There’s this woman who works at our Starbucks that I call the White Woman. Not because she’s the only white woman – JCrewville couldn’t be any more lily-white. But in a coffee house that employs hip, sullen, young folk; she stands out glaringly.
She’s middle-aged and totally suburban. She looks like someone’s mom. Her Dorothy Hamill haircut and neatly tucked-in golf shirts are too clean and prissy among the surly Starbucks staff. The first time I saw her behind the counter, it startled me.
She’s simultaneously too perky and too serious about her job. She’s always trying to suggestive-sell some homemade muffin or an extra shot. The first time I ordered a tall-with-room, she asked me what kind of roast I wanted. I got a little pissed. Doesn’t she know that we expect a little attitude from the people at Starbucks? Urban condescension with my morning coffee is part of the ritual. Disregard me and my day starts off on just the right note.
If you asked anyone in town, they would readily complain about her. She was achingly slow. All that questioning and suggestive selling dragged down the whole vibe. She didn’t bark out drink orders to the barista, she tediously checked off the little boxes on the side of the cup and paused to ask you for your name which she printed carefully in correct spelling—even if you were the only one in the place. When she got moved to working the espresso machine, it was excruciating. You could tell she was the barista just by driving by the store because the line of frustrated people stretched far outside the door. She was painful.
I confess I once planted a little seed to get rid of her. I had had enough of this mommy-looking woman who seemed to have added this part-time job to fill some downtime. One afternoon when she wasn’t working, I asked the young, hip manager if she was new. “People are talking” I conspired, “she needs to pick the tempo.”
Then one day I was backing out my car on a cold morning when I actually drove the three blocks to Starbucks, and I caught her smoking in the alley. Wait, a flaw? I would have to recalibrate. A sliver of guilt poked at my mean heart, and it cracked open slightly. It was only a cigarette, but I sensed there might be a whole back-story behind the bright, white golf shirts. She looked lonely and tired, exhaling her carcinogenic smoke. She had unknowingly exposed a vulnerability, and I would have to re-evaluate my disdain.
I’m a firm believer that human fallibility is what connects us to each other. Good times may beget relationships but sharing a rough patch is what cements them. It’s why we love tragic stories and root for the underdog. It’s why friendships shift and deepen the first time someone discloses an inner weakness. It’s why perfect people bug us so much.
Standing there in the alley, hunched over, hiding her dirty habit – I saw the White Woman had a dark spot on her otherwise squeaky clean veneer. My scorn for the bright barista lessened. She’s human, I thought, and doing the best she can.
It’s been three years since and the White Woman is still there, still slowing the whole joint down, but I’ve lost my contempt. I’m still brisk with her most days, as if this will somehow make her go faster, but I’ve come to accept she’s just another part of the slower pace that marks life in a small town. And that means sometimes I just have to take my coffee slow with an extra shot of perky.