coffee

Starbucks: the first job I loved.

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.

Ice-cold coffee and scratch-off ethics.

I stare my coffee down.Extra-large, with skim milk and two Splendas. On the mornings when Paige Worthy runs on Dunkin’, the folks behind the counter have never given me reason to be suspicious of the contents of my Styrofoam cup. AND YET.

That first sip scares me. Will it be bitter? Too sweet? Will I burn my tongue?

So I carry it down the street, up the stairs to the train, and commute with it for an hour — just looking at it, considering opening the spout and taking a drink, but waiting. Today, in my Valley Forge caffeine standoff, my coffee turned ice cold: all 24 ounces of it. I'm still drinking it. A metaphor for life? Hell if I know.

Also: I cheated on the scratch-off game on my cup. Every correct answer is a winner! When I got to work, I used a spoon to rub off the part with the prize first, saw that it was worth getting right…and Googled the answer. (How would I know which Miami Dolphin was acquired in a trade with San Diego on March 18, 2004? How would anyone besides David Boston himself?) The prize was a muffin. Muffins are always worth fudging on the rules for.

And it will never be a crime to end a sentence with a preposition.

 

A man with a real name sent me a direct message on Twitter this morning and called my tweets “Dorothy Parkerisms.” I will take that from the best angle — that he finds me witty and observant — and not the one where I’m doomed to several unhappy marriages, alcoholism and subsequent multiple failed suicide attempts. Regardless, men like him are the reason the trolls always lose, Coach. Sticks and stones, sure, and words hurt me even more…but those wounds are a lot easier to heal.

My birthday is Thursday. Twenty-nine. I’m spending the week plotting ways to make my 30th year suck less than my 29th. Today: a suburban celebration at Noodles & Company. She scoffed: "No such thing as a free lunch?"

February.

The field organizer for an aldermanic candidate in my ward is 15 years old.Fifteen. There is a kid with braces and a bowl haircut standing on the street corner by Starbucks in the freezing cold, holding a stack of shiny cardstock handbills still in their copy-shop brown-paper packaging. Talking to passersby about the virtues of his candidate with the poise and composure of someone at least twice his age.

He has a BlackBerry, for God's sake.

When he came inside the café for a snack, I gave him my card and told him I'd love to help him in any way I could. When I was really thinking, "I need this child to help me figure my life out."

If a kid like that isn't enough to give you a crisis of confidence in your capabilities as an adult… I mean, I don't know.

Honestly, if February were any longer than 28 days, I'm not sure what would happen to me.

That blizzard we had last week delighted me at first in its novelty, and now the snow is just making me angry. I am angry at you, snow. You are ugly and grey and wet.

I'm angry at the season in general. You're making me depressed, Old Man Winter. You and Father Time and your patriarchal oppression. My feet are cold, and I'm lonely.

And I think it's safe to say I'm overextended. I have work. So much work. And work is a good thing, I suppose. It helps me pay my bills and buy things like kittens and steam mops. I'm writing and editing and helping fill the world with excellent content for all the good girls and boys.

But it's too much. I stay up working until 2:30 a.m.

Actually, I could just be really, really bad at managing my time. That's probably true.

But I would much rather blame external factors. Like winter. And the slow, spotty Internet I'm scamming from an unsuspecting neighbor. And my cat.

The worst part about overextending is that it leads to coming up short in other places. Like writing. And that's really frustrating.

The whole goal of quitting my full-time job was to make more time for writing. And I think I actually do it less now. But as I approach six months of this freelance gig — my, how time flies — I'm still working on that "cutting myself some slack" thing. Six months feels like ages, but it's barely a ripple in time. So are the 27 years I've lived so far. So it goes.

Listen to this song. It's by my friend Becky, who I've known since second grade and is now half of the amazing duo Barnaby Bright. (And if she's not enough to give you a crisis of confidence in, well…everything else in life, you're better than me. Amazing.) When you listen to that song, do you feel hopeless or filled with possibility? Becky Bliss — February: February reminds me that winter's behind me. And the flowers of another spring will come, and I'll have nothing to show.

I can't decide either. But March is another song altogether.