Saturday, 13 November 2010

Mister Manager

I had trouble sleeping in the two weeks leading up to my new role as manager. I was paranoid that I would fail, that I would run the café into the ground. I’d never been in a position of such power before, I’d only ever been a soldier following orders. Soon enough I was going to be the one giving them, barking them if necessary. “Hey you! Do some dishes! And you! Wipe that smirk off your face! If you’d put as much effort into wiping down tables and restocking sugar sachets as you did into smirking, this hell-hole might just pass as a café!”

I didn’t want it to be like that, though. I didn’t want to be the angry guy that people loathed and imitated behind his back, I wanted to be the cool guy that people worked hard for because they respected him. “He’s firm but fair,” they’d say before proposing a toast, “To the best boss I’ve ever had and probably ever will have.”

Althea had taken the news of her dismissal well. Too well, perhaps. There were no tears of frustration or accusations of betrayal like I’d been expecting. In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see her break into tears of happiness, such was her good mood. In the fortnight before she left I spent little time on the coffee machine, leaving the very capable Adam to fill my shoes while I shadowed Althea, learning the procedures that kept the café operating. “Think of me as a cloth that you are using to wipe down the table of an especially clumsy customer, but imagine that instead of them drinking a latte and eating cake, they were drinking practical information and eating supplier’s contact details. I want to absorb it all,” I told her.

As the days passed and my managerial knowledge increased, so too did my confidence. I spent a lot of my free time brainstorming new ideas for the café, ones which would improve both worker morale and in turn, sales profits, like the introduction of a “Staff Member Of The Week” initiative. I planned to arrange a photo-shoot with Hattie, a photographer friend of mine, and have her snap the staff one evening, using her skills to make them appear as attractive as they could be, as if they were models posing for an elite magazine. I’d display a framed photo each week on the counter with a caption explaining that they were the champion for that week, along with their name. Then, every customer would know them and the experience would become that much more personal. I’d have to ensure I rotated the winners tactfully, though. If I displayed the same worker for several weeks straight I’d be sure to have a mutiny on my hands and said worker would feel most uncomfortable, even if they were deserving of the praise.

Another idea I had was to employ a homeless person from the area as our resident poet. I would pay them five pounds or so each week and in turn they would write a few lines, G-rated of course, and I would display their works in a picture frame next to the coffee machine under the banner of “Street Poetry,” along with a small picture and sob-story. A tip jar would be placed next to it with the contents going directly to the poet. It would give the customers something to read whilst waiting for their takeaway coffee and if they chose to tip, a sense of goodwill.

The final day of Althea’s reign was looming and I had butterflies in my stomach. It was as if the scotch I’d drank with Maxwell when he informed me of my promotion was laced with tiny cocoons and they’d finally unraveled, leaving a swarm of the majestic insects inside me, looking for an escape. The more they fluttered, the more nauseas I became. I found myself smoking at every opportunity to combat my nerves. I smoked so much that the index and middle fingers on my smoking hand became stained brownish-yellow from tobacco. To combat this, I started to smoke in unorthodox fashions, rotating the cigarettes in every finger combination possible and holding them vertically so the smoke made minimal contact with the skin. I attracted some curious looks from strangers in the process.

Althea’s last day came and, confident that I’d learned as much as she could teach me about management, I spent my shift on the machine, knowing it would be the last time that all I had to worry about was the coffee. Sure, I’d still be the main barista once she left, but I’d always have one eye on the coffee and the other on the staff, making sure they were doing the right thing. They say that men can’t multi-task but then, they say a lot, don’t they.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010


It was a Tuesday, or as I like to call it, ‘Bluesday,’ the most depressing day of the week. The previous weekend was ancient history by then. If you were still talking about it on a Tuesday you came across as desperate, hanging on to the past like an old jazzman who wouldn’t let you forget that in his day he jammed with Miles Davis, both of them high as kites on the unkempt rhythms provided by the Spirit Of Jazz.

As for talking about the coming weekend, it was just too soon. You’d come across as a dreamer, living in the future. It’d be like talking about the house you want to build with a team of men in a hinterland, half an hour’s drive or so from the nearest city. It would be in the wilderness, you’d assure whoever was listening, but close enough to civilization in case of an emergency.

