Tales of Toil from Behind the Espresso Machine: A Barista’s Contemplation on the Craft (Rough Edit)

For the past two summers I have found myself behind the steam-belching shuttering chrome plated behemoth more commonly known as an espresso machine. In two seasons of work I have discovered a couple of things: Food service is deceivingly punishing work, and that brewing coffee is a complicated discourse steeped heavily in cultural legend and conception.

Now I do realize I’m being a bit hyperbolic about coffee. Coffee on the surface is really a simple thing to make. It is the art of pouring just-below boiling water through coffee grinds of various sizes. Really that’s all there is to it. It is in the human element that coffee becomes something a bit more complicated than your average caffeinated beverage. If you have ever worked as a barista then you know all too well that people can be very particular about their coffee. Sugar? Or no sugar? Milk? There’s soy, almond, coconut, and skim Extra foam? Light ice? Easy on the mocha? Decaf? Maybe half-caf? From such a simple thing comes a world of increasingly particular possibilities. What is ironic is that coffee brews down to a game of varying ratios that can be mastered within ten minutes via a web search, and yet with names like latte, cappuccino, macchiato (Starbucks and Italian), flat-white (New Zealand or English), Frappuccino, macchiato, skinny latte and so on, it seems more like a complicated system of discourse rather than different drinks all made of essentially the same two or three ingredients. Starbucks’ insistence of adhering to a sizing system of pseudo-Italian has only served to complicate things further.

I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time wondering just why coffee (and the people who drink it regularly) can be so particular about it (Full disclosure: I am one of these very particular coffee brewers, I just happen to do my complicated method in my kitchen where it annoys no one). Coffee has wormed its way into modern culture to the point where no one really remembers a time before we had coffee. Its such a staple of the Western diet, its hard to imagine that coffee wasn’t a common thing when our country was first founded. Like tea for the British, or chocolate for the Swiss, these goods were stolen from indigenous peoples overseas via colonies and assimilated into Western culture, bearing no tangible reference to their source beyond the exotic sounding titles on Starbucks bags. In Marxist terms, this is the commodity fetishism of the coffee bean. Perhaps it is because its cultural origins lie in relative obscurity to any who have not taken Mimi Hellman’s class on the Art History of Caffeine, that coffee is able to become a drink that people feel so strongly about on a personal level. If there is no historically correct way to consume coffee, as there is with fine wines or beers, then people are left to their own devices and quickly develop their own idiosyncratic ritual surrounding the exact same drink.

The physical coffee shop itself carries with it a legacy that is just as complicated as the drink served within it. Coffee shops began as intellectual urban centers. They were rowdy like pubs at times, and at others the birthplace of revolutionary ideas throughout Europe. In the fifties they attracted beatniks. In Meg Ryan-esque romantic commidies they enjoy a privileged position next to bookshops as picturesque places where lovers first happen upon one another over the same copy Catcher in the Rye. Today, I feel that coffee shops haven’t so much as evolved a new meaning; rather they have amalgamated all of their legend into an epic poem of sorts that is different depending on who you ask to recite it. The corner coffee shop in a city might be a meeting place for locals. My shop where I am employed fluctuates between an incredibly busy tourist trap in the summer and a local haunt in the New England winter. Coffee shops are fair trade organic in Portland, and generic and homogenous on Eisenhower’s interstate system. Coffee shops can be mobile carts of varying sizes, or well-established buildings serving as coffee house, dance hall, and bar all at once. When you walk into a coffee shop, you never know exactly the atmosphere you are to expect, and for the average customer this can be either an exhilarating dive or an anxiety-producing plunge that leads to a fair bit of resentment when his/her latte isn’t quite right. The coffee shop it seems is a far more complicated entity than we often give it credit for.

