No, I Still Can’t Do Latte Art

Reflections of a Barista

I stand in line for coffee in the Minneapolis airport, watching sinks fill with used dishes and steam pour into the air from the milk pitchers behind the counter. As each person steps up to the counter, I recite the recipes for  their drinks in my mind. Two shots of espresso, milk frothed until 120 degrees, poured until an inch of space is left in the cup, and so forth. I peek behind the cash register and see the familiar machines, the containers of tea leaves lined up against the back wall, and the cabinets stuffed with extra to-go cups. Even in a different location, the Caribou Coffee shop chain feels  comfortingly similar. Although I left my job as a barista months ago, it is still challenging to face the subdued chaos of a coffee shop and know I am no longer part of that experience.

My town’s Caribou Coffee shop looks quaint.  The shop is carved into the adjacent  grocery store and decorated with warm wooden furniture and framed pictures of mountains. Shelves of mugs and many members of the small town of Sartell already enjoying their beverages greeted those entering, along with a welcoming seasonal sign that once read, “We’re Hiring.”  I noticed the sign while applying for a job in the grocery store and had applied for the barista position immediately.

I soon separated the reality of working in a coffee shop from the leisurely paced scenes from romantic movies or the slow busywork one could do while writing a novel or chatting with friends as a customer. I never spent a single evening mastering a latte art leaf or analyzing the exact amount of espresso required to make a perfect beverage. With just one coworker I took orders from both inside the store and the drive-thru, made beverages, prepared food items, cleaned every syrup bottle, pitcher, container, and inch of the bar, vacuumed, mopped, and restocked. Regardless of whether or not a customer was in the store, we were always busy, catching up on what the morning shifts were unable to do or preparing for our next rush of customers. It was a thankless mayhem.

Still, in the haze of orders and unappreciative customers, I found a community amongst my coworkers. Our different backgrounds and paths converged for a few hours in the store. I worked with intelligent college students trying to make a dent in their loan debt, single mothers just trying to pay the rent, tired adults trying to move out of a small town, all smiling while  ignoring the burns they got from the milk steamers. Little interactions with them were notes of levity between stressful evenings. While we cleaned the fridges, a student and I joked about the never-ending construction of roundabouts in town. After a busy shift, a mother with children my age told me about her passion for painting. We discussed styles and techniques she’d taught herself. These brief exchanges over time grew into friendships. As I began to apply to colleges my coworkers supported me without question, covering shifts so I could finish applications and encouraging me while I waited for decision dates.

When I left my position during April of my senior year, I met it with the same kind of stress and relief that accompanies finishing high school or moving from a childhood home. At the same time, I felt uniquely in debt to the shop and those who worked in it. The memories of coffee beans and conversations stayed with me, reawakening with the smell of burnt espresso. Even at this airport coffee shop days away from beginning my new life in Providence, I still can’t consider myself just a customer.