Guisepi Spadafora says he began serving free tea when he was living out of a pickup in Los Angeles.
The 22-year-old Washington native had just graduated from college and moved to the city where he didn’t know anyone. He began parking his truck on Hollywood Boulevard and cooking dinner, inviting passersby to eat with him when they stopped and asked what he was doing. After dinner, he would put the kettle on. People started calling him the tea man.
“All of a sudden, I started having community,” Spadafora said.
Now 33, Spadafora travels the country inviting people into his tea bus, Edna Lu, and serving cups of tea. A two-month journey through the South brought him to Columbus on Friday, where he parked in front of the Rosenzweig Arts Center and poured tea for a steady stream of passersby visiting the bus.
“What are you doing here?” asked 18-year-old Maggie King as she poked her head into the bus on Friday to see a group of people sitting around sipping tea with their attention on Spadafora. “I just saw the free tea sign.”
She and her friend Rikki Garcia, 19, each grabbed a seat and a mug of an herbal blend of hibiscus, lemongrass, orange peel, rose petals, Stevia and rosehips.
Spadafora parked his bus in downtown Starkville late Saturday afternoon where he received a similar reception from locals.
It’s a pretty typical interaction for Spadafora, who says he runs the free tea bus to “build community.” Interacting with someone without money being involved, he said, creates a more genuine relationship.
“When you share with someone and you have non-calculated exchange, you’re offering that person something,” he said Friday morning. “Gifting is being vulnerable with someone. … And that vulnerability can either be received or respected, or it can be dropped and pushed aside. And that’s where you build trust or you don’t build trust.”
Spadafora lives in his bus. He said he has “community” all over the country — from friends he’s made while serving tea, to companies that supply him with an “unlimited” supply of tea, to the people he’s worked with on fixer-upper type jobs that he takes on to help pay for his travels. He doesn’t need much — he said he can run the tea bus on about $7,000 per year.
He found the bus — a retired school bus for special education children, hence the name Edna — on Craigslist in 2007 and fixed it up himself. It’s made of 90 percent salvaged wood and hardware and runs on solar power and vegetable oil, he said. Its engine heats the water for tea.
In the bus, he keeps a mattress and a refrigerator, and he grows much of his own food. An aloe vera plant grows just behind the passenger seat, and above the dashboard is a shelf full of books on topics from herbalism to economics. The walls are covered in magnets that say things like, “Make tea not war.”
And if Columbus is any indication, Spadafora makes friends wherever he goes. He and his visitors talked about everything from their travels to how the bus runs to the importance of washing dishes if you’re a house guest.
“Where’s your favorite place you’ve been?” someone asked him.
“Columbus, Mississippi,” he said smiling.
It was his first time to Mississippi on the bus, he said, though he’d “attempted” to hitchhike through south Mississippi and Louisiana when he was in college. He’s not as familiar with the South as with the West Coast, but he’s been impressed with southern hospitality. In most places, people tell him to let him know if he needs anything.
“(But in the South, they say), ‘What do you need?’ and they don’t leave until you tell them,” he said.
He spent Christmas in Athens, Georgia. On Christmas Eve, a policeman visited him and told him he was illegally parked. Instead of giving Spadafora a ticket, the officer told him he’d let it slide since not many people were out.
A while later, the officer was back — with a cake.
“Here was this cop who says, ‘You’re doing something illegal’ but then instead of giving me a ticket, he gives me a cake,” Spadafora said. “A cake to share with people.”
Trying to help people
As his guests disembarked Friday one by one — often as new guests entered and took the now vacant seats — they signed Spadafora’s guest book, one of more than five that he keeps in the bus.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Andrew Luccasen, who sat in the bus for more than an hour with his two children, 9-year-old Caroline and 7-year-old Alex. “I kind of expected somebody to be by himself and we’d be the only customers.”
Instead he’d sat with a larger group, with Alex on his lap promising Spadafora they’d stop by the bus again the next day after his soccer tournament in Starkville.
“I just think it’s such a good project he’s doing,” Garcia said after disembarking. “He’s definitely got a good perspective on life.”
King thought it was great that Spadafora traveled in a way most people only dream about.
“(They say) ‘theoretically, this would be cool if we could do this.’ But he’s actually doing it and has been doing it and … trying to make something bigger happen from it and trying to help people,” she said.