notes from behind the counter
At the center of affluent West Concord, across from the train station, resides a bakery. It’s impossible to miss the bright green awning and the stenciling on the window: COFFEE. ESPRESSO. CAKES. CATERING.
We open at 6:00, but I have to get there no later than 5. I need that time to brew coffee, set up the milk station, and plate the muffins and scones. I bake the first batch of herb baguettes and the smell of rosemary fills the store. I read all the newspaper headlines so that I’ll have an arsenal of small talk for particularly chatty customers.
At this early hour, the crowd of customers consists mostly of regulars. We know their orders better than they do. Often, we’re already pulling their extra dark currant scone from the toaster by the time they’ve come to the counter to order. “Amaretto Matt,” as we like to call him, saunters in for his four-shot espresso with whole milk—no foam—and a shot of amaretto. Dave’s next in line, which means a large house blend with a flat lid (he hates the dome lids because they spill). Rebecca comes running in; she’s running a little late, but I see her through the window and meet her at the register with her small vanilla decaf coffee. “It’s on the house,” I say as she fumbles for her wallet. She’s grateful.
On any given day, I probably wait on a couple hundred customers. In truth, I rarely spend more than five minutes with each one. And yet, through their orders and demands and requests, I meet them. I talk to a nurse who’s come in early because she wants to surprise her colleagues with baked goods. I smile at a happy couple as they look through a book of wedding designs. Ultimately, I get to glimpse into the lives of many characters, to learn their stories.
Every Sunday morning, an elderly husband and wife hobble in. The husband comes up and orders while the wife sits down at their table. For him, a large black coffee. For her, a small decaf whole cappuccino. For the both of them, a lightly toasted plain bagel with butter, a chocolate croissant, and a plain croissant. He buys a copy of The New York Times, and the total is always $14.93.
“1493,” he mutters, as he pulls out a twenty. “The year Columbus returned from the New World.”
After paying, he brings everything over to the table at which his wife always sits. They exchange sections of the Times and quietly eat. After about an hour, the husband clears the table, helps his wife out of her seat, and tips his hat to us at the counter. Then, hand in hand, they leave. The 1493 couple.
One Sunday, they don’t show up. The next week, when they’re back in the shop, I ask them where they had been. “Peru,” the husband replies, “I took her to Peru.”
That same Sunday, a curly-haired middle-aged man pulls up in a van and walks into the store. I notice his wedding ring. He’s come to get breakfast for his family.
“How are you?” he says, as he gives me an earnest smile. “I kind of need a lot of things.”
He gets two blueberry muffins, a chocolate chip muffin, a plain croissant, a chocolate croissant, and nine bagels. Then, he gets three large chocolate chip cookies. At the last second, he adds a baguette to the mix. “Sunday is pasta night at our house,” he sheepishly says.
A couple months later, I learn that his name is Michael and that his whole family has breakfast together every single Sunday. “It’s mandatory,” he says, with a wry smile. His wife makes a killer lasagna, and the baguette makes for excellent garlic bread on the side.
On any given day, I probably wait on a couple hundred customers. Some of them I see regularly; others, I meet for the first time. Regardless, I bear witness to a spectrum of lifestyles, be it the flashy businessmen who rudely demand their café au laits or the little girl who, having been handed a five-dollar bill by her grandmother, timidly comes up to order a shortbread cookie. Working behind the counter, I learn about the virtues and vices that make life back on the other side of the counter all the more worthwhile.
One Sunday, I came into work and started my early morning routine. Expecting the 1493 couple, I poured the husband’s coffee and made the wife’s decaf cappuccino. I pulled a copy of the Times and began to gather their pastries.
My manager came in and asked me what I was doing. “It’s for that couple,” I explained. “You didn’t hear?” my manager asked. I turned around and stopped. “He took her to Italy.”