Espresso, Thoreau and How to Let Go

By Lily Grenis

Anyone who’s spent more than 10 straight minutes with me can affirm that I’ve built a lifestyle around caffeine. Even prior to starting my current job as a barista for a local coffee shop, I could never make it through a typical school day without at least a strong chai tea in my system. However, once I began said job in June, my daily fix came with a twist — I was the one behind the counter, earning money that went right back into my coffee fund, and interacting with people I never would have conversed with had caffeinated drinks not briefly, but intimately, united us.

Picture this: you awake before the sun on the muggiest of summer-vacation mornings, probably to the first 30 seconds of some mid-2000s Beyoncé hit. You wonder fleetingly how your present situation would be different had you been born a Knowles-Carter, but proceed to drag yourself out of bed and into your car for the harrowing trek to the first day of your first job. You’ve been told you will brew, pour and serve coffee, presumably to strangers, a concept that sends chills down your overtired and socially awkward teenage spine.

If you can visualize this scene, you’re pretty close to understanding how I felt on my first day of work. Although I was immediately greeted warmly and shown the basics by the other staff, my newbie terror didn’t end with waking up at a single-digit hour.

This coffeehouse takes pride in brewing their iced coffee the right way that is, preparing coffee concentrate with a specific dilution ratio before adding enough water to make it drinkable. No one knows what happens if you drink the concentrate straight, because no one who’s ever tried it has lived to tell the tale.

Naturally, my brain chose to ignore that I had been told numerous times which jug contained iced coffee and which contained concentrate — I confidently poured a cupful of the latter for one of my first customers, a cheerful older gentleman. He took a sip of the black liquid, pointed at me and said, “YOU are trying to give me a heart attack!”

I was later informed that he was a regular customer who probably knew more about each drink than I did at the time; he still teases me about it every now and then.

Despite an eventful start, I fell into a routine pretty quickly. I pulled shots with ease, arranged pastry displays artfully and learned how to foam milk to perfection. I became intrigued by the cool, vaguely indie-grunge aesthetic of the shop and the people who frequented it, employees and customers alike, and couldn’t help but wonder if thrifting a pair of tortoiseshell Buddy Holly glasses or acquiring my own yoga mat would get me on the inside.

I started bringing my most sophisticated reads to work — “Civil Disobedience,” “The Cider House Rules,” anything pretentious-sounding but delightful in actuality — which I paired with smooth jazz tracks that flowed from the speakers and swirled through the room. (What hipster doesn’t like smooth jazz?)

Eventually, becoming more comfortable with my setting and the day-to-day mechanics of my job enabled me to truly hear the people around me, rather than just taking them at face value.

I met fellow baristas who hadn’t followed the straight-and-narrow path I’ve always felt expected to take, especially in the midst of college app-induced stress. I swapped life stories with single parents, sufferers of chronic illness, aspiring musicians and so many other kinds of fascinating humans whose journeys happened to have landed them in the same place as me, whether intentionally or as a result of obstacles that took them down unexpected side roads.

The things they all had in common, however, were their genuine warmth, and zealous, passionate approaches to life. Their struggles never once kept them from taking me under their wings or greeting customers with wide smiles and light-hearted banter. I tried to channel that spirit into my own mentality, and continuously reminded myself that no matter how anxious or sad or frustrated or overwhelmed I got, at least I wasn’t a decaf drinker.      

My point is, whether you go to college or not, or take the path everyone — including yourself — expects, we’re all just doing our best to get through whatever the universe throws at us. Diverting from what is expected or anticipated from you does not negate a good and kind character.

And whether you take your drink black, extra hot or with five pumps of pumpkin spice, whether you dress to the nines every day or walk around in pajama pants without a care, some overtired barista somewhere will judge you, and then make you a damn good cup of coffee just the same.