SYLMAR - To step into Vivian's world, you'll need a taste for coffee, a zest for ribs, and a love for helping terminally ill kids.
Vivian and Bruce Hartman own Buffalo Bruce's Mercantile - a funky, artsy cafe-barbecue joint and garden paradise in Sylmar. A regular coffee shop this ain't.
It's where Vivian and her husband, whose daughter Sophia died of leukemia when she was 12, help the families of really sick children.
It's where their group, Sophia's Angels, recruit angels to look down on troubled kids.
And it's where dreams are made, or rediscovered, one cafe customer at a time.
"I don't sell dreams," said Vivian Hartman, 49, of Sylmar, in a red Grateful Dead cap, black double-breasted jacket, velvet skirt and boots. "We remind you to dream. To be fun. The world has become too black and white.
"I just want to throw some color in your way."
For 15 years, passers-by of Buffalo Bruce's Mercantile have been drawn to the purple hut and hand-painted signs at Hubbard Street and Foothill Boulevard.
Bruce, general contractor, carpenter and Grateful Deadhead, drew inspiration from his late father, an animator of works such as "Fantasia" and "Mr. Magoo." His woodshop lies out back.
Vivian, a mother of five sons and Sophia, drew strength from her late grandmother, a founder of the Chicano movement. The San Fernando High School homecoming queen once marched with Cesar Chavez.
For years, the northeast San Fernando Valley natives ran their music-filled coffeehouse and store, selling everything from handmade cutting boards to seasonal Christmas trees.
Then in 2006, their 11-year-old Sophia developed leukemia.
For 53 weeks, they doted on their effervescent girl, a former track runner then confined to a bed at UCLA Medical Center. They also struggled with hospital staff. A lost job and health insurance. Financial solvency.
Her mother had to show her how to live.
Mija, Vivian would explain over pictures. Look at this white blood cell. Look how it stands up and fights the cancer and everything bad in your blood. Stand up and say, "Chaaaaarge!"
But finally, the cancer took its course, and Vivian persuaded doctors to help her roll her daughter outside the hospital - still in bed, still attached to her oxygen tubes. That was Oct. 13, 2005.
"She faced the sun, until it went down," Vivian recalled. "And the wind dropped a leaf on her. And she woke up. And we had a party.
"And the next day, she went to heaven."
Today, both Vivian and Bruce can't talk about their Sophia without tears. And without great joy, too.
While her husband handles the tri-tip and ribs, Vivian handles the love. Love for smoked barbecue, homemade fixin's, optional vegan fare, and breakfast burritos served all day, which get OMG! raves on Yelp.
Love for her patrons, who she greets and hugs. Love for live music and poetry readings and tai chi exercises outside. And love for children.
"We love this place," said Dan Shaw, of Burbank, who drives up once a week with his wife, Ana. "We love the ambience and the spiritual energy - it's a spiritual retreat. And the breakfast burritos are to die for."
"We come here to experience Vivian," added Ana. "She's connected to the Other Side - miracles."
After her daughter died, Vivian founded Sophia's Angels - a group dedicated to helping families with terminally sick kids.
Since then, she's provided hospitals with a "Sophia's Angels" guide to how families can better cope with frightened children and families.
She's conducted bone marrow drives and given free cellphones to bedridden patients. She's handed out clown noses - perfumed with lavender - to help kids stay calm while enduring prickly shots.
She also mixes aromatic oils to soothe children undergoing chemotherapy, and taught herself reflexology to better soothe their nerves.
From a small room inside, she sells artwork, oils and items to support her group.
For seven years, she's also stood in a red dress before politicians to fight for improved services. On a wall across from the espresso shots and objets de funk inside the mercantile is a photo gallery of Vivian next to local officials up to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sen. Joe Lieberman and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"I teach parents how to advocate so children get the care they need," she said.
This month, Vivian Hartman persuaded Los Angeles to establish an employee registry of potential bone marrow donors alongside its blood donors in a motion introduced by Councilman Eric Garcetti.
Next month, a state legislative session on health care will discuss her proposal to provide insurance coverage and hospice care and support for working families, for which there is a 30-day gap. The subject will be introduced by state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima.
Overlooking her restaurant patio - a refuge of succulents, geraniums and bubbling fountains - is a 20-foot wall of peeling Adirondack chairs.
This is where Vivian says Sophia's angels now watch over the world.
And maybe Santa Claus.
On a recent day, Vivian stood out front, celebrating a minor miracle. She had found the hole in her inflatable St. Nick, and ran over to patch his backside.
She then picked up a bass guitar, plugged in an amplifier, and looked out on to the working-class street.
Next to her was a row of Christmas trees and a sign, "Sophia's Angels: Every tree leaves with a real angel."
Her fingers plucked the heavy strings, jamming to a bluesy "Bells will be ringing," blaring from inside the cafe.
"Please come home for Christmas," she mouthed the words, smiling. "If not for Christmas by New Year's night."