Last week, at the very end of my shift, I walked to buy a surprise bottle of whiskey for my coworker. It was his 21st birthday, and we proceeded to take shots of Old Overholt Rye out of paper espresso cups, the ones with the useless fold-out handles. It was a nice moment of camaraderie, but lately I am filled to the brim with the sense that I have begun a new a cycle.
I began these coffee and sandwich-making type of jobs when I was 20, working at a high-volume sandwich deli off of Harvard Square (Darwin’s Ltd). For me it was the first time I made any kind of espresso drinks, making my milk scream as I steamed it. Envisioning my 20-year old self, nervous to be working at such a popular & visible place, I shudder a bit. The employee roster was packed with a wide range of personalities: you got your Massholes, other East Coast stereotypes, calm folks from the midwest, but we were all united by some sort of alternative edge. Tatttos. Bicycles. Tofutti. Kombucha. Holy shit! Two years out of high school, and I was just nervous as hell, but happy to be making sandwiches, bagels, and bagging up pastries. It was an important exposure for me, because now I feel the marked difference between now and then. The fight-or-flight bag of hormones that are 21-year olds versus the more tempered self-knowledge that comes with surviving until 29 years old. Now I’m one of the old ones, the older sister, and I can’t help but hearing the voices of past managers ring through my head. At the time I resented them for being “on top of me” and pushing me to do tasks, all the while I was just feeling like an overstimulated introvert. Now, it’s a funny pill to swallow. Because the classic idea of “time to lean, time to clean” really instilled a solid work ethic. I can’t concentrate on much else at work. The most I ever do is the crossword. Many of my managers & chefs were women, too, and I can now appreciate their strength & grace in management, being assertive, efficient, and conscientious.
It’s a tough, stubborn road to “get out of customer service.” Because of the repetitive nature of barista work, it aggravates a shoulder injury from college. I’ve tried two social media jobs, and haven’t succeeded at the bloodthirsty persistence to engage online. Sitting in a chair for 6 hours like a robot is soul-draining, for someone who normally spends her time on her feet. Plus I have a fundamental distaste for the antisocial habits that have developed as a result of smartphones. There is some deep level of human communication that is lost. (I digress!) So here I am again, seeking some ideal professional situation that balances my skill set with my personal & creative interests. It’s a love-hate, push-pull, attraction-repulsion type of relationship. But I feel now that it is a natural stage in the process of spending years in an occupation, a city, a relationship: devoted to the passion and joy of the work, but aggravated & bored by the tedium.
When I moved back home after college, I spent a little time getting chiropractic treatment. It was a husband & wife doing integrative work, combining some Feldenkrais release work, massage, spinal work, as well as positive affirmations and nutritional advice. It was the first time I sought real treatment for my shoulder injury–a pinched nerve, which affects the circulation and muscular tension in my entire arm. Even then, I had the same desire–to move out of customer service, and to work as a creative professional in theatre, film, whichever. I had expressed my enjoyment and sometimes romantic, idealist motivations for working in foodservice, how giving a person their morning coffee participates in one of their daily rituals. And that’s a special relationship. One day, however, Dr. John spun it in a particularly positive light. As this “person behind the counter,” whether barista or bartender, you have a unique opportunity to affect change in a person directly. Whether it’s through truly listening, eye contact, sharing a laugh, or offering advice and insight into their work & personal lives. You can be a Gandhi, too.
I think that comment has allowed me to continue in customer service with a sense that I’m still doing good for the general public. Not everyone will appreciate my expedience, or the fact that I pour a fucking beautiful tulip in their morning latte. Yes, there are many who never acknowledge the “person behind the counter” by talking on their cellphones while they order, or keep their sunglasses on and don’t bother to look you in the eye. But there are so many more with whom you discuss food, art, culture, philosophy, and even your life–and they carry you through.