So there I was, battling the blues that only a Tuesday can bring, half-heartedly chatting about the present to my colleagues and customers as I went through the motions- grinding, dosing, tamping, extracting, steaming, pouring and serving- when Maxwell, the big boss, entered the café. I was too depressed to even care. On any other day I would have lifted my game by straightening my posture and flashing my teeth at the nearest customer to reassure my employer that he was paying me for good reason, but I just couldn’t muster the motivation.
“Mr Barista, step into my office,” he said without making eye-contact as he passed me. I sighed in defeat, accepting my fate. The gig was up. He was going to fire me. He had no place in his cafe for people who didn’t smile at strangers like madmen. Oh well, I thought as I followed him, this could be a blessing in disguise. I could meet my future wife at the next café I work at.
“Sit down,” he said, gesturing towards the leather armchair opposite his desk. “Do you drink scotch?”
Do I what? Surely it was a trick question. I thought for a second that maybe he was going to accuse me of drinking on the job and that he had his own breathalyzer, that this was some sort of raid.
“I have been known to,” I eventually replied.
“Good,” he said, opening one of the drawers to his desk, pulling out a bottle of Glenfiddich and two tumblers. “Good,” he repeated as he poured generous nips into the glasses. I felt like I was in a weird dream after an evening of cheese platters and hallucinogens. He pushed the tumbler towards me and raised his own before downing it in one. I followed suit. Perhaps this is how he fires everyone, I thought. He gets them drunk so he doesn’t feel so bad about it. He refilled the tumblers even higher than the first.
“Now, Mr Barista. I don’t know what Althea has been saying to you but I want you to hear it from me. She’s been on thin ice for months now. She lacks the passion required to manage my business. You, though, you’re something else. You remind me of myself at your age. Tell me, where do you see yourself in five years?”
I sipped my scotch in disbelief, expecting to wake up any second to a pool of sweat in my bed, which I would briefly mistake for urine until I sniffed it thoroughly. “You know, I wouldn’t mind having my own café,” I answered honestly.
“Good answer.” He downed his second with determination. “This could be a good experience for you, then, learning what really makes a café tick. It’s not all about latte art and perfect extractions. Sure, that kind of thing plays a leading role, but see, you can’t make a film without a crew, without cameras, without lighting, and most importantly, without finance. You understand?”
“I do.”
“Well, the job is yours if you want it.”
I finished my scotch. “I do.”
“Then it’s settled. I’ll tell Althea later today, give her the two week’s notice. I wish I didn’t have to give her that much time but the law says I do. It’s always tricky, those two weeks, a matter of damage control. We don’t want her badmouthing you to customers. We have to handle it delicately.”
“It will be weird, yes,” I agreed. “I’ll still be on her watch. Don’t worry, though, Maxwell, I know how to handle her. It’ll all come good in the end, you’ll see.”

He ushered me out of his office, patting me on the back. I had a good daytime drunk going and I didn’t want it to end. That’s when the awkward reality of the next two weeks would really set in, especially once Maxwell broke the news to Althea, making every previous Tuesday afternoon seem like a fantastical wonderland full of beautiful angels lining up to dance with me.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010


If you work in a café and you fear change, I’m afraid you’re in the wrong line of work. Change, especially when it comes to staff, should be expected without warning at all times. On several occasions I’ve turned up after having painstakingly rehearsed on my morning commute the stories I would tell to a colleague, only to find that they no longer worked there. Sure, I’d still tell the stories to the others, even to some customers, but without nearly as much enthusiasm, as if I were talking on the phone on a peak-hour train. That’s why when I finish a shift, I think it’s important to share an intense hug with those I consider worthy, the ones I’d truly miss if I were never to see them again. If a hug is inappropriate, say if they’re in a position of authority and of the same gender, a lengthy handshake suffices.

Brenda, if you’re reading this, we both know that there are questions in need of answers. You have my email address, you even have my home address but I have nothing on you. You’re like The Scarlett Pimpernel, the one that got away, more elusive than an albino. Please…just please.

With Brenda gone we had to find a replacement. When Althea said just that, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. “Have you got a problem, Mr Barista?!” she barked.
“It’s impossible. Everyone knows that Brenda was pretty much the definition of perfection,” I responded slowly, glaring around at the others in a bid for support, not that there was much point. We couldn’t just wish her back as though we’d stumbled across a genie’s lamp. She was gone, probably forever.

The next day we had a young man come in for a trial at our busiest time, our morning rush. “Good idea,” I said to Althea when she informed me of this. “Throw him in the deep end and see if he can swim. I don’t have time for sinkers. None of us do.” That’s always been a habit of mine, speaking for others without consent. Some call it arrogance, I call it leadership.

His name was Adam and I was suspicious of him before he’d even arrived. Before Brenda’s departure and with the recent addition of Damille, the pleasant Czech counterhand, we’d achieved the ideal ratio of males to females, the females outnumbering us by one. Looking back, those were the magic weeks. Everything was absolutely perfect and good times seemed to be had by all, which makes Brenda’s rash disappearance so hard to comprehend, let alone accept. If Adam were to make the grade, if he were to keep his head above water despite the waves of orders barreling down on us while we worked as a team behind the machine, it would have tipped the scales back in favour of the men and I simply couldn’t see that as a good thing.

