Lessons from behind the bean counter
My love of books was never a thing that happened to start one day or with a specific book. For as long as I can remember, literature has always been a big part of my life. Coffee, on the other hand, was a more gradual taste. I can remember drinking my first espresso-based drink (a mocha) in sixth grade and feeling a bit sick after. But by the time high school came around, coffee was an almost daily need. So when I could no longer stand bussing tables at the Italian restaurant around the corner from my house, the only place I wanted to work was in the coffee shop located in my favorite bookstore, Tattered Cover. For some reason, the coffee shop in Tattered Cover hired me just five days after I turned 17. At the time, I was the youngest barista they ever had on staff.
The differences between bussing tables and serving coffee became obvious to me immediately. As a busser, I always worked nights, and I was always on my feet. I rarely needed to talk to the customers beyond asking if they needed more water or if they were finished with their plate. At the coffee shop, it was all about the interaction. Just ordering a drink became a whole conversation. You had to know what size cup they wanted, what kind of milk, was that flavoring sugar-free, and did they say decaf? I was still in high school, so I could only work weekend shifts, and my training was something like being thrown into the deep end to learn how to swim. But, my fellow baristas and trainers had been in the industry for years, and their patience level with me was high.
For numerous reasons that I could speculate about, the coffee shop had very few male baristas when I started. For the first year I worked there, with the exception of one or two extra training shifts, I only worked with females. As a senior in high school, I was still trying to figure out this whole self-identity thing. In many ways, I owe a lot of who I identify as to the women I worked with at Tattered Cover. All of them were well-read, outgoing, confident, complicated and capable women. I’m certain these interactions and connections are a large part of why I don’t shy away from calling myself a feminist. Over time I tried to mimic the best parts of each of my female co-workers: Emilia’s humor, Andrea’s independence, Christy’s confidence and Lindsey’s patience. Something about being stuck in a small space together for several hours a day gave us a fast camaraderie. Compared to the busser girl gig, this was like hanging out with friends.
On the other side of the counter, things were not so empowering. Every single woman I know that has worked in the service industry has a handful of stories that involve sexist or misogynistic customers. I had experiences with my share of creeps as a busser, but it was as limited as the time I spent at each table. When you’re the person they must speak to in order to get what they want, the interaction is much more prolonged and full of opportunities for them to be a jerk. There’s something so shiver-inducing about a guy ordering a dirty chai just so you have to yell ‘dirty’ when his order is up. But that’s not half as aggravating as the guys that call you sweetie or sugar or darling in that patronizing tone I’m sure all women reading this can too easily imagine. For a 17-year-old used to minimal conversation with customers, these unfortunate interactions completely unsettled me for the first few months at the shop.
I hate to say that I got used to it; rather, I hate that I had to get used to it. Sometimes you just have to brush it off and get through the rest of your shift. I took cues from my fellow female baristas on how to respond. For the most part, they pretended to ignore whatever patronizing name they had been called and kept the conversation to the strictest necessities. My manager encouraged me not to take any shit. If someone was blatantly disrespecting me, I did not have to put up with that behavior, and I should find her or the bookstore manager and have them escort the asshole out — her words, not mine. I knew she meant it, but I still never took her up on the offer. Thankfully, that is due more to the fact that I never found myself in a position where action like that would have been necessary. No one was overly hostile. It was that gentle kind of sexism that irks you but is so ingrained in society there’s no point losing your head — or job — over it.
Working in the service industry does not often show the best side of humanity. As much as sexism makes me want to tear my hair out, being rude to someone simply because you are paying them to do something for you is a problem all genders have to deal with. I could go on entire rants about how everyone should spend at least six months working in the service industry so that they can learn how to just be a decent human, but I will save you such a tirade. Instead I want to leave you with some of the benefits and lessons I have gained from this job. Some are very small: I can hand-tie a tea bag, I can name five brands of gluten-free snack providers off the top of my head, I am very familiar with teas that will help with health problems, and I know what twelve, sixteen, and twenty ounces of liquid look like without a measuring cup. Some benefits are large: I have a skill — making coffee — I can use almost anywhere in the world, I can deal with difficult people pretty well and I can deal with unexpected situations calmly. But ultimately, some benefits are utterly priceless: I can make a beautiful fucking latte.
Jamie Swinnerton is a senior journalism major who is sick of your sexist shit. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.