June 26, 2012

Working With What We Have

Reading a copy of Small Farms Journal, left behind the counter either on purpose or not, but for no reason I could discern, was revealing. It was an exhibition of anachronistic and anarchic views, spelled out with just enough colloquialism, and maybe not quite enough grammar.

I read about grape planting, how real farmers don't wear shorts and flip flops, what type of cow does best in a given climate, and a heart-string-tugging ode to a 30-year-old mule whose time had come, and who, at article's end, was shot in the head with a .45 caliber pistol.

Most pages had something that would have been too obvious parody, were it not to be taken seriously. "Be the Black Sheep", proclaimed a headline of an article discussing the merits of, yes, black sheep.

Still, there was something striking about the whole thing, an impression of an intense devotion, of business and art commingling. It wasn't just that a man had written an article about shooting his mule, Ruth, in the head, or even that he imagined her pulling a plow straight in Heaven's gardens. No, it was that he had thought to write this article at all, and that there is, apparently, an audience for such pieces.

This was and is quite foreign to me. Gun to my head, I'm not sure I could put a gun to anything else's head. Maybe take it to the vet first, before deciding "it was time"? But no, my feeling wasn't wholly, or even primarily, one of judgement. Foreign. That's what it was, said plainly but best.

Some part of me wanted to imagine a bridge, to pretend some camaraderie between myself and the authors of the pieces I read. We shared, while not the trade itself, the feeling that we were doing something most people simply don't "get", that they see as a landing spot for people who, sadly, can't manage to pull themselves above working as mere providers.

But my imagination couldn't span the gap between the realities, couldn't suspend my disbelief. It was a comparison I knew - or thought I knew - these farmers would hate. They wrote of leather hands and muddy boots, of working, literally, with bullshit. And I had just finished pouring two sets of latte art, for customers that had specifically requested it, tipped, and responded with an almost embarrassing amount of enthusiasm. No, mine is a profession for men who are wispy, not hardy, who deal in luxury beverages and toil in air conditioned places of recreation.

I arrived home, and dug out a copy of Barista Magazine from under my bed. I looked through the pages, trying to adopt the eye of someone else, someone not neck deep in coffee. I saw articles about different extraction ratios yielded by different Toddy techniques, discussions that hinged on tenths of grams and single degrees. There were blurbs about espresso machines, the brushes and soaps that might best clean them, and a thousand accessories to decorate them with. People talked about coffee like it mattered, really mattered, about how their time spent behind the bar defined them, and how others just couldn't get it. I tried to use that imagined distance, to see this as frivolous bullshit, a hobby job for hipsters who aren't ready to trade in their black tees for black ties. But mostly, I though about how no one got shot.

June 19, 2012

Free Water, or Why Kids are Evil

There is a children's book called If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, which deals, as best I recall, with the greed inherent in the human condition, and how, when given something, people will take more. It's as if Ayn Rand wrote a children's book, after having acquired an idea of prosaic brevity.

There is a mouse, and it wants a cookie. So you oblige, and now it wants milk. Well this is bullshit, you think, I just gave you a cookie, stop being a freeloading pinko and who the hell is John Galt?, but whatever, no, I'm pretty sure mice are lactose intolerant anyway. But this is not how the narrative plays out. Our overly-empathetic protagonist does give the mouse milk, and then more things, and more, until all property and ideas are shared equally and there is nothing, nothing by which a man can distinguish himself, either in terms of material or ideas, and indeed, the very idea of merit has been stricken down.

Anyway, there is this book, which may or may not be exactly about that. It's been a while since I've read it. But the message, mostly, is that mice are greedy little sociopaths, and kids, hold on to your damn cookies. Clearly, explicit though this life lesson is, I failed to internalize it.

Being close to an art museum, my shop is frequented by field-tripping students. Today was such a day, and a an army of yellow-clad grade schoolers stormed in, milled about, bought nothing, and then asked for water. Just one cup of water, for free. But it's hot out, I thought. There is no harm in this, and anyway, think of the children.

