Confessions of a Barista

Call of the Infirm
July 21, 2012
I’m me. See?
July 25, 2012

It was always curious, the way he walked by the sagging bay window. Not curious, really. Repulsive.

I was a coffee-slinger in downtown Boston in those days—a rough transitionary move until I found something more worthy of my creative talent. I was a genius, you see, but no one seemed to know it.

To make ends meet, I laid low, did my time, ran the race. I wore a burnt yellow apron from 5am until noon, then I’d hike to the insane streets of the financial district. I think I did it for inspiration—part of me hated the gritty feel of the place, and part of me loved to be at its rotten center. Like a car accident you hate to slow down to dread to watch with fascination.

The coffee shop I worked in was a few blocks from my hole of an apartment. It reeked of over-roasted beans and hobos, but it became a quasi-comfort to unlock the doors every week day morning, amble in with one eyelid open, and crash around until most things were ready for daybreak. Never doubt it: coffee is an ugly business—it begins early, it’s brutally unforgiving, and it lives or dies by a single bean. When business is good, life is good. When it’s bad, you’d rather be gutting alleyways and chasing dumpster divers from behind 7-Eleven.

It was probably my scowl of an existence that made me so bitter those early months in the city, but I can’t be sure. I don’t suppose it really matters—the first time I saw him, strolling along outside the yellowy window, I decided immediately that I hated him. I didn’t dislike him, or his clothes, or his gait, or his greasy profile—I hated him. The entirety of him.

Which has no rationale explanation. It retrospect, I suppose I could say my deep frustrations with life were all directed at the poor boy—by convenience, more than anything else. Life was shitty, and he walked across my path.

The strange thing is, he never actually came in to the coffee shop. There was one morning, my hair a tangled fop and my face riddled with pillow creases, that I thought I saw him reach for the door. But I was mistaken somehow, and in my eager bitterness to see him finally enter, I dropped a vente mocha latte on my fraying canvas shoes. My toes still bear the burn marks.

When all this started, I remember being struck by how complete my negativity was. I would think of parts of the boy that I might hate more, that might spark a mysterious rise in anger, but nothing did. There was also nothing that soothed the hatred. His clothes were always gross, disgusting remnants of once-were fashion-futile faux pas, his swaying hips reeked of gaudy homosexuality, and his pear-shaped physique couldn’t help but stretch the weak fibers of his tight-fitted shirts. He was anathema to the human race.

Sadly for me—or perhaps, in retrospect, happily—he made that trek in front of the coffee shop every day for months. And I, being unable to convince anyone I was worth hiring, stayed on at the shop, continuing to drop coffee on myself and swallow barking orders from red-eyed patrons who angrily puckered off to penthouse office suites downtown.

Then, something changed. A few months into my hate campaign, expectant as I was every morning of that glowing face and disproportionate body, the hate began to implode. Maybe you could say it was because I gave up smoking, or got new shoes, or started getting up on the right side of the bed. Maybe I got tired of hating. Whatever it was, as the months rolled by, I found myself finding bits and pieces of him that I could stand—or at least, could understand.

The shoes—well, for someone with a fashion sense, they were horrendous, but they weren’t especially awful. At least they were relatively bland. The pants grew on me, too (even though he wore the same pair every day). They had an off-cream, rustic charm that seemed to work with his bulging thighs. And, God bless him, his thick-rimmed glasses actually reminded me of Superman a little bit—complete with the dorky charm you’d expect of Clark Kent’s doppelganger.

Small surprise, my work became a bit easier to digest, too. Bellows I could shrug off, insults I could ignore. My lack of grace slowly dwindled. It was a shoddy existence, being a barista, but I began to find it rewarding. Even cleaning the bathrooms was a chore I could sing to.

Ever more to my amazement, there came a day when I actually began to look at that boy with reverential awe. I look back on it now and think of myself standing and staring with a twinkle in my eye as he grinned on the sidewalk. Perhaps that’s a bit dramatic, but it honestly felt that way—a dreamy sort of unrealistic affection.

Affection—I actually cared about him.

And at first, of course, I shrugged it off. But it always crept back over me and wouldn’t let me go. Until I decided to stop fighting it. It wasn’t very long before I would honestly look forward to seeing his face round the corner. I would pray that he reached for the door, just once, so I could see him up close. He never did, though.

Still, every hour I’d make a cappuccino and set it next to me on the counter—just in case he wandered inside and couldn’t decide what to order. Just in case that kind of random, movie-star moment actually happened.

But it did—sort of. It was a Thursday morning, and I whistled on my way to work. I still remember it—from the angle of the sun on the windows to the grains of espresso littering the counter. There was something that had gone awry with me, something that went overboard. The two previous nights, I had dreamt about him—a scene that played on and on repeatedly. He would walk in front of the cafe again and again, but it was only the two of us. Nobody inside. Nobody outside. It was so unnervingly pleasant, I couldn’t sleep—I just wanted to see that smile in person, in front of me.

That Thursday was a slow one. The air was crisp and cool, as it sometimes is in the peak of spring, and the city was still waking up and figuring out what shoes to wear. By 9 o’clock, though, the regulars were rolling in and begging for their scripted dose of caffeine. Each one ushered in silently, wearing a smile on their face. No yelling business moguls, no grouchy investors, no overworked real estate agents with guttural growls—just good people with wide smiles. And then I saw him turn the corner.

His gait was beautiful and intentional, gliding across the concerete with dance-like grace. I saw the orange hue of the sun light up his face as he crossed in front of the sagging bay window, and I gulped. Dropping a mocha latte on my scarred feet, I grabbed the cappuccino sitting next to me, jumped over the counter, and tore open the door. Every set of eyes widened, turned, and fixed directly on me.

“Thought you could use some coffee?” That was all I could think to say as the world collected itself.

He grinned at me through chipped, browning teeth and wailed a cheery laugh. It bounced off the tired brick of the coffee shop and settled on my ears. “Thanks, that’s— really sw—eet of —you,” he stuttered, surprisingly unstartled by what had just happened. And then his eyes shifted to the bus stop behind me, and gently brushing me aside, he took the ceramic cup filled with lukewarm coffee and hobbled to the bench beside the sign for bus number 12.

I must have stared for hours—it felt like that, at least. He never stared back. And slowly, awakened by the piercing sun, I, too, hobbled back into the coffee shop, crawled behind the counter, and sheepishly began churning out coffee grounds to the resurrected buzz of shouts and shenanigans.

He never did return that cup. But every day he walked on the sidewalk in front of the coffee shop, and every day I let him go. Every day, the caffeine-hungry faces stretched thin and hushed for a pregnant moment, waiting for the boy in the Superman glasses to pass me by.


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