I find myself a curmudgeon-y, worn out barista. It surprises me to think I’ve done this for almost 7 years, and that this work has been my silent companion through school. The work frustrates me, constantly makes me feel torn between professional and burn-out, and treats me like an annoying old friend. Preparing and managing a coffee shop is now embedded in my muscle memory. Spectating people’s control issues manifesting through their latte preference has become sport. And so, as I acknowledge my impending transition into my “first” “professional” career as a school counselor, I think it’s necessary to reflect on my first real career as a professional coffee-slinger/janitor/impromptu counselor/pseudo-bartender barista. Some gems over the years from all the different shops I’ve worked:
The faithful, elderly regular. To you who I serve black coffee and plain lattes on sleepy Friday mornings. To you who meet up faithfully, punctually with your retired cronies to share the same pastry prepared the same way to talk about the same shit on a different day. I am comforted to hear your cackling laughter, your low grumblings, your casual conversations. I am grateful when you look into our painfully empty tip jar, shake your head disapprovingly, yell “Cheap bastards!”, and then put in your much-appreciated dollar. I am touched by your willingness to put your book down and keep an eye on our safety when someone scopes the place (yes, it happens frequently). I hope to have your faithful devotion to long-time friends one day. I hope to stay true to myself and to my routine and to the things that make me happy. I hope to always respond when someone asks me how I’m doing that “it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood!”.
The countertop conspiracy theorist. To you whom against whom I sinned when I made the mistake of putting a lid and a straw in your plain, black iced Americano. To you who gaze slowly over every item you see, asking me what type of GMOs are in our flavored syrups. To you who would, if I asked, give me a 20-minute lecture on why the plastic in our our store is going to to destroy the baby turtles in the Galapagos. I always daydream about your younger years, about the protests you must have participated in, the causes you must have stood for, and the far-out things you must have seen. I wonder what you must think of me and my generation. I wonder what kinds of things we could learn from each other. I wonder if you’d listen to me the same way I always listen to you. Do not mistake me for such a Good Samaritan, I listen because I am paid to. Is that bad? What interesting things I’ve been paid to listen to. What interesting things you have felt comfortable telling me because I’m paid to listen. I’m sorry about all the plastic, I do not agree with you on many things, but damn, have you made me learn how to listen. And for that, I find myself grateful. Unless I’m trying to close.
The ambitiously flirtatious Fabio. Don’t get me wrong, there was a few years time that I truly appreciated you. You who would come into the shop and flash me a smile that I’m sure has impressed many a young, single barista. You who seem find me infinitely more interesting on the days I wear make-up and do my hair. You whose charisma I’m sure has earned you free coffee and heaven knows what else. You who may or may not have a girlfriend/fiancee/wife, but I wouldn’t know because you are so eerily charming. There was a time when I needed the self-esteem boost, but I’m good now. I found someone who thinks I’m equally as interesting when I’m rocking my frizzy hair and baggy gym clothes. I hope you find the same and stop hitting on the baristas who gain false hopes from you. Also, you’re not as discreet as you think. I see you staring, and it creeps me out. Please stop.
The Spectator. What if I walked into your office, found your cubicle, stood over it, and watched you do your work so intensely that you felt like my gaze burned a hole in your face? Well, that’s how I feel. When you come to the spot to pick up your drink, lean over the counter, and watch me in complete silence for the entire 2 minutes I spend making your drink. Or, even worse, when you silently watch me make the line of drinks I have to make before yours. We have newspapers. We have magazines. We have stuff for sale. Go enjoy yourself. Wander for a minute. Or, talk to me. Ask me questions, respond to my question “How’s your day going?”. It’s a question I reserve JUST for people like you to remind you that a human being is making your drink. A coffee shop isn’t a zoo, and I don’t enjoy being on display while I do my work. Man, that felt good to get out of my system.
