I have been a barista for over two years.
I’ve written a book and traveled a lot. But what I’ve neglected to lay out is that for the last two years, I have spent most of my time behind the counter at a coffee shop. I have a world of knowledge about pulling espresso shots. I know about portafilters and pour overs. I remember customers’ orders and names. I can pour latte art, which turns out looking like a beautiful fern leaf or sometimes genitalia.
I became a barista in 2017 because I returned from the Camino in Spain and needed a job. I specifically wanted a day job, so I could focus on turning what was then a rough draft of Leave It All into a real book. I was serious about the book, so I needed a job about which I wasn’t. Luckily, the coffee shop around the corner was hiring.
In addition to the practicality of becoming a barista, I also have always detected a certain romance around people in the service industry. Until one finds oneself in, say, a Scandinavian deli where one’s job is portioning salted black licorice lozenges into baggies whilst keeping them from the fresh, bloody pig carcass on the stainless steel work counter and stirring the thrice-reheated yellow pea soup and discarding its charred globs, it’s easy to imagine how cozy, how simple, how nice it must be to work in a place where work is straightforward and ends when the shift is over. Who among us in a full-time, high-stress job hasn’t fantasized about a gig pouring beers in a cozy little pub a few nights a week, chatting with the regulars, and having brain space left over to pursue challenges that make life worth living?
But also, who among us in the service industry hasn’t fantasized about getting a job downtown, a job with benefits like a real salary and healthcare and bean bag chairs at every desk and work that leaves a lasting legacy, moves the world forward? As a barista, if I fall into envy and comparison with people with “real” jobs, it’s easy to get down on myself.
The shop, Mabel Coffee, is in Ballard, Seattle’s historic Scandinavian fishing village, in a spacious and airy old wooden building that used to be a model train store. The shop is named in honor of the owner’s great aunt, who outlived several husbands and drove an RV around the US well into her eighties. The furniture doesn’t match. There’s art on the walls and flyers for events long past on the bulletin board. We serve expensive products but that’s because most everything is organic. Our coffees are all dark roasts. Our pastries are great and our sandwiches are meh. Our avocado toast is the best in town. We have lots of alternative milks, including oat. The mugs are heavy and scuffed by cheap diner spoons. Our music comes from a record player and we always add to the collection with vinyl from Goodwill. We don’t get that busy, but between 8:00 and 11:00 there’s often a rush. We like to complain about little things like how smoothies take too long to make and how the dishwasher leaks and the breakfast burritos are overpriced, but in the grand scheme of things, we have it good. In the mornings and afternoons, it is quiet, and when we baristas have wiped down the tables and refilled the drip coffee, whoever I’m working with and I lean against the counter reading books and chatting with whoever is nearby.
It was not hard to learn the mechanics of being a barista. It required satisfyingly tactile choreography, the ability to stand all day, and a sharp memory. I took to it with pleasure.
After I learned how to make the coffee, I learned the names of our regulars. I learned what they wanted to drink. I learned that the lady who dressed like a pinup girl and walked her lab at 6:00 in the morning would be my first customer, and she’d always want two shots of espresso. I learned the names of the old men who walked their dogs in the morning, and whether they wanted room in their americanos or not. I learned how the pediatrician got a mischievous glint in her eye whenever she wanted to drink a peanut butter banana smoothie in addition to her usual latte. I learned how to tell if the sound tech wanted his coffee in a mug or a paper cup based on the speed of his gait.
In these ways, the job is satisfying and pleasant. In other ways, it’s been a terrible challenge. My original motives for getting a day job were hard to retain once I settled into it. I felt like a failure. I would get embarrassed to tell people what I did for work. I was afraid that people would think I was there because I couldn’t get a better job. I was afraid I actually couldn’t get a better job.
Until recently, I was susceptible to fits of melancholy, which stuck early in the morning or late in the day, when the light was dimmer and there were no customers. I’d be cleaning the espresso machine for the 700th time, or digging wet peanut butter out of the drain with my fingers and it would hit me:
This is what has become of me. I’ve done a whole bunch of stuff and this is the best I can do. According to TurboTax, I make less than half of what a typical 28-year-old makes. I tell myself I’m here because I’m focusing on a book, but I could be working harder on that book. I could be doing so much better. I could be so much wealthier. But I’m not. I’m an underachiever. I’m a disappointment.
I don’t think like that much anymore.
I’ve used the word apology in this post’s title in its original Greek sense. An apology is not so much about remorse or regret as it is about defense and rebuttal. This post is a defense–maybe even a straight up celebration–of my day job’s validity. Because despite the urge to compare myself to others, I’ve nevertheless come to believe that simple service work is great work. It is simple and low-paying, sure. Who cares. My job is to be kind to people and make things for them: there’s integrity in that. Even nobility.
After two years of serving them, I could go on for hours telling stories of my customers’ lives. I could tell you about the couple I saw get pregnant and have a baby, of the woman I met at the start of her chemo treatment who just weeks ago told me she was in remission, of the mom who doesn’t know how to get her son to practice for his piano lessons, of the kid who can’t wait to turn 21 so he can go to the Tractor Tavern on Ballard Avenue, of the left-handed man with squinty eyes who likes his latte art poured so that it will be upright when he picks it up.
Every day when I’m done working, Matt asks me how my day was and I say, “Oh, okay. Normal.” Then the details leap into relief and I have stories: a young boy came in alone to buy a cookie and he couldn’t afford it with his pocket change but I gave it to him anyway. A woman missed the bus and she was afraid of not getting to her job interview in time. A man was lost and really just wanted to use the bathroom. Every customer has entered from somewhere. Everyone has a backstory. I now have two years’ worth of glimpses at them.
For two years, I’ve had a job that has had me on my feet and not in front of a screen. I get free coffee. I work in a bright, sunny room. My hands have become fast and precise. I feel connected to the neighborhood of Ballard in a way I never did before I worked for a small business there. I play records on a real record player. I give advice to tourists. I’m good at small talk. I’m good at crossword puzzles because I scrounge around for papers people have left. I feel solidarity with other food workers. I have the kindest coworkers and boss. I squeeze chocolate sauce out of a bottle that makes a funny fart noise. What badness is there in any of that?
And good Lord, being a barista has provided space. If I hadn’t taken this barista job, I wouldn’t have a book I wrote in my purse right now. Writing it would have been the last priority at the end of exhausting days. I wouldn’t have been able to stay grounded and energetic if I didn’t have good, quiet work like this to take care of me. If I hadn’t taken this job, I wouldn’t have been able to take my other job, which is to play piano for churches and a dear, dear choir I’ve come to love. In the face of all that, who cares if I don’t have a lot of money. I’ve been fine. I’ve been happy. I’ve been relaxed.
I suspect I won’t be a barista forever. But when I leave, it won’t be out of shame for having a day job. I’ll look back on this time with deep affection and nostalgia. I’ll miss it desperately. The goodness of this simple work will color the way I choose to organize my time for a long time.
But anyway, I’m not leaving yet. My books are on a shelf by the espresso machine, and my writing and lattes have collided. The customers I’ve become friends with are coming in specifically to get copies. With others, I blush when they pick up Leave It All and see my photo on the back.
“You wrote this?” they ask.
“Yes,” I say. “That’s what brought me to Mabel in the first place.”
But it doesn’t sound like an apology anymore.