So I presented the cup, smiled, thanked, and went back to wiping off a portafilter or something. But the chum was in the water, blood spreading, and the predators frenzied. They swarmed the counter, crowding out two would-be customers, demanding, water, more water, then refills, then more ice, and samples too, all for free, this, that, no money, gimmegimmegimme.

If you give a kid a cup of water, all the rest will descend upon you like piranhas, tearing and ripping at your supplies and sanity until barely, at the end, grasping at the tatters and threads, they leave you to clean up.

June 18, 2012

Before Coffee

Awake, but only just. There is a ringing, a pungent noise, percussive. Light, strands and then a dim glow, a hint of sun. Cough syrup. Swimming in it, brain trying to clear a path through the muck towards consciousness. Ascending towards the summit, or maybe just floating to the surface. In any case, towards the light, and the noise.

Bearings grasped, limbs coordinated, ambling in to the wind. The ringing, the beeping, the audible gnat buzzing, buzzing, and then swatted. Silence again, drink it in and it washes across the mind, rinsing away the malaise, the agitation, but not the light. Light. There is still that, now closer, now a looming omnipresence, inviting and condemning.

Aching, creaking, lactic acid and adenosine, dripping fatigue. Nothing tears, and now there are pants, pulled from the memory of where they were last deposited. Decorum intact, stairs now. Lean in to them and grip, feet like crampons, the air weighing down and the atmosphere, all of it, shouldered. Atlas, Sisyphus, boulder up the hill only not, just the body, but heavy enough.

June 15, 2012

How to be Busy

This is not an agitation to more frequent wiping off of counters, or flushing of portafilters. I do find both of those things worth doing, and doing often, but this isn't about that. This is about those times when there is a line, maybe people glancing around, looking a bit agitated. They are looking at you, and their eyes are saying seriously, could you be any fucking slower?

Always. You could always be slower, and you know it, and think it. You imagine spitefully putting caffeinated shots in the decaf, or using whole milk in the skim latte. You spin in your chair, petting your grossly obese cat, with an air of pomp and villainy. Yes, you think, that will show them.

But it won't, really, and you know it. So you do the things you normally do, maybe smiling, maybe not, depending on your usual disposition. I do, usually, and quip a bit while sometimes, for no real reason, standing on one leg while making drinks. Probably, this is best left as my gimmick, because really, it's not a very good one. But anyway, you make the drinks, and they're good. You still take the time to tamp carefully, to level and brush and all that jazz. And you can still pour pretty milk designs in crema, as if it's what proto-humans evolved such useful hands for. You do these things, not just because there is comfort in routine, or you because you fetishize latte art, but because it's actually not that hard.

Busy, like shit, happens, and you see it happening all around. There are people, maybe messes, maybe something worse, or not. In any case, there are things, lots of things, everywhere. But you look down, and see the vortex swirling in your pitcher of milk. It occurs to you that really, the eye of the storm is the safest place to be.

June 11, 2012

Like Mike

Michael Jordan is a real person. We see him, now, seated on the bench of the Charlotte Bobcats. This is his team; he owns the very bench he sits on. So he sits there, his mortality on full display, obvious if only for his frequent sartorial missteps. He has managed repeated failures since his playing days ended, mangling one franchise, then crippling another before it could yet walk. 

This was not always the case. Michael Jordan was not always a real person, but a folk hero, a sort of King Arthur of the hardwood. We mythologized his mid-range jumpshot, defense, and leaping ability - the latter, especially so. Despite measurements proving otherwise, despite the absolute impossibility of it, we insisted that he possessed some unquantifiable "hang time", that he could float, fly, and otherwise thwart the basic tenants of the Universe. Michael Jordan was not God, if only because God wouldn't disregard physics merely to win a game. But Jordan would do that, and anything else. 

