Restaurant Reviews

It's a Grind in Deep Ellum is more than just a coffee shop, it's a sanctuary for second chances.

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"It's not your typical coffee shop. It's real private and professional, but it's also very relaxing. The pace is just a different pace here," says Deep Ellum developer Barry Annino, taking a quick sip of coffee. "You have a tendency while you're in here to look out the window. The people here are relaxed."

Open mic nights and live music events spice things up. So too did Debra Bales, a walking reservoir of frenetic energy.

Bales has big, blue eyes, a nervous-seeming smile, and a rapid gait that conveys a boundless energy that belies her 47 years. At a slow moment on a weekday afternoon in April, Bales sits at a wooden table, her hands dancing restlessly across the tabletop while she speaks.

Nothing Bales has done follows a coherent trajectory, and her story does the same, leaping between distant events and recent feelings—redemption, constancy, peace. She can name the date she finished training and started work at It's a Grind—November 16, 2008—because she says she's been changed by the experience of getting a second chance and becoming, as she repeats over and over, "a normal person."

"I was married and lived a normal life for a long time," Bales says, choosing her words carefully. But then, about 10 years ago, "I guess I went to the other side of the tracks." One night she went out dancing with a Cuban man and realized her life was, as she puts it now, "boring." She felt she was doing the lion's share of raising her two boys, and she wanted her husband to "step up." What she also wanted was freedom, and a change of pace from the grind of soccer practice and cooking dinner and being a stereotypical good wife and mother. What she got was money from a divorce settlement and the craziest three years of her life.

In her adventure to the "other side," Bales says she experimented with cocaine, heroin and finally crack because, "it was romantic—these houses with no electricity, just candlelight, and people smoking together." In order to support her crack habit, she stole clothing and accessories from department stores—Marshall's, Dillard's, Kohl's—and resold her wares on her own small-time black market. When word got out about her new business venture, people put in orders. Bales recalls one woman who "wanted to buy leather jackets for everyone in her family—and it was a big family!"

Bales didn't look the part of the thief—she carried the trappings of her former life, from a Gucci bag to nice high heels, and her candid demeanor didn't hurt either. She says she always acted confident, hardly batting an eye when clerks asked her if she needed help as she waltzed out of places carrying TVs or cases of beer.

"If I saw some shoes I liked better than the ones I had on, I'd take them," Bales says with a shrug—put them right on her feet and walk away.

Things started to get a little rougher, though, when in 2006 she served her first stint in the Dawson State Jail in Dallas for stealing her ex-husband's Rolex. A string of misdemeanors kept her in jail over Christmas and New Year's of 2007; once she got out, she resolved to stop stealing. But she fell back in with the same crowd, spending nights in freezing crack houses where people still knew her. When a request for an item from Walmart came her way, she figured one more gig wouldn't hurt. It only took one, though, to land her back in Dawson—this time for nine months.

During her time behind bars, she volunteered as a Peer Educator for Texas Hope Literacy Inc., a program designed to help incarcerated men and women learn to read and get their GEDs under the tutelage of their fellow inmates. After her release, Bales went to Grace Unlimited, a nonprofit geared toward helping female inmates transition to life on the outside. A board member recommended her to one of the assistant managers at It's a Grind.

Bales threw herself into learning the coffee business and in March was promoted to lead barista. For Bales, It's a Grind represented not only a second chance at "normalcy," but also a community where she could be herself.

"We just come from all different kinds of backgrounds," Bales told the Observer in April. Sometimes she would take a short break out back with another employee who had a rough time, Bales said, and they would swap stories about the past. "Everybody has problems—hopefully not all at the same time!"

It's hard to envision that such a frank, funny woman could have lived such a troubled life. But that impression changes after learning that she left her job at It's a Grind this June, that her phone has been disconnected, her whereabouts are unknown and some fellow staffers are fearful she has returned to the life she left behind.

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Alexa Schirtzinger