Someone Else's Ivy
For a long time, when asked what profession I was in, I would reply by saying that I was a professional milk steamer. I worked behind the counter at a small café in Harvard Square, Cambridge, in the shadow of the most prestigious university in the nation. For some reason, the morning shift was often slow, so the other employees and I would kill time telling stories. Like the one about the store being owned by the mob, which would explain how the company could afford to pay two employees seven dollars an hour to stand around all morning serving the occasional, bleary customer. Sometimes we would try to weigh our heads on the digital scales we used for bulk coffee. We came up with nicknames for our regulars; things like Captain Nervous, Super Grover, The Neck, and Aging Hipster Man. We would also design elaborate signs for the A-frame that we put out front. During the Democratic National Convention, my sign read: “Coffee is Not Republican. In Fact, Coffee Might Not Even Believe in the Two Party System.” After that one had been out for a couple hours, one of our student customers came in for a large latte and informed me that “Two Party” needed to be hyphenated. I steamed the milk.
When I started there, I was just a regular employee. One of about seven, who served customers, cleaned the store, stocked the supplies and ran the register. But after about six months, people started quitting. First, a couple shift managers got new jobs. Then, some of the counter staff went back to school. The counter staff was replaced easily enough from the endless stock of young people who were constantly dropping off applications, but we were still a bit short-staffed. After that, the General Manager announced that he was leaving because he could not stand the treatment he was receiving from the Regional Manager for even one more month. On the General Manager’s last day, the Regional Manger took him into the office and confessed that he himself was quitting in order to get professional help for his pathological lying.
The General Manger stayed long enough to hire some people to work behind the counter and to train me as a Shift Manager—someone who was authorized to open and close the store. And then, without any of us noticing, I found myself the longest-employed person at the café. I was in charge of eight young professional milk steamers and one flagship store of a small franchise. For a while, there were three of us in charge, since the Regional Manager had hired two managers and introduced them to me before he quit. Their names were Erin and Erin. And Erin, Erin, and I ran the café like it was a corrupt, Communist cooperative. We refused to name a hierarchy among us, supporting each other in our work and making sure we all received raises at the same time and for the same amount. We outright told the counter staff that under our rule, and for seven dollars an hour, excellence was no longer expected. What we did expect was that they show up breathing and not do whip-its in the kitchen, and that if at all possible, the cash in the register should match the sales total at the end of the night. When the register had more cash in the drawer than it was supposed to, one of the Erin’s and I took the overage and went out drinking. We had a great time and we worked hard for that café. There was no helpful upper management, and the franchise owners seemed to us to have forgotten about the café altogether. We had no business training: we had never been to a seminar of any kind, let alone one about management, labor cost analysis, business leadership or whatever other skills it is generally assumed one should have in order to run a small business. There was no Hamburger University for us. But when we discovered that the previous manger hadn’t paid the latest invoices, we begged the vendors to keep delivering the muffins while we came up with a plan. When the register was disastrously short at closing, my cell phone would ring at midnight and I would go to the closed café and sit with whichever Erin to recount the ones until we figured out what went wrong. Like all utopian labor systems, this one was short-lived. The first Erin to leave got a job teaching blind students. The second moved to Tanzania to teach reproductive health.
Which left me. And the kids behind the counter. Surely, we served coffee. And mopped the floors, and took in orders and stocked the shelves and cleaned the equipment and did the dishes and made it through the holiday season when it seemed that everyone, everyone wanted to buy a pound of coffee or travel mug or a teapot that cost seventy-five dollars. The kids attended to the things that have to be attended to in the service industry, and I attended to the kids. They were all between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one, and only two of them had high school diplomas, so I spent a lot of time teaching them things. For example, we had a vocabulary word every week. The first week it was “Sisyphean”. As they were cleaning the iced-coffee machines or running downstairs to get more paper cups, I would yell, “Use it in a sentence!” And they would chant back, classroom-style, “My job is Sisyphean!” When one of them started studying for the SAT, we broadened our scope, so that after each transaction I would ask for a different word to be defined. Customers were often startled as I hissed “abase” to my employees. “Defalcate, emancipate, truncate, ameliorate,” I would whisper behind them as they rang up small coffees and blueberry muffins.