And so we loved him for it, my generation most of all. We were raised in a world already discovered, with every mountain climbed, every ocean crossed. There was nothing left to see, do, or find. We had only to turn on the television, and there was everything, in that box, in our living room. But there was Jordan, something beyond that, like Batman with a basketball, a hero who always won in the end. The games existed as his stage, and he devoured the scenery. His eccentricities, quirks, and expressions were catalogued, and then marketed to a hungry public. 

We bought it - all of it. If we were too young, we asked our parents for money. We sought on old video games, if only so we could play as his virtual avatar, wore his jersey, and collected his cards. Above my bed was a poster. On it, he soared over the Earth - literally, in space, dwarfing the planet itself. Somehow this did not seem hyperbolic. If he had leapt in to space, to dunk a basketball through a cosmic hoop composed a million solar systems, I would have considered it yet another one of his impressive feats - impossible, and thus within his grasp. Maybe God created the universe, but he couldn't dunk on it. Michael Jordan could.

Of course, I'm older now. I don't have posters of athletes in my room, since a lack of idols means a lack of shrines. But I am still watching Michael Jordan, his image displayed before each NBA playoff game. Here he is, switching hands mid-air, tongue out, slicing through the Lakers' defense. And here he is, shrugging, talented beyond even his own comprehension. Once the game starts, I see Kevin Durant hitting the same mid-range jumpers, icing a San Antonio dynasty. And here is LeBron James, his eyes hardened to a killer's stare, suffocating the last breaths of an aging Celtics squad, their desperate flailing no match for his sheer physical dominance. I see them, and I see Jordan. I, and so many others of roughly my age, always will. This is not fair, but it is how things are. We have, in our minds, a template for success, and all that anyone can do is fit comfortably within that. Anything else is called failure. 

And make no mistake, the Jordan myth is built on failure. It rests on his fear of it, and the absolute need to overcome it. The zero-sum nature of sport thus dictated that, should he avoid failure, his opponents would drown in it.

I though about al of this today, while holding a washcloth, wiping the coffee stains that had accumulated under my pots. I took out the trash, then the coffee grounds, which our composters hadn't picked up. I made drinks, did inventory, orders, and talked to every customer within range of my voice. I did all of this, enjoying it, and cognizant of the numbers. I thought about how much money we were making, every hour, every day, and how that compared with our nearest competition, and even our past sales. I discussed ways to improve our income, decrease costs, and to counter whatever it was the other guys were doing. 

Never mind that we are doing well enough, better than in years past, and better than that other shop. Never mind that, because they still exist, they still function, and they still have the audacity to host an in-house barista competition. I've joked that they should invite me, and that I'd win if they did. Only I'm not joking, even a little. Never mind that I've spoken with the shop's staff, and its manager. They're all really nice, polite people. We've both borrowed supplies from each other, and ultimately, want nothing more than to make good coffee while talking to people. 

Only I do want more than that: I want to win. I want to find success, as highlighted by a lack of failure. And for that to happen, someone else has to provide the contrast. I want to win, because it's not everything, but the only thing, the reason why they keep score, and why they play the game. Why make sales if not to out-sell the guy down the street? Why make money if not to make more money than them? I want to win, because I want to be like Mike. 

June 7, 2012

Tip Drill

At the best of times, money feels somewhat beside the point. The craft of making drinks is satisfying, and so is the conversation. The hands of the clock spin like a Kenyan on the track, and before you know it, the shift is over.

But of course, love neither pays the bills nor buys new shoes. And perhaps since my Saucony's now have two holes in the upper, not to mention an imprint of my foot pressed in to the midsole, I'm inclined to think about cash just a bit more than usual.

But this isn't about my shoes, or running in general. It's not about my business, or the business either. This is about that great supplement to barista incomes, that glorious boost to our (less-than-gaudy) hourly earnings. I'm talking, of course, about tips. More specifically even than that, I'm talking about regular tips, from regular tippers. That dollar that you can count on, those collective coins that buy your potatoes and peanut butter.

