Monday, July 13, 2015

Coffee Shop

Based on a true story

"Mags, look at this."

Maggie is the petite brunette who runs the drive-thru window.  She makes a nice macchiato, and turned me on to macchiato fredo - a fancy little phrase that means coffee, just a bit of cream, served cold. I suppose it has a certain brevity and precision to it in Italian but sometimes, to me, it just sounds pretentious.  It's Toronto, for Pete's sake.  English is fine.  Unless you're Quebecois, in which case I'll wait until you start talking and then answer in whatever you used.

I'm learning a lot of Italian as a professional coffeemaker.  And for the record, I'm sticking with "coffeemaker." I'm not keen on the word barista, because it just means "bartender."  In Italian, of course.  Starbucks is big on their fancy names for stuff, some of which are traditional and some are just made-up cutesy BS.  Me, you want a large coffee, you say "large."

Or "grande."  Damned Quebecois.

Maggie shuts the drive-thru window to slide up beside me. "What's up?"

"Look at this date going on over here."

It's the afternoon slack, between lunch and evening rush hour, which coincides with going-home time for day shift workers.  We get some folks on their way in and on their way home - they're hooked.  There's another little rush after dinner time, and sometimes we get the same people again - java junkies.  Don't call them that to their faces, by the way.

During this slack time we don't have much to do.  That happens sometimes and it gives us a chance to catch up on a little maintenance, wiping things down, refilling the bakery case, that kind of thing.  If the place is empty you can sweep, and if there's no more than two customers inside you can sweep outside around the chairs.  The boss doesn't like us sweeping if there are people around.  I can understand that.  It feels like we're trying to shut the place down and hustle them along. 

So we're idling behind the counter, busying our hands with the little jobs and watching a young couple at what was obviously a date, and it isn't going fantastically.  There are a couple other people in the dining room, one guy sitting way in the back poring over a stack of new car brochures - it's the 21st century, dude, and we have Wi-Fi - and a single lady who is poking at her phone and trying hard not to look like she's listening to the date, which she is.

It's obviously a date.  The girl is pretty, athletic but not ripped. Dressed nice - casual, not pushing overt sex appeal and way too relaxed for office work clothes.  Summer dress in oranges and reds but not too bright, peep toe flats - nice. French braid in auburn hair, muted makeup if she's wearing any - I can't tell for sure from behind the counter.

The guy was wearing - how can I tell this without offending anyone?  Screw it, let 'em be offended.  He's wearing Epitomal Hipster.  If that isn't a brand it should be, he could do his shopping in one place.

Skinny jeans.  He has no ass so on this guy even skinny jeans bag a little.  That ain't right. Red checked flannel short sleeve shirt, about half a size too small. Enormous clodhopper boots which are spotlessly clean. White fluffy scarf.

A scarf.  Sweet fancy Moses.  It's July you doof.

Maggie is grimacing next to me, but if I look down at her - I said she's petite, right? - I can see, besides right down into her cleavage, the fact that she's shaking just ever so slightly.  Her callused knuckles are turning white on the edge of the counter, she's gripping so hard.  She's trying very hard not to laugh out loud.

With her left hand she writes a quick "OMG" in the condensation on the side of the refrigerator, waits until I see it, and then wipes it clear.  Okay, she's going into the office.

Hold up, Hipster is talking.  Can't hear him very well.

"'s a screenplay about a guy..." O Jesus you have got to be kidding me.  Hipster imagines himself a writer.  That's worse than the scarf.  It does explain the laptop, though I have to wonder why the hell you'd bring that to a date.  At least it isn't a typewriter.

Here's the thing: literally everyone is a writer.  If you can put two sentences on paper that relate to each other, that's writing.  If you can do that over and over and have all the sentences relate to each other without sounding like complete BS, you're a pretty good writer.

If you can do all that and then knuckle down to cut out all the crap that doesn't really move the story along, you're a great writer.  That last one is a little beyond me sometimes.  I'm just a pretty good writer.

I wonder what he does to put food on the table while he waits for the world to discover his genius.  I wrote an article for a small magazine once, it took me a week to research and a day to write.   They sent a check for $15 and a year's subscription to the magazine, which went under six months later.  Unless you're already a popular name or hooked up with a major national publication, making money as a writer can be pretty hand-to-mouth.  I have no idea how to become a popular name.  Proof: you've never heard of me.

Maggie is back and she's making adjustments to the counter tablet.  The owner never installed a conventional cash register, he installed twelve-inch Samsung tablets and some cash register software.  It works pretty well, actually, and since they're connected to the Wi-Fi they can talk to each other, and we sometimes surf the net when things get slow.

"I looked at who was logged into the Wi-Fi and googled the names, the single lady there is live-tweeting the date."

"Shut the front door."

"No way, look." She has Twitter on the tab.  Holy catfish there it is. Anne Something With An Accent, reporting the news that we want to hear.

"People tell me I look like James Franco." Bless you, Anne.  I won't divulge more about you than this: you are a godsend to us, the audience of ersatz comedy.

