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Robert Altman Week

Tuesday
Aug172010

« In Which All Your Clothes Smell Like Coffee »

How Big is the Big? How Small is the Small?

by EMMA BARRIE

I’m 23, but at times I feel like I’m 11 and back at sleep-away camp. I wish I could say these times are few and far between (I hated sleep-away camp), but they’re not. On a morning shift, they occur every few minutes: every time a bagel pops out of the toaster.

My urge is of course to say “Not it!” or “Nose goes!” and quickly touch my finger to the tip of my nose. But it’s an unspoken rule that whoever is standing next to the toaster as that fateful noise sounds has to cream cheese that bagel. I put on a disposable glove and pull the bagel halves from the toaster. The bagel is so hot that the gloves melt to my fingers.

But here is the first coffee shop secret I will let you in on. If the bagel pops up and you’re by the toaster, press the button again to toast it twice and then slyly walk away to begin another task. Someone else will have to get it soon. “They wanted it toasted dark,” you could say aloud, or even to yourself if that helps. This is called cheating. It feels good.

My increasingly high tolerance for pain has become a perk of this coffee shop job. I’ll accidentally grab a metal steam wand. I’ll spill a pitcher of boiling water on my leg. Coffee splashes out of the cups and onto my hands as I take them to the customer. We never scream. We grit our teeth and raise our eyebrows. We mouth “Fuck,” but only if we are behind the espresso machine and out of sight. We don’t drop what we are holding, even if it is what’s burning us. What I’m trying to say is, I think this will make childbirth bearable.

A good number of my friends have those “real jobs” everyone refers to with air-quotes. And while I understand that a “real job” means a job in which one can move up, or a job in which one is doing something that he or she has some interest in long-term pursuing, it still seems unfair, as if I wake up in the morning to serve invisible coffee to stuffed animals. Though at times my job seems unreal, or surreal, I’m pretty sure it is taking place in reality.

Most mornings, I’m awake at 4:30. It’s pitch dark outside, and I immediately think of a few excuses I didn’t show up for work for when they inevitably call me in a few hours. Food poisoning, 109 fever, my grandfather died and I just got the phone call this morning (both of my grandfathers are already dead so this is not a jinx), my kitten got eaten by squirrel, I set my hair on fire with the blow-dryer, I just woke up in Central Park with no shoes on and I don’t know how I got here. Then I pull myself out of bed, try to remember to brush my teeth, and walk to the subway.

On the streets, and in the subway station, there are only a few other people around. As I see it, there is an unspoken code. Some kind of mutual 5 a.m. understanding: we are invisible. There is no eye contact, no acknowledgment of one other. Some of the subway riders are still out from the night before, and some are heading off to work (mostly fast food and construction jobs, some nurses). You can tell the difference by their fresh-from-the-shower wet hair versus just-partied sweaty hair, and sad eyes longing to get back into bed versus expectant eyes longing to get into bed.

I open the shop alone with keys I was given after working there two weeks. “Are you sure? Are you sure is this OK? What if I screw up?” I think I asked the manager, fearful of a soon-to-be-discovered latent urge I might have to flee to Atlantic City with all the money in the register.

I put on music I like, because I know no one is there to make fun of the fact that I have the new Taylor Swift single on my iPod. I organize bagel by type and grind coffee by the pound. At 6:30, someone else comes in to work with me. We decide who wants to be on bar, and who wants to be on register.

Days to be on bar: You’re hungover, you’re nauseous, your boyfriend broke up with you via text message and tear remnants are still visible on your face, you haven’t slept in three days, you accidentally slept with one of the customers last night and would prefer to not make eye contact, you’re pretty sure if someone orders a big-sized macchiato (oxymoron!) from you, you’re going to snap.

Days to be on register: You’re feeling social, you want to chat people up, you’re hopeful that a celebrity might come in and you can make a killer joke which would of course lead to a job as their personal assistant, it’s 100 degrees outside and you don’t want to be excessively steaming milk with your hand on the burning metal pitcher, you’ve already had too much coffee and the idea of not talking makes your face feel like it’s melting and your brain feel like it’s going to explode.

