The first real job I had was in a fur shop. I can't have been older than 15, and my next-door neighbors owned the shop. I spent a summer sitting on a stool, behind a counter. Occasionally greeting a customer, taking her coat, entering her information in the computer and tagging the coat for warm-weather storage. But mostly chatting on AOL Instant Messenger.
But the first real job I ever loved was at Starbucks.
On the first night of training, they told me to order any drink I wanted, and I'd never had an espresso before. I feared coffee, so I ordered what seemed to be the sweetest item on the menu: Mocha Valencia. Five pumps of mocha syrup, five pumps of orange syrup, whole milk and three shots of espresso that barely made a dent in all the sugar.
My Jeep flew down State Line Road back home to the Kansas side that night, my hands shaking on the leather-wrapped wheel.
I learned how many pumps went in a grande, how many shots in a Venti. The numbers: 18 to 23 seconds for a usable shot, 180 degrees for satisfactorily steamed milk. A nitrogen cartridge, heavy whipping cream and six pumps of vanilla syrup to make the whipped cream that still sends me into a Pavlovian fit.
My store was brand new, in a beautiful neighborhood of Kansas City that was largely uncharted territory for chains, and the residents let us know we weren't welcome.
They spray painted the windows. They superglued our locks. They left threatening fliers on fluorescent copier paper. They walked past, all nose rings and sleeve tattoos, always sneering and often flipping us off as we minded our own business behind the bar.
A man came in one night and stole our tip jars. I don't remember him flashing a gun, but I do remember we'd turned on opera that night to clean before we closed, and my supervisor had gone in the back to count the tills. I was as scared then as I've ever been.
I also remember my hair after every shift, brown water swirling down the drain as I washed the day out. I remember my coffee- and milk-stained aprons because they're still in a kitchen drawer, starched to this day and emblazoned with that unchanged image of the brand's signature Siren.
I remember my first chai, and spending my breaks sitting with a huge mug of it — and a piece of coffee cake — every Sunday before the after-church crowd came in.
I remember, too, discovering how much I love people. At 17 years old.
Starbucks didn't have its names-on-cups corporate policy in place yet, and because I worked so infrequently, I never grew to know any of my regulars — if there were any. But the couple of minutes I had with each person as I rang them up or made their drink — that little chance to say hello and give a smile, or hear about their day if they were awake enough — amazing.
Even if we screwed a drink up, handing over a coupon for a free drink that cost us nothing but meant everything to the person we'd just made it up to? Again: amazing.
And I got to know my coworkers. Especially Brian, a bald-headed poet who I still call my friend today. He introduced me to LiveJournal, where I started my first blog, and later to Kat, the woman he would later marry and have a gorgeous child with.
Today, that Starbucks in the neighborhood of hip antagonists always has a line, and those baristas know their loyal customers just like my baristas know me.
Today, I still find myself saying "we" when I talk about the corporation. I still remember the number I punched in to track my hours and get my employee drink discount, and I could still probably make most of the drinks in my sleep.
Today, chai still tastes like warm, spiced heaven, and I still think about going back to work at Starbucks on days when I'm plagued with writer's block or crave human interaction.
And most of all, today, I still look for ways to delight people as much as I knew I could then with a green and white cup full of their particular brand of caffeinated poison.
It's not as easy as it was then, but even on the days I fail at first, there's usually enough caffeine and hope in me to keep trying.