The Great White Barista

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.   

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5 thoughts on “The Great White Barista

  1. Bravo…I’m addicted. And even more so after reading about a place that sells caffeine! Gotta go & grab me a Caffe Americano/ Tall /Half caff-Half decaf w/ skim, so I have the energy to deal w/ my daily carpool hell.

  2. I am still trying to find out where I can get the perfect
    Dorothy Hamill haircut….it has to be someone old who remembers
    what it was. Perhaps you could ask her…..?????

  3. Hola Mamacita-
    Take a look at my 7th and 8th grade school pictures. There you will find the perfect Dorothy Hamill haircut, not a feathered hair out of place (thanks to a crisp coat of Final Net).

  4. Oh, dear. I had a similar epiphany here in Exile just a bit ago. There’s a “new guy” (been there less than 6 months?) at the CVS 4 blocks from my house, and I can tell he’s working when the parking spaces around the perimeter of the building are full. I cannot tell you the number of times I have popped in to buy batteries, or paper towels, or Pull-Ups, and waited in line for 20+ minutes (and I SUCK at waiting in line. I know this about me, and I try really hard not to take it out on other people. I do.) He’s older, and is easily stymied by sale prices that don’t ring up properly, or people who want to process pictures, etc. So one day after I’ve been in line with my Children’s Motrin for 17 minutes with 2 people in front of me, I watched the woman who was checking out vent her frustration on him. And my initial reaction was “Oh I would love to do that” and then I watched how sad his face got and how completely unashamed and contemptuous the woman was, and I realized that if I ever did let loose like that, I’d be ashamed of myself, and rightly so. I mean, think about it – the economy sucks, for all I know this man’s pension got stolen by some golden parachute CEO, or he just went through a nasty divorce and now needs more money to pay rent on some depressing apartment, or something, and it’s not like he’s lazy or disdainful, he’s just SLOW; he tries very hard and he’s always pleasant and he always apologizes for how long people have had to wait (and I’m not letting him do that anymore – I always say “No worries; sometimes things take time.”) So now I just breathe and remind myself that hey, at least while I’m standing in line at CVS, I’m having quality quiet Mommy time.
    ….and I totally just hijacked your comments. Sorry ’bout that.

    No worries 🙂

    But seriously, when you gain the big-world perspective that keeps you from snapping on the cashier at CVS, you realize how much you’ve grown…and that feels pretty good.

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