Whip it Good: My Three-Week Stint as an East Village Barista


I know that my Coming-to-New-York story wholly betrays my Garden State roots.

My excursions to The City began when I was a restless Central Jersey teenager. I spent those euphoric evenings sidling into dimly-lit jazz clubs, mustering up the courage to order “whatever was on tap”, and letting it go unspoken that I had derived my working knowledge of the East Village from the album notes of Rent.

During one of these breathless, northeast-bound visits, I made a resolution. I would get myself into NYU, find a studio on Second Ave, get a gray cat named Edward Albee, play mistress to a professor named Neil or Richard, work in a painfully hip coffee shop, and ultimately win the day.

Three years have passed since I relocated across the Hudson. Since then, I’ve managed to pass the gauntlet of NYU’s drama program, meet and write off a dozen men before finding a keeper, and resist the siren song of the blogosphere. But still, that coveted barista job eluded me. I tried desperately to get my foot in the door of my favorite cafe haunts, but they all demanded years of “New York experience.”

Then, about a month ago, I found an opening. My roommate had recently relocated to Red Hook in the hopes of “New-grass” stardom, and my new cohabitant was an old friend who rolled into New York with impressive take-no-prisoners chutzpah. Upon arrival, she immediately landed an internship, a volunteer post at a feminist bookshop, and, most enviably, a coveted barista position in the East Village.

I eagerly applied to the same cafe, which was still hiring, and was overjoyed to get an interview. Affecting my best ambivalently hip, pageant-girl smile, I went to meet my potential employer. I arrived early, peered over the counter, searching for the manager. I tried to ignore the barking of what must have been a customer’s disgruntled rottweiler, until I realized that said beast seemed to be calling my name.

“Are you Katrina?”

I spun around and collided with a wall of man. He sported matching sleeves of generically masculine tattoos and a crewcut. He looked, for my money, like a poor-man’s East Village version of Charlie Sheen. He was also clutching a copy of my resume. He was, I gathered, the manager of the shop.

He was not pleased to meet me.

The interview was quick and vicious. The manager, Buddy, quickly disregarded my previous cafe experience as bridge-and-tunnel-bullshit, cracked a couple of prostitute/ junkie jokes at my expense, and informed me that my wages would come under the table. I walked away shellshocked, but not for nothing. Buddy had offered me a job.

After an anxious night of celebratory Yellowtail and mixed feelings, I returned the next day for training. The rush of reclaiming my hallowed post of latte goddess was swiftly extinguished when a coworker scoffed at my casual uniform, all personality glasses and smoky-eyed disdain.

“You need to be wearing a hat,” she chirped.

She thrust a headpiece my way— one of those multicolored knit numbers with ear flaps to boot. Horrified, I scanned her blank visage, waiting for the whole thing to be exposed as a joke— but no such luck. I’d come to know this sensation of nauseated disbelief very well during my brief employment.

Towards the end of my first shift, one vetted coworker gave me a scathing once-over.

“You better watch it,” she hissed.

I racked my brain, trying to recall any transgressions I may have unknowingly committed against this hipster harpy. She rolled her eyes at my befuddlement.

“You’re very pretty,” she drawled. “Buddy’s gonna try and hit that. I’m just sayin’.”

I fought to keep my deeply-ingrained feminist ire in check. I was fine, I reasoned; I toiled during the evening shifts while Buddy worked in the morning. I would just do my job, collect my off-the-record earnings, and make fast tracks. I would not let this two-star cafe become my center of gravity. It was, after all, just a job.

After three weeks, I had learned the ropes. My coworkers showed me the blind spots where Buddy’s armada of security cameras wouldn’t catch me sneaking a coconut water from the cooler, pointed out the customers who would tip better if treated to a little cleavage, and told me countless explicit stories about Our Captain that literally kept me up at night.

Unsurprisingly, it seemed that Buddy (a man hovering somewhere north of forty) had a little habit of sleeping with his barely-legal baristas. Fine, I thought, par for the course.

