It’s a gray, blustery afternoon in University Place, but the whir of coffee machines and caffeinated chatter is keeping the inside of the Forza Coffee Company warm.
The most popular seat when I visited earlier this week was a chocolate-brown leather armchair inches from the fireplace, a seat that Douglas Swan used to occupy for hours every day.
Ask anyone who works or frequents the Forza off Cirque Drive West about him, and the memories pour out faster than the day’s Tuscany-style roast.
Douglas’ routine was simple. He’d shuffle through the door – sometimes three or four times a day – and order his regular coffee, which in reality was a hot chocolate. Beverage in hand, he’d sit in his leather chair by the fireplace and greet every customer while harmlessly flirting with Forza’s female patrons.
Co-owner Amy Booth says Douglas was more than a regular – he was family. Elderly with no relatives in the area, the shop’s owners and staff adopted him as one of their own.
They’d bring him food and made sure he didn’t consume too much sugar, given his diabetes and failing kidneys. The baristas would help walk him to his car. They even helped find him a small apartment next to the shop so he didn’t have to drive from Tacoma.
In turn, Douglas would offer war stories, innocent-and-witty conversation and a megawatt smile that would force people to crack one of their own.
“He would give you a hard time like no other,” Booth said earlier this week as she scrolled through pictures of him on her cell phone. “But he did it with such love … that was just him.”
Douglas was such a steady part of the Forza family that Booth, along with the shop's other owners, a few baristas and customers, visited him regularly over the last few weeks. Weakened by a heart attack in November, his face would light up when they would visit him at his Tacoma nursing home. He seemed especially happy when Booth’s children – Jordan and Sheldon – would surprise him.
At approximately 4 a.m., Jan. 20, Douglas lost his battle with his deteriorating health at 86 years old, leaving a void in the coffee shop family from which he couldn’t stay away.
“We saw him every day. We used to get worried if we didn’t see him,” said Maria Hunter, a 22-year-old barista who’s worked at Forza for more than year. “It’s weird. He obviously is in a better place, but he’s not here.”
“I miss him a lot,” Booth says while clearing moisture from her eyes. “I’ve been a mess these last few days.”
Part of the deal
Booth might not have realized it, but Douglas made himself part of the deal when she, her husband Scott and another couple, Joel and Debi Schwarz, bought the coffee shop a year and a half ago.
An employee with Forza before becoming an owner, the woman whom Douglas dubbed “boss lady” didn’t initially realize that the Forza was one of the few – if not only – places he frequented other than his cramped apartment near the Tacoma Mall.
Soon after they took over the business, they learned how important the coffee shop was to Douglas.
“He had been coming here for years and years,” Booth says.
His schedule would resemble that of the barista staff, waiting to walk through Forza’s doors around 4:30 a.m., before it opened. He was often one of the last to walk out when it closed 16 hours later.
Booth and her family helped him move to the apartment complex next to the shop last year. Even though his new surroundings positioned him a walk away from Forza, he still drove his big, white Crown Victoria each time he visited.
Douglas didn’t have the sharpest of memories. Once, Booth recalls, he got a ride to Forza while his car was getting serviced at a nearby auto shop. A short nap later, he forgot where his car was and phoned police to report it stolen.
Douglas owned a bank account, but he’d always carry around a wad of cash.
Those idiosyncrasies made staff “very protective of him,” Booth says.
But one thing age didn’t weaken was his uncanny ability to make people smile, whether they expected it or not.
He’d ask questions of customers, taking a genuine interest in their lives. He’d visit Forza every Saturday to help entertain a social club consisting of women slightly younger than him.
“With Douglas, there was just something,” Booth says. “We’d sit and talk. I think the thing that drew me to him was the way he interacted with people. He loved kids.”
Through those countless interactions, Booth, staff and the shop’s customers heard snippets of his life. Some of them were inspirational, others tragic.
He wasn’t from the Northwest. He was a military man – one who suffered a gunshot wound in Vietnam – who ended up staying in the region after getting stationed here, Booth says.
He has no children. The group thinks he had a sister, but she died. He might have a nephew, but no one knows how to get in touch with him. He lived alone and was gradually slipping into poor health.
He was proud, never asking for money or handouts.
“I invited him over to my house a few times,” Booth says, “but he was so headstrong he refused.”
The Forza was all Douglas needed. Its staff was all the family he had.
And one was there for the other until the end.
“I feel like I’m dying”
Douglas’ health began deteriorating quickly toward the latter part of last year.
In early November, he hadn’t visited the shop for four days. Booth says she walked to his apartment to find him gone with the door to the empty home open. The complex’s manager told her that medics had rushed Douglas to the hospital a few days earlier.
After some digging, Booth learned that Douglas suffered a heart attack and was transported to St. Claire Hospital in Lakewood. Booth contacted the hospital just in time, as he was going to be transported to a Tacoma nursing home, and locating him at the point would have been near impossible.
But even though Booth had found Douglas, she couldn’t stop his health his body from failing. “Amy, I feel like I’m dying,” she recalls him telling her.
That didn’t stop Booth, Debi Schwarz, Forza’s staff and a few customers who knew him from visiting on an almost daily basis. She would spend hours with him - talking, rubbing lotion, whatever would give him a smile.
His guardian, Beth Stone, would also stay by his side.
Again, on Nov. 30, he was rushed to Tacoma General Hospital, this time for kidney failure.
Within hours, Booth, some of Forza’s staff and a few of Douglas other friends were at the hospital.
“We’re all just right over his bed,” she recalls, “loving on him, praying on him. That right there is community.”
Like before, they visited Douglas regularly, giving him the kind of support and love that some elderly residents might not get.
“You could see he was so happy to see us there,” she recalls. “My biggest thing is I didn’t want him to feel like was alone.”
On Jan. 19, Booth received a text message from the nursing home where he had been transferred. “They said he was in bad shape.”
But the weather conditions prevented her from driving to visit him.
At 4:15 a.m., the next day, Booth got a call from the nursing home. Douglas had died a few minutes earlier.
Always be remembered
Over the last week, news of Douglas’ death has filtered through the Forza on Cirque Drive and Bridgeport Way West.
To those who knew him, his passing might not have come as a huge surprise given his health, but it still hurts.
“He’ll always be remembered here,” Hunter says. “He’ll always be around.”
Booth finds it especially difficult. She thinks about Douglas often.
But however painful it may be, Booth says she and the rest of Forza are blessed to have known and loved Douglas.
“He impacted so many people, but I don’t think he knew it,” she says.
Booth says Douglas’ story illustrates the power that a coffee shop can have in bringing people together.
It might also show how the most incredible thing about a coffee shop may have nothing to do with the stuff it brews, and everything to do with the hearts of the people who brew it.