Against all odds, I became a barista.
Well, actually I don’t think there were any odds against me, but the sentiment of the sentence feels true. Against all personal, internal, self-made odds, I am a barista, and I really don’t know why. It was the right thing at the right time, I suppose, a needed change of pace from nannying. But, I’m not sure it becomes me. Maybe. Or maybe I just don’t become it.
While I was at the coffee shop yesterday, when I wasn’t sweeping or refilling half & half or brewing or pouring, I wrote a list of things I thought and felt about being there. Because I wanted to stay active and thoughtful, to not just get lost in the swoosh of the coffee maker or the puffs of steam being expressed from the steam wands, my brain turning to wet coffee grounds, empty of all but “iced skim mocha” and whatever music is playing next in the shop. It’s easy to get lost, and it’s easy to get exhausted quickly, to look around the shop and wonder, why am I here and how did I end up on this side of this counter? To feel more kinship with the coffee-drinkers than the coffee makers.
Against all odds.
I’m working at the coffee shop because I need money, the unfortunate tether of life in the world. Out of my three jobs, coffee is the only one that pays me money and the one that I feel least connected to. Three jobs, very little money. So believe me when I say that there is a certain strain in my life right now, an un-useful exhaustion and a shimmer of resentment, things that I don’t like to be host to.
One of the most-clear things about this job to me is that it feels so frustratingly, quintessentially twenty-three. Like, this is the sort of job that so many twenty-three-year-olds in the city have when they’re just starting out, just learning what they want in the world, getting the hang of life. Well, I don’t want to be just starting out. I don’t want to not have a hang of anything yet. I want to be comfortable. I want to be certain. And, most of all, I want to be spending my days in a job that doesn’t feel like a waste of my energy. I know a lot of people do it, I know that almost nobody who is twenty-three has a just-right job in their field, I know that almost everyone is uncomfortable and has to work in a coffee shop or something like it at some point in their post-grad life. I think I was just hoping I’d magically be the exception. That some sort of magic book deal would fall from the sky, that children’s theaters near and far would be magically hiring entry-level education people, that some sort of chill contemporary dance ensemble would be looking for someone just like me, prone to dancing non-commitally alone in the living room! But, alas, no job magic has occurred yet. And coffee is my money job right now, in all its quintessential glory. It’s not bad, it’s just not what I expected. I’m living the city barista life, and making it work. I don’t know how long I’ll be there. I don’t know if I’m even good at it. But I’m doing it. It’s a part of these days. So it’s important.
One of my tasks as barista, especially when I’m the only barista on duty, is to choose the music for the shop. This is somewhat anxiety-inducing for me. In most of my life, I’ve avoided situations where I had to be the “dj” probably because I’ve never been extremely confident that my music preferences translate to anyone outside of myself. Some people walk through life wearing their taste in music like a girl scout badge, confident with the radio, whipping up perfect playlists like it’s nothing, quick to ask, “What sort of music do you listen to?” when meeting someone new. When someone asks me that question, I literally never know what to say. I’m sitting here right now, here, I’m pausing, I’m thinking.
What sort of music do I listen to?
I have no idea.
Literally, like that’s the best I can come up with. I sort of want to shout at people in those moments, “I LISTEN TO A LOT OF MUSIC THAT I LIKE VERY, VERY MUCH BUT I CAN’T REMEMBER WHAT ANY OF IT IS AT THE MOMENT AND I’M BEGINNING TO GET ANXIOUS AND PLEASE KNOW THAT I AM A REAL HUMAN, THANK YOU, GOODNIGHT.”
So, based on this personal account, I’m sure you are beginning to understand why it stresses me out that I am tasked with choosing music for the entire coffeeshop to listen to. And it doesn’t help that I can’t use my preexisting Spotify playlists. Oh no, the coffeeshop uses Sonos. What the heck is Sonos?
At this point, at least once a shift I play either the You’ve Got Mail soundtrack or the Sleepless in Seattle soundtrack. I always play Carole King’s album Tapestry and I often also through Writer for the heck of it. I do some Andrew Bird sometimes, I do some Sufjan sometimes, I do some Ben Howard sometimes. I like to do some Simon and Garfunkle, but playing them always makes me feel like everyone hates me for some reason. When I start to feel like I’m acting like too much of a music-weirdo, or when everyone in the coffee shop slowly puts their earbuds in so as to avoid my music offerings, I play some Sylvan Esso to get the cool kids back on my side. It’s complicated, and I am aware that I am putting entirely too much thought into it.
Like most things in life.
Also, I am quickly realizing that I don’t like the word “barista.” I can’t even tell you why, I just feel that it is an unattractive word and I wish there were an appropriate alternative like “coffee artisan” or something silly like that.
No, I hate that too.
One of the things I like best about the job is the part where I actually make the coffee. Not batch-brewed coffee or cold brew, the ones that require little more from me than pouring liquid into a cup. No, I like all the of the drinks that require espresso. I enjoy the process, the ordering of tasks, the way that I get to make something with my hands. And I really like that there is room for finesse, that there actually is a difference between a perfect shot of espresso and an almost-perfect shot of espresso, that I’m encouraged to make designs with the milk, that when I hand it across the bar to the person that ordered it, they are often delighted by the heart or flower I’ve drawn for them, made of nothing more than milk and motion, soon to be washed away by a stir-stick or a sip.