Coffee and coffee shops are essential to the modern working world. Caffeine is the world’s most popular psychoactive drug. It is a ritual performed by many, and given the common devotion to that ritual, we might even think it something of a religion. In this sense the humble coffee shop is the place of that strange worship. In my time as a barista, I have spent enough time around coffee to stain my clothes and my fingernails, to burn my hands and discolor my shoes. Food service can be grueling work, however if you look beneath the dark surface, you can find a greater truth to that time spent whether you are a barista or a customer, and like the coffee you sip from, the nature of that truth is dependent entirely on you.

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Seconds Spent in the Lomo Years

I’ve been going through old photographs. They’re digital copies of film shots I took back when my parents were paying my way, and they let me spent a little extra on film and lab fees. They’re poor quality scans, seeing as how I did them myself in my spare time. The negative scratches are unrepaired, there are smudges on the scanner bed, and the shallow emulsion is symptomatic of what remains of 35mm film production. Even though I now own a digital camera of some decent quality, I still go through those old film pictures more often than my digital work. I listen to the band Beirut when I do this for reasons I will explain, and breathe slowly. This is all I can muster of time travel, and I’ve resolved to make the most of it.

I will start from what I can of the beginning, and guide you through the outlines and traces that have led me to writing this now. There was a time when I was more lost than I’d been in a long while- senior year of high school to be exact. I’d just come out of a terrible romantic relationship that I’d rather not go into, friendless and without any social standing. It was from this vacuum of my self that I first met the illustrious Lizzie Stimpson- the best thing that had ever happened to me. She was more lovely than autumn on Cape Cod, and though she has been dead a year, her sway on my life remains as constant as though I might walk down the road to her mother’s house and see her once again. She and I became fast friends, and from her I met Savannah and Betsy. I reconnected with my old friends Brendan and Peter. We were misfits, brought together by a common want of life, or a common want to get through high school with some measure of our sanity intact.

It was around this time that I discovered Lomo film cameras, specifically the Lomo Compakt Automat- a plastic amalgamation of Soviet defiance of international patent law. The design was originally Japanese, though it had been distilled down to its most basic elements. I developed a strange love for this small box. The lens was soft, the exposure rudimentary, but its character infinite. From my place of little social experience, I lifted that foreign object to my eye and shot roll after roll of CVS brand film. The shield of that Eastern Bloc glass gave me some measure of confidence to go ahead on. For a while its character supplemented my own, until I was well enough to stand without it. It is the journey of that seventeen year old me that I follow in these photographs. Without the Lomo, I wonder how much I would still remember, or how much I might have seen at all.

The story from here on occurs to me in no chronological order like the photos, and as such there is no possibility for me to continue in that manner. I will attempt to describe then the method of remembrance. It begins with the image. I will choose the one that started the thought for this writing. From the surprised face of Tommy as the flash fired in my bedroom, I remember the scene. There were a few people sitting on my bed, Bella and Lizzie I think. James may have been close by but I can’t quite remember, as he’s outside the frame. Tommy was strumming a tune on my Martin, my first real guitar at the time. It was a cool summer night I think, and I was feeling warm after a couple beers. I was discovering my house as a meeting place for my friends, and I was happy to have them.

Next are blurred photos of bowling late at night with Izzie, my new acquaintance who later would become a good friend, and one of the few of that would remain so. Still echoes of the crash of pins being knocked aside in the faded light sound through the cheap chemicals. In that sleepy town that year every night was a new and wonderful adventure. New faces, and the same old ones that brought me comfort appeared again and again in the warm lights from the houses that stand out amongst the silhouetted trees in my memory.

