Before the sound of coffee beans plunging to their deaths and the incessant queries of customers requesting half-sweet-soy-no-foam-no-whip-extra-hot caffe mochas and then changing their mind after you’ve painstakingly crafted their beverage, there is peace in my cafe. We open at six, so baristas are scheduled to begin work at five-thirty. Thanks to temperamental public transit schedules, I arrive at five. I let myself in, enjoying the emptiness and silence broken only by my footsteps across the still-immaculate floor. The coffee brewers loom behind the counter like sleeping giants and the partially dismantled espresso machines are waiting patiently to be reassembled and awoken for a day of pulling shots and steaming milk. I turn the oven on as I walk by and it roars to life. Like me, it also needs thirty minutes to fully awaken and embrace the day.
I make myself a smoothie with extra chocolate and a big scoop of ice, modifying the recipe to suit my particular tastes. I hardly have time to make my own smoothie once the door unlocks and patrons flood the lobby so I perform this ritual with care.
My coworker arrives at five-fifteen and I let him in. We exchange mumbled greetings and he makes himself an americano. I’ve been off caffeine for months and I’m jealous he’s able to guzzle the stuff without upsetting the delicate balance of his sleeping pattern.
Everyone who works in my cafe is on the path to something different. Most of them are in school, or have finished school and are taking time to make money and travel before buckling down in their chosen careers. A few of them are somehow involved in the arts and work as a barista to pay the bills and still have time to create. There are even a few intending to open their own cafe someday and use their time to learn about espresso and play around with new drink recipes. I’m a barista mainly because I enjoy it. I enjoy getting to know my customers and coworkers and learning which drinks they like and how their day is going. It’s important to me that they leave the cafe feeling good and want to return in the afternoon for another pick-me-up. It’s in my job description, sure, but it’s more of a challenge than a chore.
The rest of the morning flows like clockwork. I brew coffee and finish setting up the espresso machines; my coworker arranges the pastry case in order to make the food look appetizing.
The closer the clock gets to six, the more people mill about outside the doors. One middle-aged man valiantly tries the door again and again, as if somehow, just by wishing, he could unlock it, let himself inside, and demand to be caffeinated. We ignore him and finish setting up. More people join those waiting, many of them weighed down with suitcases and duffel bags. We anticipate the worst: a busload of travelers in search of coffee to shake off the lethargy caused by lengthy road travel.
“Here we go,” I say. The sound of cafe-approved music fills the air and the lights reflect off the shiny floor as I release the bolt on the heavy doors and swing them open to admit the first customers of the day. “Good morning!” I blurt, making an effort to be friendly, but the only response I receive is a half-hearted “Morning,” from one young woman, her perfectly-lipsticked mouth opening into a yawn on the last syllable.
When I was a teenager, I worked in a fast food joint located on a highway. Summers were brutal because we’d get hit with busloads of campers on their way from the city to cottage country. The manager would see a flash of yellow pulling up the driveway and scream “BUS! WE’VE GOT A BUS!” and everyone would snap to attention. Baskets full of chicken nuggets and patties would be dropped into the deep fryers, hamburgers would be slapped on the grill, and we’d drop enough fries into the vats of grease to feed a small army.
Positioning herself between the counter and kitchen, the manager would work herself into a tantrum, screaming, “I NEED TWO MORE CHEESEBURGERS, LET’S GO GUYS!” at kitchen staff. A small vein in her forehead would visibly throb and her voice would crack under the pressure of her fury. Heaven help you if you were working drive-thru and took a burger meant for a customer at the counter, or if you took the last large fry and there was a two minute wait for the next batch.
I spent that sweltering summer working eight-hour fry shifts, which entailed standing by the deep fryer and scooping salted fries into cardboard boxes. The trick was preparing the fries before they were ordered, and by that time I had it down to a fine art. All at once the lobby would flood with screaming children and we’d work hard to decipher their food orders and get them on their way. It was chaotic and stressful, but ultimately it prepared me for coffee shop mornings like this one.
The next half hour is spent taking orders, warming sandwiches and croissants, and crafting the perfect lattes and espressos. Despite our customers’ exhaustion, my coworker and I take pride in making each drink to standard, although most of them barely glance at their cups before slapping a lid on and taking their liquid gold to the table to chug. The perfect microfoam goes unnoticed and the wonderful crema at the top of an espresso shot is disregarded entirely as the weary traveler chases after his beloved caffeine high. It doesn’t matter – the joy is in the creation of the beverage, and that’s thanks enough. Occasionally a customer will go out of his way to return to the bar and say, “That was the best cappuccino I’ve ever had!” and those moments are precious.
As the rush of people slows down, my coworker and I look around the demolished cafe. These are the signs of success: cups are overflowing the garbage cans and the condiment stand appears as if someone opened a packet of sugar and sprinkled it everywhere except in their coffee. Straw wrappers are strewn like streamers all over the floor, empty plates and cups are on almost every table and one customer even took the time to disassemble the newspaper and spread it across several chairs. We’ve survived the onslaught of tired, hungry customers and have come out on the other side. If we’re lucky, we’ll have just enough time to clean up before we’re hit with the next wave.
“Do you want to bus, or should I?” My coworker asks.
“I’ll do it,” I reply. “Just don’t say the word ‘bus’ again.”