But not everyone gets espresso drinks. No, most people get cold brew. Boring old cold brew, just liquid poured over ice. The times I feel most silly and useless at my job are the times when I pour liquid into a cup over and over and over again and get paid for it.
I like my co-workers, but they all seem cooler and chiller and different than me. I feel a little tiny next to them, and I’m not sure why. No kindred spirits yet, but nice people also just trying to make it in the city. Co-workers are a funny relationship. You have to figure out how to be partners for 7 hours, but you don’t have to be friends. You can talk or not talk, there’s an economy of asking for favors or help, sharing tasks, trying to stay jovial even when your interior world is stormy and sad. I’m pretty intimidated by them, overall, and sort of most of all intimidated by the fact that they all seem pretty chill with the coffee shop life. All very content.
I wish I could be content.
I spend most of my time watching other people work. A lot of people come and get coffee to-go, sure, but a lot of people also come to our shop for work meetings or to get things done. Laptops, ceramic mugs for here, a cookie to munch on, “what’s the wifi password?” And I watch them sometimes, absentmindedly. They don’t often watch me unless I’m making them something they’re about to ingest. I stand behind the counter in my corner of purgatory watching other people do their real jobs, work on their real work, move their life forward while my life and ambition is cryogenically frozen for the afternoon. Sure, with coffee I don’t have to take my work home with me or hem and haw over it, a thing that a lot of people really struggle with, but I think I’m struggling too, with work that feels disconnected from my self and my heart. A pouring job is not what I’ve had in mind for my 23 years of dreaming and scheming. It shouldn’t have been what I had in mind. I don’t have to be content with this job, I don’t have to be thrilled that this is the only thing that’s paying me money right now, but I might be a whole lot happier if I were.
Maybe it’s that when I’m a barista, I’m alone in public, a feeling I sometimes like, but not at my job. No, at my job I want to be a part of something, I want to do a thing that counts, make some ripples of change. But as a barista, I’m the same as the espresso machine, standing sentinel, providing a service. It’s a chance to practice solitude, I suppose, to be unknowable, untouchable, a hand handing over a hot mug, inconsequential, forgettable. But it’s weird to me that I’m the person with the answers, the thing to get through to get the coffee, the face of the shop. I’m not that emotionally invested! Choose someone who is more on board with the barista lifestyle, not me! I don’t even know how I got here or whether the coffee I make actually tastes good, I just do what I’m told! I’m just trying to make it here!
Is this how all baristas feel?
When I’m at the coffeeshop, I have to have hundreds of tiny conversations, asking what size, saying good morning, being asked how I am. I never know what to say when people ask how I am. “I don’t know, my inner-self is sort of turned off right now, I’m just pouring coffee and trying to not become too worn out by it.” I can’t say that, but that’s what I want to say. When people order their drinks, I say a lot of weird things, things I don’t say in real life, like, “Sure thing,” or “You betcha,” or “Have a good one” or “Absolutely!!!!”, and I probably have a sort of terrifying manic look in my eyes. Having conversations with strangers is an emotionally taxing thing for me, so working at a coffee shop means that for that day I waste almost all of my energy on those strangers, on those idiotic phrases, leaving me sort of wrung out when I get home to Isaiah afterward, a little loaf of me lying on the couch with glassy eyes and coffee splattered all over my jeans.
I have these clogs that I wear to the coffeeshop, not my favorite clogs but other thrift store clogs, and they just keep getting progressively more disgusting with every shift. Coffee all over, splotching the leather, getting ground into the soles, every square inch. I can’t even wear my normal shoes there because they’ll get ruined. I can’t wear my normal shoes, I can’t be my normal self.
I need a job where I can be my normal self.
And making espresso drinks is sort of performative. I realized that today. Most people stand and watch me as I make their drink. They watch me closely, even, probably out of simple curiosity, but disconcerting nonetheless. It’s strange that this sets me off balance because I am a person who performs, I am a theater person, but there is a big difference between performing on a stage and pouring liquid. There is a big difference between meaning to perform and just trying to get through a long, exhausting coffee shift so I can go home and write. Sometimes I try to give it a little flair or make a pleasant face while I make the coffee (I’m told I have a very sad/scared-looking resting face), but most of the time trying to adorn the performance makes me mess up the coffee, which no one wants.
This blog post has turned out to be pretty negative, which I’m sort of sorry about, but feelings led the way to here. There are lovely things about my coffeeshop job as well. I’m making friends with the bakers at the shop who are really lovely people who do good work and make really good pastries with their hands, I get to drink free coffee, I have a solid job that pays me money. I don’t have much space to complain, but I’m doing it anyway. Because I write here to sort out my heart and life, and my coffee life needed some sorting out. I haven’t written anything in the past few weeks because I’ve been pouring a lot of coffee and wasting my energy on trying to come up with what to say when people ask me how I am. But now I’m here and I’m writing. That’s a good thing.
Greetings from purgatory, if I try to be cute while I pour this hot liquid I’ll mess it up, I’m sorry about how sad my eyes look, please don’t ask how I am.
I’m fine. Here’s your coffee.