From here I leave the camera like leaving a well blazed hiking trail and find my own way to the summit. From a few disconnected images the place then seems to come alive. I can close my eyes and it is if I am opening them in a distant moment. This is no exaggeration. I have done this with whilst playing music I was listening to back then, and it seems for an infinitesimally slim moment as if I could remain there, and see my friends again the way they were. I breathe, and at once I am alive in the basement of the public high school listening to Tommy, Izzy, and Joe play Beirut’s Nantes to a crowd of parents and friends. It was my first real live music experience, and I recall feeling alive in the sound and the rhythm and the notes of people who would soon rejoin the crowd and smile toward me. We went to Steve’s Pizza on Main Street afterward, and there I met Izzie for the first time. I remember she made fun of my obscure choice of camera. The moment ended, I find myself in a new one as I try to run through the scenes and find one in which I might be overlooked and can stay. I am in ****’s basement making love at three AM. She was a friend who I’d always liked and for a brief time became more than that. I loved her a bit I think, though I’m fairly certain she didn’t love me. I never really asked. I remember driving her home from Woods Hole and being led through the glass sliding doors and holding her on the stiff mattress till she fell asleep. Then I would drive home late at night across the cranberry bogs to stumble into my bed. By then it was almost dawn.

Stranger still are memories of Lizzie, who is now passed. Memories of her have a different motivation than the others. I had dreams shortly after her death of seeing her in my doorway, silhouetted against the hallway light. I tried to yell out, to warn her and to save her from the eventual failure of her heart. But the words choked me, and I could not speak nor scream. I awoke many times from such nightmares in a sweat. I think these were merely my first experiences with sleep paralysis, though their connection with Lizzie has not left me so easily. I can recall drinking wine with her, Alister, and Savannah on the porch of the building atop the Woods Hole Green. Lizzie had brought a blanket and a guitar, and though we broke one string, she continued to pluck tunes from it. We were too busy listening late into the night to notice that at some point Savannah’s car was ticketed on the road below.

There was time I got food poisoning at the mall, though I still managed to buy a shaker egg at the music shop with Tommy, who had bought a kazoo. I remember countless midnight conversations of hushed voices from Courcelle’s kitchen over herbal tea. We got halfway through Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind once, and instead finished the night talking of promised summer ventures that never came to pass. The first time I smoked cigarettes was outside on the back porch of Jamie’s house at the party when I kissed Savannah in the basement. I got drunk at Luca’s one fall night at an earlier party and professed my love apologetically to Lizzie, though I was too far gone to make any sense. Afterward Betsy punched me in the stomach for being such an idiot. James and I played music together in the dim lights of my room in the cold winter. We wore thick sweaters because my old house had poor insulation. On winter nights as a group we lit fires at the frost-covered beach at the pond down the road from my house. We drank stolen whisky and looked at stars till we couldn’t feel our extremities. On a misty night James and I were once chased off the train bridge by the voice of a night watchmen when we walked out over the canal water looking for a quiet place to smoke cigarettes.

The year felt like an odyssey to me, and at the same time it passed from my eyes so fast I only managed to take a hundred or so photos. They serve as markers for my memory. Places to begin and relive those days of high adventure in a sleepy little town on Cape Cod. I hear the sound of Beirut, and imagine Tommy’s off key singing leading the melody. The air of my bedroom feels cooler though it is now August. I trace the outlines of where the cracks grew on my knuckles that winter from the dry air. I clear my mind of experience and for an instant feel that younger energy fill my body before the years roll back down. Sisyphus had it difficult indeed, and though my muscles do not ache from the fruitlessness of the struggle, my heart certainly does. Amongst the markers like Cairns on mountaintops I see the still faces of my friends now distant. Few of them remain in my life the way they once did. I see them only in passing now, but the adventure is gone. We no longer light fires on the beach or pass stolen beer amongst ourselves in my bedroom. I haven’t heard James’s violin in quite some time. The Lomo camera sits unused on a shelf. The winder is broken beyond repair, and anyway I can no longer afford the film. It all feels so far off, like an echo across the water. Something like a Loon call maybe. The frozen wood cracks and glows while the blankets by the fire shift slightly. A bottle of cheap whiskey sloshes as someone picks it up. My toes are numb but for the first time in my young life I am content. Please. I ask in a hushed tone so that the mist from my mouth does not betray my breath to the passing time. Give me one second more.

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