I often prefer to be on register, but being on bar can be enjoyable, too. Latte art is a skill I’ve come to take a lot of pride in. It’s kind of like arts and crafts! I can make leaves on top of your lattes, and hearts atop your cappuccinos. But more importantly, I can talk to you about it. People (read: my family) find this endlessly impressive. I have spent many a dinner party waving around my glass of wine saying things like, “For cappuccinos you have to stretch the milk, but for lattes you really want to keep that steam wand in place.” Everyone (read: my grandmother) looks at me like I just told them I can shoot fire from my eyeballs.

For me, being on bar is fairly tedious because of my height, or lack thereof. I’m virtually invisible. And over the loud grinding of espresso beans, I can’t pipe in and make a joke. I can’t even snoop on other peoples’ conversations. So at most 6:30 in the mornings, I request the position on register. I’m just being honest here: it’s because I want to talk to you.

For the most part, you’re a regular. I know your drink by heart depending on the season, and I probably know your first name. I have a vague idea of what you do for a living, or I know exactly what you do for a living and I’ve already Googled you. I know which customer is your husband or your wife even if you’ve never come in together, because you both carry the same baby or you get drinks for one another.

“I’ll have mine, and also a Big With Whole Milk and Nine Sugars,” you might say. Nine sugars? Wait a second, you must be Jim’s wife.

Because you and I only have a few moments with each other every day, our knowledge of each other’s lives grows slowly over the course of time. Today you find out what my parents do for a living, tomorrow I learn that you used to bartend because you teach me to always make sure to hand out one-dollar bills, the next day I find out that you got an advance on your novel, or that when you were in the Korean War you had to pee on your weapons to keep them from freezing. It’s the longest and most mysterious first date. And then one day I learn that it’s your birthday. Coffee’s on me.

You all come in and you take your same seats and your toddlers squeal in delight when they see each other. You order for your spouses and trade crossword puzzles for book reviews. If there’s no line, you stand at the counter and stir your drink for five minutes so that we can chat. Yes, I’m always free Friday nights to watch your really cute kids and your HBO. Sure, I will absolutely take that unwanted stack of books from you, and tonight us baristas will read aloud to each other from The Infidelity Pact.

Of course every job has those days where the rhythm is missing. I’ve been up since 4:30. I haven’t eaten. I’ve taste-tested too much coffee and it’s giving me a weird kind of buzz where my body feels jittery but my brain feels dead. Someone sent back her cappuccino because it wasn’t foamy enough. Someone took the wrong drink, causing everyone behind him to take the wrong drink, causing us to remake every drink. My co-worker broke up with his girlfriend the night before and has to go into the bathroom periodically to collect himself. A woman in a pants suit threw crumpled up money at me while she was on her cell phone.

But I can tolerate those days, because the days with rhythm are like a natural high. I made a great playlist the night before. I’m working on the floor with my best friends. We gossip about customers while we steam milk. (When we don’t know names, customers’ drinks become their names. “Small Skim Latte Extra Shot was on Law & Order last night,” or “Honey Soy Macchiato’s cute boyfriend broke his collarbone scuba diving.”) We scoop ice to the beat of the music. All our favorite customers come in. I have a thirty second exchange with each one because the line is out the door, but each exchange tests my wit and memory. Our boss comes in and pats everyone on the back, yells, “The A-Team!” That 80’s power pop song he loves comes on and he starts singing all the wrong words. Customers look on, pleased, at what probably makes them feel like they’re back in the small town they’re from, or always dreamed of moving to.

In the beginning it was a job, but now it’s a lifestyle. And not one I’m ashamed of just because it’s not “real,” just because I don’t have dreams of cream cheese-ing bagels well into my thirties. When people ask me what I do, I don’t need to say it in that self-deprecating way I used to (though sometimes I mistakenly revert to my old ways). After college, I needed proof that there was comfort somewhere in New York City. Proof that it wasn’t just a place where people walked fast and told each other to fuck off.

We’re putting on a production, a high school play. We are a cast and a crew, isolating ourselves with shoptalk, bonding over complaints. We’ll stay late mopping up and making jokes. Dishing dirt, being irritated and speaking in tongues you can’t understand. Did we get a new portafilter? Is your grind the same as her grind? Well, how hard is your tamp? We roll our eyes at a decaf espresso order. We hate when you ask for your drink “with no sugar,” because we don’t always hear the “no.” We mechanically repeat phrases: Sorry we don’t have one (a bathroom), Sorry we don’t take take them (credit cards), All our shots are pulled double so do you want two double shots? We beg for shift coverage when we’re at the ends of our ropes. And then we come in on our days off because it feels the same as stopping off at home.

