimin. As I glanced at the tattoos on his forearms, I wondered if he was going to kill me right then and there for holding up the line – for not knowing whether or not I wanted “rim” with my coffee order.

He raised his hands and slowly pulled his headphones off from his shaved head. He looked like he was about to make a grand announcement, or yell at me; or maybe ask me to step aside so he could order his usual drink. I have to admit, there was part of me that was slightly nervous. I wondered if I was holding him up from attending a death metal concert or something. I was out of my comfort zone and secretly longed for a luke warm cup of Maxwell House from my kitchen counter.

As the intimidting man opened his mouth, I expected him to unleash a fury of obscenities. To my utter surprise, he spoke with a gentle disposition. His tone was that of a Kindergarten teacher – calm, patient, and filled with empathy. “Rim or no rim refers to the amount of coffee she pours into your cup, man. Do you want want it filled right up to the rim, or do you want some extra space so you can pour in some cream and sugar?”

I was so grateful (and caught off guard) that all I could muster was an awkward smile back at the gentleman. I whipped around to face the employee, and with a hint of confidence in my voice, I said, “Go ahead and fill ‘er all the way up, please.” She poured my piping hot Colombian dark roast right up to the edge of the rim and tighly secured a lid on it.

For a few seconds, I stared straight ahead and waited for my wife to order. My conscience got the better of me and I decided that I owed the stranger behind me a thank you. I turned around and expressed my gratitude. “Thanks for explaining that to me. All we wanted to do was blend in with the locals, and here we are holding up the line and looking weird.”

“Weird?” he said, as he simultaneously smiled and scoffed. “If you think you’re weird, then you’ve come to the right city, my friend.” He nodded in satisfaction as a big smile appeared on his face. His neck tattoo popped with color and looked freshly done. I wasn’t sure if it was a Chinese dragon or a lizard or Godzilla, but whoever created the tattoo was quite the artist. He gave me a friendly slap on the back and said, “You know our motto here in Portland, right?” I shook my head from side to side. “Keep Portland weird!” He winked and side-stepped around us to place his own order. He did so confidently and slipped a dollar bill into the tip jar before the worker even began making his drink. He ordered like a pro. He made it look so easy.

My wife and I found our interaction with him to be refreshing. He was the first contact we’d had with the locals since our plane had landed. It was our honeymoon, and the trip was off to a great start! As we sipped our beverages of choice and looked at people criscrossing the streets of downtown Portland, I imagined what the nice man’s life must be like. I wondered what he did for a living. I wondered if he had a dog and where he went to high school and what his parent’s names were. Was he well-liked in his youth or was he misunderstood? I secretly felt a little ashamed that I’d judged him in my mind before he opened his mouth. I assumed he’d be angry, impatient, and moody. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

He struck me as a very intelligent man; well spoken, witty, and intelectually nimble. I imagined he was into music, art, and writing poetry. But that’s my whole point – I could only imagine what he was like. I could only assume. Admittedly, my first impression of him was a bit off. Maybe he was none of these things I thought him to be. Maybe he was a construction worker. Maybe he was a school teacher. Hell, maybe he was a gay underwear model. Who knows. That’s the thing – you never know a person’s story unless you truly get to know him. You can’t judge a book by its cover. Or tattoos. Or piercings. Or how they order coffee.

In hindsight, I can rationalize what happened all day long. I can make myself feel better by saying I really didn’t judge him. After all, I wasn’t actually looking down on him or thinking less of him because of his appearance. It’s true that I didn’t feel superior to him in any way. However, the truth is that I had my assumptions. I assumed he would not be as friendly as he actually was. I assumed he was going to say a sarcastic comment, when in reality he was very helpful. I assumed he’d be serious and stoic, but instead he proved to be approachable and funny.

Assumptions are dangerous things. Assumptions lead to breakdowns in communication, failed relationships, and even worse – discrimination. Discrimination can happen in many ways. Sometimes it’s a conscious act of hatred towards a person of different color, faith, gender, or lifestyle. In many cases though, discrimination is subtle and comes from subconscious assumptions we have about other people. The obvious truth is that it’s unfair to judge a person or assume anything about him or her based on their looks alone. People are like oak trees. The only part of them we see is above the surface, and there’s always roots that run much deeper.

I’m so grateful I crossed paths with the stranger in black at the coffee shop. Like many people in Portland, he’s super nice and wonderfully eccentric; he’s not afraid to be himself and stand out as unique. Sometimes, my wife and I dream of moving to Portland. The winters are milder there. Jack Frost doesn’t get quite as tempremental in Portland as he does in Omaha. If they’re looking for more people to “keep Portland weird”, then my wife and I would be welcome additions. Plus, now that I know how to properly order coffee, I’ll no longer hold up the coffe shop lines. Join me in raising a cup of Joe to one of the most weird and wonderful cities I’ve ever visited. Portland, I salute you.