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Barista master

He might just be the most beloved barista in the Boston area — and he’s gotta be the one with the most diplomas. He’s also a fairly convincing argument against globalism, outsourcing, and bad espresso.

A wiry, dreadlocked guy with Bob Marley’s beatific grin and Morgan Freeman’s cheekbones, Willie Carpenter serves coffee in Davis Square’s Someday Café. The Somerville resident has been a fixture there for 13 years (save a hiccup last summer when he left to care for his ailing parents in his hometown of Burlington, New Jersey). Now he’s in the first of three larger-than-life advertisements starring employees of Gus Rancatore, owner of the Someday and Toscanini’s in Harvard and Kendall Squares, who launched an ad campaign in response to reports that Starbucks is planning to install automated espresso machines that would ultimately reduce the barista workforce. Rancatore’s first storefront poster features Carpenter, arms folded defensively, looking doubtful under the tagline challenge: "Do you think that Starbuck’s [sic] new completely automatic, made-in-Switzerland machine can make better espresso drinks than Willie?"

"In many ways, Willie is a symbol of the Someday Café and Davis Square," explains Rancatore. "He’s this benign and beautiful icon.... I also think he’s tremendously interesting."

Carpenter hasn’t always been slogging coffee. Reclining in Davis’s Seven Hills Park, finishing off a lemonade and slice of pizza after a seven-hour Sunday-morning shift, he recalls being a "revolutionary" at Nashville’s historically black college, Fisk University, in the tempest of the early ’70s. (You’d guess he’s a decade or two younger, but he’s actually in his 50s.) He talks about going to Boston College Law School after Fisk, then working in the DA’s office in Boston for five years, then toiling in the attorney general’s office, then serving as a public defender in Roxbury. After all that, he went to the Fletcher School at Tufts University in the late ’80s.

The soft-spoken Carpenter jokes, "I’m probably the most highly trained barista this side of the Mississippi — more degrees anyway."

But he wasn’t satisfied. "I felt, after practicing law for nine years like that, I was wasting my heart. Since then, I’ve been trying to unite my intellect with my heart. And that hasn’t been easy." That lofty mission led him unexpectedly to the Someday. After Tufts, Carpenter continued practicing law in a "more underground, socially conscious" way by handling only clients who couldn’t afford representation — an approach that didn’t always pay the bills. "I needed to be able to continue to do law for people who needed it ... and not have to worry about how I needed to pay for rent." So he took a job at the Someday in 1992, something he never thought he’d do. "I couldn’t imagine serving anybody before. Honestly, that’s why I went to law school, I did not want to be a servant. Then I found myself [at the Someday] and smiling. I had to kill off my pride."

In addition to becoming the unofficial legal counsel for his fellow baristas, representing them when they’ve gotten pinched for charges like drugs or graffiti, Carpenter’s also a house philosopher, of sorts. "The only way you can relate to people and hear the angel in them is to take away desire and ego and expectation," he offers. "And then magic happens." Sometimes people even tell him he exudes the nature of a sage. "I’m not a guru," he says. "I am a man with a lot of unanswered questions."

Issue Date: July 8 - 14, 2005
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