Tips are, without any real hyperbole, the reason we can choose to work in coffee and make it work. So the tips are appreciated, as are the tippers. (This isn't to say that those who don't tip are uniformly hated. If you're nice to me, I like you. If you compliment my drink, I like you more. I'm really not that hard to win over.)

But, lovely as the tips are, there is a very specific feeling of awkwardness that comes with them. The tips, mostly, come from usual tippers. These are people I see most days, and who I generally like. I speak with most of them, and at this point, I know them better than some people I'd call friends. In this era of social media, these are real people I really know. Sappy as it may sound, there are very real rewards to that genuine interaction. I'd value it without the cash.

Still, there is the cash. To be clear, I am very glad for it, and very grateful that those who give it choose to do so. I don't have a ritzy clientele, so their dollars mean that much more. All of this is to say, I really do appreciate it.


But, well, it's difficult to elucidate. It's a funny thing, complaining about getting free money, and so I'm trying not to do that. Neither do I want to sound ungrateful. So I'm trying to find a way to say this while avoiding those traps.


But, well, it's just weird. It's not bad, and I don't want it to stop. But it's weird. It just is. These are people who I like. I like seeing them, talking to them, and making their coffee. I like that, because of their business, I get to have a job I look forward to. And I like, circuitously, that they are a big reason I like it so much.


But, well, I kind of feel a bit like a whore. I mean, I think I really like them. I think I'm being nice, and that I really appreciate them, this, and everything. But there's money. And I do need that, and hell, I do like it. I can't say it's not a factor, and that, ultimately, our interactions are transactions, ultimately about an exchange of goods for currency.


But, well, I want it to be more than that. I need it to be more than that. And, perhaps for those reasons, I truly believe that it is about more than that. Their dollar is their vote, their polite and tangible way of saying that they want me around. Maybe. Hopefully. Hopefully, because I plan on staying.


But? But, well, I don't know exactly how I'm supposed to feel about this. But I do know that, as problems go, people giving you money isn't a bad one.

June 2, 2012

Coffee Is Not Wine

If you work in coffee, you've had this conversation. Hell, if you really like coffee, you've probably had this conversation. Someone says something about coffee being one-note, and you offer the suggestion that they think of it like wine, a varied product that produces different flavors based on a myriad of different things. You tell them that the origin matters, as does the weather, and that there is a great deal that can be done to a bean in terms of processing and roasting, even after it's grown.

Maybe they smile, maybe they grumble. Chances are, this doesn't communicate much, despite providing a concrete example. Chances are, they think your grasping. Grasping for prestige, reaching for that top shelf that wine, as a beverage and industry, rests on. They hear you, and they also hear a fundamental insecurity. Right, they think. Coffee is just like wine. Just keep telling yourself that, while drizzling caramel sauce on my latte.

And they're right, somewhat. I've used the coffee/wine comparison, both because it sort of makes sense, and yes, also because it does confer a certain connotation of class. It suggests that our humble beverage is worth thinking about, worth working on and caring about. And most of all, it says that those of us who do that work aren't spinning our wheels, aren't making a life of purely imagined significance.

Take coffee seriously, we say. Take me seriously.

So if this is a problem (and maybe it's not), what is the solution? Do we use beer instead? It is, after all, similarly affected by many of those same factors. And, unlike wine, it has a certain working class, utilitarian connotation. A workin' man needs his coffee and beer. Wine? Grape juice is for kids, thanks. And beer, of course, is also being pulled from the depths of mere utilitarian consumption. There are craft brewers, as there are roasters, making a product that tastes good and unique.

But of course, we don't really want to use beer as a comparison. We want the prestige, and so we grasp at it, while customers shake their heads at our desperate reaching.

The answer, then, is to take neither path. We should instead opt for the more direct route, saying unabashedly that coffee can "taste like coffee" without also tasting uniformly like over-roasted cardboard. The answer is to make great coffee, and tell people that that's precisely what it is.