He greets me every morning from behind the coffee counter. Often, it feels like he and I are the only two human beings alive at the ungodly hour of 6:00 am. In the dead of winter, it's still dark outside at that time, sometimes rainy and almost always cold. Faced with an hour-long commute from the East Bay to my job in Foster City, I schlep into the coffee shop in a semi-vegetative state. I need that jolt of caffeine to wake me up, especially when I've stayed up too late the night before, hooked on a Law & Order marathon or anxious to finish reading, for the third time, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn".

My coffee guy is always smiling, always cheerful, even though the counter he works behind is just yards away from the front door and subjects him to cold winter winds each time a customer enters the shop. This store is a franchise and he's not the owner. He's just a college student at Las Positas and probably earns minimum wage at best. Still, he greets each customer like a long-lost family member. I never need to remind him what my favorite drink is or how I like it prepared. The minute I enter the shop, he smiles and calls out, "The same?" When I nod, he immediately begins preparing my peppermint mocha, extra hot (nuclear, he calls it), with low-fat milk and just a smidge of whipped cream.

Sometimes I'll also buy a Chai tea latte for my mom and swing by her house on my way to work. When I do this, my coffee guy gives me the 50 percent senior's discount on her drink, even though he has no way of knowing if I'm really buying it for a senior or I'm just a double-fisted drinker. Once he chased after me in the store parking lot to let me know I had earned a free coffee with the store's frequent-buyer card. He apologized because he had forgotten to honor it and wanted to let me know my next coffee was free.

These are all minor gestures, but collectively they add up to great customer service. And that's why I wanted to thank my coffee guy at Christmas time. "What can I buy somebody whom I know nothing about?" I asked my manager. She shrugged. "He may not even celebrate Christmas," she reminded me. "A Christmas gift may not be appropriate."

True. Still, I had to let him know that his kindness frequently sets the tone for my day. Every morning, I return to my car with my extra-hot, low-fat peppermint mocha in hand, warmed by his attentiveness and touched by his kindness.

"Maybe he has a thing for you," my manager teased. But I quickly dismissed the notion. My coffee guy can't be a day over 21. I could easily be his mo...uh, older, older sister. No, this wasn't about attraction, trying to score points, schmoozing or anything else. He was just a kind person.

I finally decided on a gift card to a local book-and-record store. Surely he could find something there to enjoy. I tucked the gift in a safely generic "Happy Holidays" card, and inside I wrote, "Thank you for the cheerful attitude and great customer service you provide year-round." I signed it the Peppermint Mocha Latte lady.

Christmas Eve morning I arrived at the shop at my usual ungodly hour, but not in my typical bleary-eyed state. Today I was a tad giddy with anticipation, excited to brighten my coffee guy's day just as he had so often brightened mine. While he was making my peppermint mocha, I snuck the card alongside the register where he'd be sure to find it after I left.

As he handed me my drink, he told me to wait a second. Then he reached underneath the counter and handed me a gift-wrapped box of chocolates with a card. "I just want to say thanks," he stammered with an awkward smile. What? He was thanking me? Then, because I was obviously speechless, he wished me a happy holiday and turned to tend to his growing line of customers.

In the pre-dawn dark of my car, I flicked on the light and opened the envelope. It was a Christmas card. Inside was printed, "A Christmas wish to show you just how nice it is to know you." He had added, "Thank you for always being so nice. It makes our job easy, especially when everyone else is so grumpy. Merry Christmas."

I thought of the card I'd left behind, tucked next to his register and couldn't help but smile at the irony.

It was a very mocha Christmas, indeed.

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