The other day, my boss asked me if I could drive around and do some coffee deliveries with him. We were in his Jeep, and I was asking him if he could sing me any of the songs he wrote from when he was 17 and wore a leather vest in a rock band. He was belting out a love ballad when the phone rang, and I caught the tail end of his conversation.

"How’s your wife?...And the kids? Good, good. No, no kids for me. How come? What do you mean how come!? I’ve already got thirty of them to take care of!" He looked at me and winked. I belong to a community now, in a place where I wasn’t sure community existed.

Oh, and thank you for my ever-growing collection of umbrellas. Thanks for never coming back for those.

Also, we all hate Splenda, and you should know it’s bad for you.

Emma Barrie is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here. Her last entry in these pages was The Keyboard Company.

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"Good Morning, Good Morning" - The Beatles (mp3)

"Rise & Shine" - The Little Ones (mp3)

"Good Morning" - Gene Kelly (mp3)

Reader Comments (15)

Aw man, the memories come flooding back! I did this for a few years after graduating college, I must have trashed 1.5 pairs of shoes....and now I'm going back to college. Will I be cream cheesing bagels way into my thirties? Probably, but I'll do it in a gallery in Finland and I will call it art.

August 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGabs

Emma,

I think it's really unfair of you to be so charming in your writing and yet not supply any contact info that I can use to internet-flirt with you.

August 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEric

Loved this.

(Eric: click-thru to her Tumblr...)

August 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKevin

I had a job like this once. All I want is it back. xxoo

August 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSam

Boy Emma,

how did you get into my brain ?
I've done this for the last 3 and a half years of living in ny. Now I'm back to my old european country, and though I can't bless our universal welfare system enough, I still miss making coffee or crying behind the espresso machine because my last boyfriend/customer just came in with an other girl. I sometimes even miss the coffee stains under my nails that never ever goes away or the unecessary drama with my coworkers. Nobody here knows what a barista is, the nearby starbucks opens at 9am. Though I felt like a slave, what makes that the best time I ever had in ny was spent behind a coffee counter ?

Thank you so much,

charlotte

August 17, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterzsazarouge

That was terrific. Hit close to home and I don't even drink coffee.

August 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStephen

a great post

August 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMolly

Brilliant. I've been a barista for a year after my job in music supply wholesale dried up, due to the economy. Everything you've said really hit home and brightened my day. No, I'm no longer in the 9-5, florescent light, gray modular paneled wall community of those with "real jobs", and yes, the pay sucks, but I have more fun on any given day with my coworkers and new customers face-to-face than I EVER had on the phone with them a thousand miles away.

Thanks, Emma. You made an old man of 36 feel a bit better about himself today.

By the way, people, for GOD'S sake - TIP YOU BARISTAS! We work harder and know you better than most any bartender you'll ever know, and our product takes more finesse.

August 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaul D Keiser

awwwww these comments are so cuuute. but tell that eric guy to back off because there's only one bitch on here that gets to brush the espresso powder out of your armhairs and it's ME.

anyway, i would've read this to the last line even if you were just a creepy stranger who nailed every detail of my work environment. even if you took 7 splenda in yr big.

August 17, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterclass

ps. Larry might actually just be a giant stuffed animal to which we serve invisible coffee. talk amongst yourselves.

August 17, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterclass

This makes me miss the staff of the coffee shop near the awful job that I quit. I'm sad they wound up as collateral damage.

August 18, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterhaylr

"weird kind of buzz where my body feels jittery but my brain feels dead "

yes! this was wonderful to read.

August 18, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermurache

What an excellent piece by Emma Barrie! It really resonated with me, and I'm sure with everyone, great writing!

August 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFredde

"weird kind of buzz where my body feels jittery but my brain feels dead "

January 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercheap laptop battery

this is perfect. it's like you're in my head, emma barrie!

(also, i recently quit that barista job, moved to a different, coffeeshop-barren city, and after being unemployed for many months, took an awfully boring 9-5 job and can i just say, i miss that cafe work so much. daily, i rue ever having to leave that job, especially in comparison to my current situation. oh boy.)

March 18, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlouise

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