The awkward lovebirds. I love you guys. So much. You make my day so much more interesting. To see two people who have never met before other than on Tinder or through friends, your first encounter is something in which I am happy to participate. I love helping to break the ice. I love being the one to caffeinate your first experience with each other. I always wonder if you’ll end up together, date for awhile, or decide to go your separate ways. I enjoy seeing your body language relax over the hours you are in the shop, getting to know each other, asking each other questions, and revealing who you are. I am silently pleased when I realize you’ve been talking for the majority of my shift (6 hours!) and that when I remind you that we are almost closing, you make plans to continue your conversation somewhere else. I love the pleasant awkwardness and anticipation. I love seeing the excitement and wonder. And I love using at least one terrible coffee pun to kick off your first encounter with your potential spouse, or just that person you went on a date with that one time. I really do love it a latte.
The introverted bookworm. You sir (or ma’am) are my spirit animal. How I envy you when you pick the sunniest, coziest spot in the shop, nestle into your chair, and read. For hours. Truth be told, when I sweep the lobby I always try to sneak a peek at what you’re reading. Sometimes I note it to myself if it looks interesting. I want to tell you that I love doing exactly what you’re doing. I want to tell you that, even as an extrovert, quality time alone with a book is so rejuvenating. I will pour you coffee if you ask but I will leave you alone. Time alone with a book is a treasure. I’m sorry that there are loud customers who don’t realize that.
The Energizer battery. 6 shots of espresso in your latte? Are you sure?! That’s what I’m thinking and what I’m sure my facial expression says when you order something with an absurd amount of caffeine. Like, what are you on your way to do, sprint a marathon in 5 minutes? Write a novel in an hour? Meet 7 deadlines at once? I realize sometimes caffeine has different effects on people, but sometimes I wonder how a person gets to the point where they enjoy 6 shots of espresso. These people are a cautionary tale to any and every barista. They become the reason that we, after 3 cups of free coffee and some shots of espresso, cause us to say “maybe I’ve had enough for the day”.
The “is-there-coffee/sugar-in-that?”. You singlehandedly help me keep my judgment in check as a Catholic. After doing this work for awhile, I have come to appreciate the delicious simplicity in a cup of black coffee. So when (and I hate to generalize, I really do) a woman comes to the counter and asks if she can get the equivalent a single shot of espresso drowned in fake sugar and milk alternatives, I have a hard time. Maybe it makes me a coffee snob. It probably does, I admit it. But simple things are beautiful. And probably healthier. I would love to make you an Americano (espresso and water) with some raw sugar and some coconut milk sometime. It’s delicious, sweet, and much better for you.
The patience tester. Whether it is the person who comes in 3 minutes before closing time, the person who orders 10 drinks during a busy part of the day and leaves no tip, the person who spits (sometimes literally) out an order while they’re talking on their cell phone, the person who watches me mop and then immediately walks all over the floor, the person who forgets to mention something they want in their drink and then gets upset at me for it, the people who know our hours very well but proceed to stay past closing, the person who ignores us when we call out their drink, forcing us to walk it to them even when we are busy, the people who move our furniture to provide seating for their large group and do not move it back…these people teach me patience and humility in the hardest way possible. I’m always reflecting (usually too late, I admit) how every person I meet is a reflection of God. This includes especially the customers who test my patience. I am always challenged to provide genuine, efficient, and quality service to people who may not deserve it. That can be very difficult. But I think from it, I learn to appreciate the many more customers who are perfectly polite, respectful, and sincerely friendly. I appreciate the days where these customers are few and far between the many awesome people I get to meet in my job. I am brought true joy when someone comes up to me and genuinely thanks me for making them something delicious.
My job as a barista has made me appreciate so many things. It continues to humble me despite my many years of higher education, which is something I need. It helps me see the beauty and value in simple work. It leads me to encounter people of every sort of diversity. It allows me to use my hands, move around, work quickly, and produce tangible results. I think I would be a very different person without my job as a barista. No one else in my family does this sort of work, and I like the way it makes me unique. I am often exhausted and sore after my shifts, and I often complain about the negative things that happened. Reflecting on the different people I’ve met, though, helps me to see the job in a bit of a more nostalgic perspective. I’ll miss it when I leave.
I have to say, service professionals don’t get paid nearly what their work is worth.