Enter the Dragon by Jenny Sheppard

Any barista worth their salt has a sixth sense for customers, developed over time. We can tell when you’re moody, difficult, a plain old bitch, or totally awesome, and adjust our service accordingly. If your friendly neighborhood coffee pusher gives you a free up-size or an extra shot of espresso, you can bet you’ve done something to make them like you.

Within any small group of service workers, there are customer legends. Imagine a group of baristas gathered around the soft glow of tills and debit machines sharing horror stories of some of the worst customers they’ve ever encountered. I aim to share one of these tales with you today.

The first indication of his presence is the sound of plastic wheels screeching across the tiled floor. He drags a purple hard-shell suitcase with him everywhere he goes, presumably filled with the heads of his vanquished enemies. His approach triggers a drop in a well-trained barista’s stomach, opening a pit of dread. Resigned to their fate, the barista swallows hard and greets the man with visibly clenched teeth.

He reaches the counter and sneers. “I want a large Earl Grey tea with a short scoop of ice,” he begins, and for a moment the interaction feels almost normal. Once you turn away to prepare his order, however, he begins micromanaging from the other side of the counter. If you attempt to put ice in the cup first, he will scream wildly. If you don’t rinse the cup before filling it, he will begin to flail. And if you leave even a quarter inch of room between the rim of the cup and the boiling liquid, he will begin to sound much like a tea kettle left forgotten on a burner, his rage filling his tiny body and giving voice to the hell beast residing within him.

“NO! NO, I WANTED ONE TEA BAG, NOT TWO! AND YOU NEED TO RINSE THE CUP BEFORE PREPARING MY DRINK, THAT’S THE STANDARD! I DON’T NEED ANY ROOM IN THE CUP, SO FILL IT ALL THE WAY! I’M A FORMER PARTNER AND I SHOULD GET MY DRINK FOR FREE SINCE YOU SCREWED IT UP!”

The line grows as people come in off the street to watch the drama unfold. This customer will not be appeased, as evidently the barista has committed some terrible crime against tea-consuming humanity and must be held accountable in this man’s personal court of law. Over and over again he squeals about the injustice of it all – how difficult can it be to make his tea perfectly from start to finish? After all, it’s not just about pouring hot water over a prepackaged bag of leaves, it’s about perfection and the art of presentation!

Dissatisfied with his ability to reduce a seasoned barista to frustrated tears of rage, he trolls other locations of the same coffee chain to spread his vitriol into every possible corner, always reminding the unfortunate soul who encounters him that he’s a former coffee jockey. Somehow, having worked in a coffee shop turned him into the worst customer of all time.

Having recently been transferred to another location of the same chain, I looked forward to potentially experiencing his rage myself. After one too many hissy fits at my former shop, he’d been successfully banned and we had never before crossed paths. Two weeks ago, the glorious moment arrived. The line was too long for me to hear the wheels screaming under the weight of that mysterious suitcase, but I recognized his face immediately. It was a face of smug righteousness, as if he knew how everything would go down before he even got close to the counter. I waited at my till, anxious to see how angry he would get today and knowing my new coworkers had no idea what to expect.

As usual, he didn’t disappoint.

His shrill voice bounced off the high ceilings and was amplified tenfold as he berated my coworker. Too much ice, not enough ice, one too many tea bags, his usual complaints. As he approached me, not recognizing me as a human being beyond the color of my apron, he barked that he should get his drink for free since we “COULDN’T GET IT RIGHT! I ONLY ASKED FOR ONE TEA BAG! AND NO ROOM!“.

I wanted to jump down his throat and defend my fallen brethren. I struggled to keep my eyes from violently rolling back far enough in my head to expose the whites. I fought with the desire to grab him by the lapels and scream, “You can’t have tea ever again, punk!” while pouring his precious beverage all over the floor and laughing maniacally in his shocked face. Unfortunately, I happen to like my job.

“It’s free today,” I said, “but not because we were wrong. It’s only because I DON’T WANT TO DEAL WITH YOU AND WE DON’T NEED YOUR TWO DOLLARS!” I felt the joy of my fellow baristas well up inside me as I took vengeance for all the silent angry tears they had shed. The man was visibly shocked, his nostrils flaring as I dismissed him with a scowl, turned my coldest shoulder, and warmly greeted the customer behind him in line.

He ranted his way to the exit, and as soon as he’d crossed the threshold, everyone that had been behind him in line began to laugh.

“Can you believe that guy?” One woman asked. “What an ass.”

“No, no, you don’t understand,” I told her. “Every superhero barista needs an arch nemesis, a former partner so embittered by past experiences that he becomes the anti-barista. That, my good lady, was the perfect example.”

She turned to watch his retreat to the sinister city streets, the fluorescent lights of the mall glinting off his suitcase. The lingering shriek of those tiny plastic wheels echoed up into the rafters. “Who is that man?” she whispered.

I gazed at her sagely, “We call him The Dragon.”