But then there were the anecdotes about Buddy showing up to work drunk and/or coked out, propositioning his workers via emoticon-laden texts, taking out his roid-rages by grabbing, rubbing, groping, and fondling those under his employ. I met these stories with nervous laughter and muffled outrage. The new flow of tip money appeased my hysterical conscience, for a spell.

I managed to avoid Buddy’s lecherous company until what would be my final shift at the coffee shop. He was there when I arrived, wearing mirrored glasses behind the counter, surely warding off a monstrous hangover. I immediately regretted my choice of work attire — a thin cotton shirt and low-cut shorts. I could feel his Mordor-esque peepers zero in on my lady parts as soon as I crossed the threshold into his domain.

He quickly informed me that the other new girl had been fired. Buddy insisted that the “little bitch” had been stealing from the register, and therefore had given her the boot. The girl in question was a painfully shy nineteen-year-old art student who confided in me that Buddy had been hinting at how much he would “like a piece of that” since her first shift. But she had denied his advances, and now she was gone.

The shift lasted twelve tense hours as I skirted the misogynist whirlpool that was my manager. I manned the counter while he helped himself to a few quick lines of coke in the basement. I mugged for female customers as he lamented the cold weather and consequential lack of booty shorts around the neighborhood.

I was preparing some hot chocolate for a beleaguered father and his young daughter when I found that our stock of whipped cream had run out. While I puttered around, looking for a replacement, Buddy bent over the fridge and took a few quick whip-its from the empty can. Flustered, I moved away to restock the tea bags, only to find half of a dead mouse buried among the supply of rooibos.

Buddy departed later that night to “get his drink on,” leaving his lowly baristas to close the shop. My boyfriend arrived to escort me home at three in the morning and found the two of us (five-two, a hundred and five pounds dripping wet, each) trying to lock the front door while keeping an eye out for hostile intruders.

His offer to come at Buddy with a broken Torani Syrup bottle stands to this day.

Before I left the shop that morning, I pinned a note to Buddy’s ever-efficient bulletin board. In words more formal than were likely warranted, I offered my immediate resignation. There was no offer of two weeks notice, and there was no endearing sign off; I couldn’t stomach the notion of either nicety.

I returned to the cafe once more, having quit, to collect my last paycheck. Though I had purposefully dropped by during the evening, Buddy was stationed at his usual post. My roommate was working that night, and I watched from the sidewalk as Buddy cycled between snarling orders and leering at her.

I uttered an agnostic, “thank you, Jesus” that this barista job was not my only option, or even my last resort. While Buddy may be a deluded prick, he’s not dumb— he knows full well that most of his workers depend on their day jobs at his cafe. His manipulative antics are masterful, and paralyzing. I had the choice to get my sweet ass out of there in short order, but that’s a stroke of luck, I know.

And yes, I’ve looked into a Better Business Bureau complaint— but I doubt that the store’s mob-boss owners have any qualms about Buddy’s etiquette.

And yes, I’ve ranted to my every passing acquaintance about these crimes against femininity, but at the end of the day, despite shit tons of negative karma, the shop is still standing— and, as long as it is, his shenanigans will continue unopposed.

I marched through the doors to collect my money that night, putting myself directly into the line of Buddy’s disgruntled gaze. My rattled roommate offered a weak wave from behind the counter, but he swatted her hand back down.

“She doesn’t work for me anymore,” he muttered, just loud enough for me to hear, “fuck her.”

He sent his first mate downstairs to fetch my pay, glancing every which way but mine. As I collected my wages and turned to leave, Buddy raised his voice over the coffee shop chatter.

“That was some unprofessional shit you pulled, y’know.”

I raised my envelope of cash in salute and cheerfully let the door hit me on the way out. If refusing to entertain meat-headed sexual harassment is unprofessional, then consider me a professional unprofessional. Maybe I’ll give waitressing a shot next, despite having seen Waiting… too many times to count. Hell, I’d take a glimpse of Luis Guzman’s balls to my ex-boss’s machismo bullshit any day.

Though to be honest, I’d just as soon let Buddy suck ‘em.

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image – Dave Fayram