January 19, 2011

Life Goes On

I suppose I looked the part of a barista then, clad in a gray sweater and jeans. The steely, wool top was thick and warm; its bulk highlighting my lithe frame -- the sort of build one seems to expect of those who tend coffee bars. I had stubble too, a haphazard collection of stringy black hairs dotting my face, climbing from hollow cheeks to sunken eyes. Thus I sat at the bar, hunched over my phone, looking very much like the sort of person I am -- which I suppose is entirely appropriate.

The man on the other side of the counter ground the espresso that was to form the base of my latte, and I watched. He moved with the practice and assurance of years, but not the malaise. There was no apathy in his flick of errant grounds, nor in the press that followed. He set the now-loaded portafilter down, avoiding that unforgivable sin of locking it in to the head too early in the process; the espresso would not be put to the torch.

He filled the pitcher with milk then, approximately a third of the way. Only then was the portafilter locked in to place, and the water set to extracting the shots. I was due two shots, despite having paid for one; perhaps the tip earned the extra espresso. I could not angle myself to see the milk as he steamed it, but his eyes never left what must have been a compelling vortex. The steady hiss -- only interrupted by those perfect little ticks and spits -- told me that the milk was textured right. And although there was no thermometer in the milk, I had little doubt that his hand, resting on the pitcher's side, would serve the purpose every bit as well.

I looked away, focused for a moment on the snow that had begun to fall more steadily, and in greater quantities. I observed the people walking outside, retreating in to their clothes and away from the cold.

And then there was the grinder again, whirring and clicking. The barista was adjusting the setting on the machine, making it infinitesimally more coarse.

"Too fine?" I asked, already knowing the answer. 

He looked up, eyes wide, evidence to a feeling of surprise that someone had noticed his activity, and what's more, correctly diagnosed it. "Yeah," he said, and was back to work. I appreciated his haste; the portafilter was wiped clean, the espresso in it tamped, and the whole apparatus in place, yielding its liquid extract in moments.

These shots pulled to his satisfaction, and he assembled the drink. It was presented to me in a saucer, on a platter, and with a spoon. The presentation spoke to a degree of care, but not so much as he had demonstrated. "Thanks," I said.

"Yeah," he responded. "How is it?"

"Good," I said.

"Good," he replied.

I crossed my legs and turned, facing the windows, watching what had become something of a flurry. The latte was good, of course, perfectly consistent in both flavor in texture, retaining both the sweetness of the crema and the steamed milk. It was rich and delicious, but satisfying for reasons beyond that. It probably would have been good with the first two shots the barista had pulled; but it was better with the second set. That he had taken the time -- less than a minute though it was -- to get the drink perfect, rather than simply right, made the whole experience a confirmation of why I go to cafes, and why I love them so.

The preceding was written about Signs of Life, a cafe and bookstore located in Lawrence, KS. The barista was named Chris. I hope neither mind the mention.

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