Hipster Not James Franco doesn't look that much like James Franco.  For starters I think Franco is halfway good looking, and this dude's meter comes to a stop around 33 percent.  Maybe it's the mustache wax.  Maybe it's the clodhopper boots that have never, ever seen a clod.  Maybe it's the superior-but-disaffected expression.

Okay, one clod.

Funny thing, Franco's facial hair is never very prolific, no thicker than Hipster Not James Franco's.  But Hipster's goatee looks like it has a lot more goat in it than Franco's.  That's all I'm saying.

You gotta trim that mess, Not James.  Okay, now I'm done about the beard.

French Braid is keeping her end up.  She's wonderful to watch - she's not thin, but the woman's muscle tone is interesting.  Like I said, not ripped but prominent.  She has too much mass to be a runner, way too much tone for an office worker.  She doesn't spend a lot of time behind a desk, I don't think.  But she does something physical, a lot of it.  She's very graceful when she moves.

I think she must have dance experience.  That would make sense, those aren't runner's calves peeking out from under that skirt.

She's covered the usual bases: where are you from, oh I've been there but only once, what was it like...really, an English major?  And a minor in drama, no kidding.  So what brings you to Toronto, then?  Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Haven't heard anything about French Braid yet.  Too bad.  If she wasn't on a date I'd introduce myself and try to get to know her better.  Ma'am, I can disappoint you much more attentively than Not James.

Speaking of getting to know her, Anne With An Accent has just made the same observation.  She keeps politely asking him questions.  Not once has he asked her about herself.

Wait he just asked if she'd ever dated a writer wtf.

French Braid shakes her head.  This could be an opening for her to get some words in edgewise.

Maggie ghost types on the counter, making yammering expressions with her face.  Her eye roll is the stuff of a sassy teenager's dreams, it could drive Mother Teresa to batting children with those shoes she kept giving away.  Maggie has a six-year-old and is ready for what is coming in ten years or so.

Thank God Hipster Not James and French Braid can't actually see us.  I'm not concerned about what Not James might do but French Braid looks like she could deal out some damage if she was offended.

Anne With An Accent's shoulders are quaking like Maggie's.  She's seen us.  Ah, damn.  Oops.

The owner built this place up from scratch.  He even roughed out the floor plan he wanted before giving it to an architect. He must be some kind of instinctive snoop, I think, because the acoustics here are amazing.  We can hear a lot of what goes on at the tables with no trouble, but the tables can't hear us behind the counter.  And there's one table - Anne With An Accent's table - that sits at a focal point and misses nothing.  When he stops by, that's the owner's favorite table.  He just sits there nursing an iced latte for hours, faintly smiling to himself.  It must be fun to be rich and retired.

I don't have a Twitter account so I can't make contact with Anne, or I would, believe it.  Maggie has a customer at the window and calls for three lattes and some bagels. That won't take long, when it's slack we can team up on orders and bang them out super fast.

Okay, we're back.  Anne has made more observations.  Writing is hard.  People don't know that. It involves a lot of introspection, a lot of wrestling with your own demons.

It can.  If you're writing fiction you can skip the demons, however, and substitute space battles and bodice ripping if you prefer.  And I've always looked at personal writing as a way of getting around the wrestling.  It gives you a chance to just let everything out on paper and you can look at it, and the introspection gives way to inspection.

Seen that way, a lot of demons are just bullshit.  Cast into the cold light of day a lot of angst is just self-involved handwringing.  Ain't nobody got time fo' dat.  Suck it up, buttercup.

Now he's complaining about the "body" of the coffee, telling her he knows a place that doesn't over-roast their beans.

You're the pretentious putz that ordered second-crack French roast.  I didn't even know what second-crack was until you made me look it up.  If you don't like burnt-tasting coffee don't demand burnt beans.

Four-o-clockers - what I call day shift dock workers who punch out at 4:00pm - are rolling through the window.  It's about 4:30 now but it takes them time to punch out, change out their gear at their lockers, and work their way through the city.  We don't get the guys going around the city on the expressways, but the guys who live here in town, a bunch roll right past us and pop in for something that isn't from Tim's.

Yeah, suck it, Tim's.  The sad fact is we're a coffee shop.  You're a coffee shop.  We're all just coffee shops and the only big difference between us is that you're you and we're not.  We sometimes wish we had your kind of recognition, but that would also require we open a few thousand more stores.  The owner has decided to stay small with just the one.

It's still better than being Starbucks.

Lot of four-o-clockers.  Soooo many trucks coming through the window.  Guys, please: if you're going to be at the window for a couple of minutes, turn the engine off.  Yeah, we can close the window but we actually like to talk back and forth to you sometimes, and if your truck is spewing combusted dinosaur at us we just can't keep it open.

Girl works for a non-profit. That's cool.  That takes dedication because there's usually a hit to the paycheck, most non-profs can't pay like the private sector.  Can you imagine working for a non-profit coffee shop?  You'd die of poverty.  Dude is condescendingly explaining to her why most non-profit models don't work, he looked into making one once.  Yeah, I know where he went wrong.  He couldn't figure out how to make a non-profit all about himself.

