Steamed: Notes From A Barista


You know us. We’re here on the walk to your morning’s single-transfer commute to a creative career job in Manhattan, probably Midtown, potentially Chelsea, rarely SoHo, never Wall Street. We remember you and your usual drink and can anticipate that you switch from hot to iced coffee somewhere in early-to-mid June. We look you in your tired eyes, bleary from catching up on Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad, Bolaño, whatever, too late into the night, and we ask you—because you’re usually such a staunch small-coffee consumer—”a large today?” You see, we’ve noticed. Or we have your order ready on the counter by the time the line snakes you into first position. We have staved off an incursionist front of urban anonymity. You’re flattered that we remembered. You’re very impressed.

You shouldn’t be. We probably went to your alma mater. In select cases, we might even keep this fact to ourselves so that you won’t feel bashful when required to discuss professors with the person who’s buttering your scooped-out sesame bagel. In our minds, we’re saying “I tried to hang my diploma in the fridge back here, but it didn’t leave enough room for the soy milk and chai mix.”

Things do get real rather fast. Admit too much about what we’re “doing in New York when not at this place” and the mindset required to maintain the java-centric jig is up. Make a peep about a piece almost published, and every regular from the neighborhood will mention a magazine editing local who “might be a good person for you to talk to sometime.” Sure, so you’re saying you’d be happy to make that introduction. When will that be, exactly? We’ve got our calendars ready in our lockers downstairs. Any time is fine for us.

You’re tired, but we’ve been up since five and probably before because we have to commute into this neighborhood we obviously can’t afford, and we assuredly have another job. You’re tired, but when you order by saying “I need a…” we want to put our fingers into the grinder’s teeth. When you ask “Can I just get…?” and then rat-tat-tat a round of demands, you have violated the meaning of the word “just” in both, or possibly all, senses. You’re tired because you were up late tipping bartenders a buck per drink or more, possibly doing so at this very same establishment that’s now doubling as your cafe, and you need a pick-me-up before you can begin banging out that promo copy for the client whose halitosic breath on your neck gives you the heebie-jeebie hangover heaves.

We get it. Our empathy interprets your leaden eyelids: you are spent. New York’s so expensive and coffee’s so extravagant these days! Three dollars, 4 dollars, 5 dollars for a drink? It’s mostly just milk and water, for heaven’s sake! America’s gone off the deep-end, caffeine-wise. Your endless lament: Starbucks, free trade, Europeans drink only one espresso each. Remember cart-coffee for a dollar and that burnt-from-the-bodega business?

Oh, brother, you just ordered a Grande by accident, and I forgive. I am a beneficent barista. I will smile and make you feel like the belle of the coffee bar and hit this weighty portafilter handle against the garbage can at such a precise velocity that it will rubber-bounce into my other, waiting palm, emptied and ready to be wiped then dosed. I will steam this milk to perfection and pull this shot within a millisecond of its fractious and mercurial life: you will taste the motherloving gospel in all three layers of its tan flavorbolt without even knowing they exist as separate entities. I will bang the steamer on the wooden counter to do things to that aeration you couldn’t possibly understand without at least a rudimentary background in crema and microfoam theory. I will make this mammary expulsion at its exacted temperature do a ghostly blooming dance in a ceramic cup and curl it into a leaf in your cappuccino, or a rosetta in your latte, and although you will not know what the latter is called, you will say that it’s beautiful because it is. I will barb back that it captures a movement, ever enshrined in shift, as an early Monet, and you will say, “Only in Brooklyn” with strange pride, and I will bite my tongue until the bitter buds in the back are all that are left.

And you will leave your change. Maybe. Maybe it will be fifty cents. It will depend on the pricing set by an owner who only perhaps understands that this is how this works, that cafes don’t have a tip jar but rather a change repository. If you’ve served or serviced before, in college or otherwise, you will recognize what it’s like to be good, even great, at any hand-skill-based job, and you may leave a full dollar. But most customers will demurely, innocently, innocuously tip the nickel or dime they get back for a drink costing $2.15, $2.95, $4.45, $(x-.1), $(y-.05); they’ll let gravity slide the coin into the glass jar off of the wallet-bound bills we’ve just gently counted into their hand. Or, equally likely, they won’t. Either way, it represents maybe .0001% of our monthly rent, so if you’re all set then sugar is do-it-yourself over in that corner. It’s been our pleasure, cheers. No, really: you’re great and all, but there’s someone waiting behind you. We’re locked in; the shift is long, as is the line. It is steamy and smallish behind the bar, and we have, really quite literally, nowhere else to turn.

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