Not for all the tea in Portland

Also, mandles
By Daniel Dunkle | May 03, 2012

"Would you like a free sample?"

I was ambling along in the Portland Mall when I heard these words, and my mind conjured all kinds of tasty possibilities: meat treats, cheeses, cookies or cupcakes. When I turned toward the voice I let the air out of my lungs with a bit of disappointment.

"Would you like to try our specialty green teas?"

Not especially, no.

The voice belonged to a young woman with red hair, glasses and a nose ring. She was hip and cool and young in precisely the ways that I am not. I had wandered into her universe, having grown bored in the candle store across the way, and had hoped to find a book store, or some place that sold meat. Instead I was now walking into a small, dark shop filled with tea sets, strange smells and actual graven images.

"That's the goddess of healing," the salesgirl told me as I stared at a bronze idol.

"Ah," I said. "Well, my mother likes tea."

Part of the problem with my particular mix of curiosity and friendliness is a tendency to talk too long to salespeople. With my wife still distracted by the intoxicating aroma of a million candles across the mall's primary avenue, I was without proper supervision. I decided to investigate the tea store further.

I was interested in a potential Mother's Day present. Pretty much every year, I give the woman who brought me into this world something tea-related. As the salesperson showed me various canisters and cups, I thought it's kind of sad that after 39 years the only things I really know about Mom is that she likes tea and Nicholas Sparks books.

The salesperson showed me a decorative thermos that could keep beverages warm for hours. I thought Mom might like to take this to work with her. "So she can just put her tea bags in here?"

I swear the salesgirl actually flinched. Her fellow hipsters gasped. The caterpillar on the mushroom in back of the store paused in the midst of his sitar solo.

"We really don't encourage the use of tea bags."

It was obvious that in the world of serious tea drinkers, I had committed a significant faux pas.

"The bags hinder the transfer of antioxidants," she explained. "And antioxidants are the reason most people drink tea."

I chuckled knowingly. Any first-year tea major knows that!

As a coffee enthusiast, I've never really understood why people drink tea.

I looked longingly across to the candle store, but there was still no sign of my wife. I was in trouble. Another few minutes and I was liable to graduate to the next level of the tea store, the one where I end up sitting cross-legged before a wise man with a long white beard, my consciousness opened to new vistas by the power of antioxidants.

The candle store had been somewhat better. I had wandered around sniffing candles with scents like pumpkin spice and orange popsicle. The lady there had been friendly without trying to convert me to candles as a way of life.

"Actually, they're coming up with a line of candles aimed at men," she said.

"What?" I had asked, laughing at the idea.

She said fresh-cut wood was one of the proposed manly candle flavors.

"So they'll be mandles," I said. Wocka!-Wocka!

"I haven't heard them called that," she said. "That would be a good name for them."

It would, but guess what? I have the trademark, baby! Come and talk to me about it candle people, 'cause I got there first. Now, back to the tea store.

By the time Christine finally showed up, I was on the verge of buying the thermos, which had a much fancier tea-store name. It was actually quite reasonably priced, but the store's real business is selling the loose tea.

"What kind of tea does your mother like?"

"Black tea," I said. "Do you have something similar to Earl Grey?"

"We have several types of Earl Grey."

"Ah." For some reason I had expected something more unique. She quoted the price.

"This is for tea, right?" I said. I thought for a moment that maybe the whole thing was just an elaborate front for selling drugs. Perhaps they should be selling pipes for smoking this "tea."

Christine rolled her eyes.

"I think I'm going to pass."

I felt bad for leading her on, making her think she would get the sale. "Well," I said, as Christine and I walked along between the many fine stores offering nothing we needed or wanted, "She got to practice her pitch. It's not really time wasted. She'll get the next one."

Besides, I never did take that free sample.

Daniel Dunkle is news editor for Courier Publications. He lives in Rockland with his wife, Christine, two children and a black cat.

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