Not James has a lot of experience, it would appear.  He's worked at a non-prof, he's been a writer, yadda yadda.  I want to hear more about French Braid.

Every single thing she mentions "he did, that one time, with my buddy" and is now an expert in.  Anne Accent misses nothing.

It seems to me that Not James does nothing by himself.  He does give a smidgen of credit to the coattails he's riding however, which is nice.

Soccer moms coming in.  Wait it's July, so soccer is during the day right now, not after school.  I guess it's just a bunch of moms, maybe soccer, maybe not.  Whatever, they look like moms.  Lots of iced coffee.  One lonely-looking guy tags in after them and sits at the next table over.  That would be an interesting conversation, I wonder if he's on the outs for the moment or is he just an electron?  Likes to accompany but not in the thick of things.  Or is he just a creep looking for a lonely single mom?  I love being the fly on the wall.

Girl: I actually love cooking  Hello?  Speak on, bright angel.  I'm on an American kick right now, which means lots of meat and lots of cheese.  You don't have to look far to see why obesity is such a thing, it's super easy to get hooked on all that savory. Dude: oh god you should try my puttanesca sauce, my friend who's a chef says it's even better than his. Fun fact, learning Italian phrases for food means picking up more than you bargained for.  "Puttanesca" means "whore style" or, if you prefer, "garbage style."  If you're going to be proud of garbage style, hey, roll with it.

In all fairness, once in a while I whip up a batch of mashed potatoes a la refrigerator, in which the 
aging dairy gets heaved into the pot.  That can be a mistake: if the entire block of bleu cheese is blue, best to
 leave it out.  I call them "dumpster spuds."  So "garbage style" has its merits.
You can use up a lot of old meats this way too, and have a few servings of a filling one-dish lunch 
that reheats really well, but I'm a lot more conservative with old meat leftovers.  I don't like public 
restrooms and at work is not a great place to have lunch come back on you.  Kill those meats hard in 
the skillet before throwing them in, just to be safe.
Two guys come in and each ask for a "double double," escapees from Tim's.  I've been working here
too long to tell them it's okay to skip the jargon, because frankly that would make me the pretentious putz
and I don't want to be that guy.
"You got it.  Small, medium, or large?"
"We don't do 'venti,' our large is twenty-four ounces.  Same as Tim's extra-large."
"Is that bigger than Starbucks' venti?"
"Yup.  Their 'venti' cold is that size though.  And their biggest cold drink is thirty ounces.  That's 
huge, man.  Too many calories in those big sweet drinks."

"Okay, large it is."

"Coming up."

I mix up their coffees, straight up American roast, no BS there.  Cream and sugar, lids and napkins.  One everything bagel.  Ring 'em up.

Mags is glaring at the casho tab.  Uh-oh, Not James must have stuck his foot in it.  Maggie looks pissed.  I tap away from the tweet - something about kids and the guy not wanting any - to ring out the coffees and bagel.  Boom, done.  Off they go, together.  Carpooling: the environment thanks you, gentlemen.

"Dick," Maggie hisses.


"He's so...stereotypical."  She clenches her fists.  This is alarming, because Maggie goes to karate with her kid.  She likes the punching.  You'll recall I mentioned she has calluses on her knuckles - she really likes the punching.  "I swear I hear my ex when he says stuff like that.  'I can't take care of a kid, it's because of my daddy issues, I can't even take care of myself, what do you mean you're pregnant?  The office is sending me to Vancouver see you next spring!  That was six birthdays ago.  Dick."

"Well, um..."

"He said he was fixed, shooting blanks.  Dick."  She stomps off toward the back and I, not wanting holes punched through me, step aside.

Hello.  Under the table I can see French Braid doing something with her phone.  She has a distracted look on her face.

Bringing the phone up, looking at it.  Resourceful, French Braid, you just fake-called yourself.

Anne Accent has the goods and the fakest coughing fit ever.  Oh weird, I have a text from my mom.  I'll bring Anne a couple of napkins and some water, add a little verisimilitude to her act.

Standing at Anne Accent's table I can hear now.  French Braid is saying her mom has called and she's stuck in a meeting, something about the oven.  Lady, come on - the oven?  Nobody's going to believe that.  That's the most clichéd excuse ever.

Suffering cats he's buying it.  French Braid either got lucky with her story or just judged him accurately. Not James you are the most oblivious...come on man, there's a whole other universe out here that doesn't revolve around you, just engage it a little.  "Do you want to go and come back?"

Man, French Braid would drive to Mars if that's where her mom's "oven" was to bring this disaster-date to an end.

"It's pretty far..." told you "Maybe we can do this again next week?  I'll text you." That's the end of that.  Back behind the counter for me.  By the time I get there French Braid is already out the door and she isn't quite running for her car, but she's moving fast.

Not James is opening his laptop.  He's typing, typing, typing.  I wonder if he's griping about how nobody understands him.  At least it isn't a typewriter.  Things are starting to build up to the evening rush and the noise would be disruptive.

Anne Accent is poking at her phone some more.  If she doesn't get somewhere to laugh soon she's going to pee herself.

I wonder who's going to read her tweets.

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