A key skill in making a café successful is the ability to connect with both colleagues and customers, even when the heat is on. Without that extra touch, the café loses its appeal and customers become unfaithful, seeking their coffee and small talk elsewhere without guilt.

I put Adam on milk as I pulled the shots and while doing so, asked him a series of questions, starting with simple ones like whether or not he minded if I called him “Rookie” and his date of birth and where he grew up before moving on to the abstract. As I asked him these questions I observed his technique like a hawk. He was good, as were his answers. When I asked him what playing card he thought that I most identified with he confidently responded, “Easy, you’re the Jack of Hearts. Anyone could have told you that.” I followed that with a corresponding question as to what chess piece I was, including the colour. He replied with a smirk as he poured a perfect flat white, “Come on, man, challenge me here. You’re a Rook, a black one at that, a dark outsider with the potential to move rapidly. I don’t know what side of the board, though. Not yet, anyway.”
“Why would you say that? And with such bravado?” I asked, scarcely believing what I was hearing, trying to work out if it was all a weird dream. Was I so easy to read, so transparent, or was this man a genius? He didn’t get a chance to answer because he became entangled in a conversation with Andrew, a talkative customer, who was asking Adam for his name and purpose and an outline of his history in the coffee trade. By the time he’d finished it was too late to reignite our prior conversation. Needless to say, he got the job. He proved that he could swim in the deep end with the big boys, fluent in all strokes, even butterfly.

He’s still not you, though, Brenda.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Eavesdropping Pt 2

I liked the feeling of wearing a smile when entering situations. It gave me a sense of mystery. “And stubborn dads,” I whispered, my breath accelerating. It reminded me of my own dad when the doctor demanded that he quit smoking. He had us all convinced for months that he’d kicked the habit and everyone was so proud of him. Then I found him smoking one Sunday morning, despite his cancers, in the guest bathroom. I was 10 years old and deeply confused. I didn’t understand why he went against the doctor’s order but I did understand that he had his reasons, as dark and selfish as they were. He didn’t know at the time that I’d seen him and I was a mess. The secret was too much for my young mind to confine and soon enough I told my older brother, who then told my mother. She confronted Dad with aggression and in an act of desperation, booked him a session with a very expensive hypnotist. He attended but was afterwoods adamant that he’d absorbed nothing, that he had proved he was immune to hypnotism. He died one year later and we all wept in anger.

The suspected hypnotist was reading, or was he? As I wiped down the tables next to him, I worked the angles so that I could observe him to the maximum. I noticed that his eyes lacked the animation necessary to read. Maybe he was onto me, observing me through his peripheral vision as if he’d been expecting my presence. He must have understood that his suspicious actions with Brenda wouldn’t go without investigation. He held his book so that I couldn’t see the title. “On purpose,” I muttered. His ears pricked up. “I know what you’re doing,” I continued, not sure if he could actually hear me. It really was more of a whisper than a mutter. Surely the natural noises of the café had drowned out my soft words as I could barely hear them myself. Either way, he left abruptly, without even finishing his ginger beer. I watched him as he exited to see if he turned back. I just knew that if we made eye-contact, Brenda’s suspicion would be confirmed. He looked back and our eyes met. He had the eyes of a shark, small and predatory. That was all I needed. I gathered his scraps like an enthusiastic scavenger and those of the surrounding tables then made my way back to Brenda, to congratulate her on her sharp sense of judgement. She’d make an excellent criminologist if she ever tired of hospitality.

As I approached the trio again, I was entranced by the perfect shape of the boy’s skull. I’d noticed it earlier when I was behind the counter, thinking it was masculine and symmetrical, bordered by a neat hairdo connected to a beard of similar length and texture, but when I saw his profile I was so overcome by genetic envy that I tripped heavily on the tiny step I had passed over thousands of times before. The bottle from my right hand and the cups and saucers from my left sailed though the air with the confidence of weathered seamen until they collided with the floor, shattering, the dregs of liquid splattering the trio, ruining their afternoon. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” I repeated from the floor as apologetic tears welled in my eyes.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Eavesdropping Pt 1

In my time working in cafes I have overheard a lot of things. I love haunting the floor, drifting from one conversation to another. Customers treat me like a harmless ghost, continuing their conversations without batting an eyelid as I clear their tables, listening, observing.

A group came in yesterday and had coffee near the machine. They made a fine trio, two girls and a boy. As they talked I hung on their every word. I felt part of the conversation.

“Alright, here’s one,” the boy announced. His unusually deep voice commanded attention. “A stallion, a cancer scare and an empty Selfridges bag.” The girls laughed passionately. At first I didn’t understand and grinned shyly, then realized they were playing that game where you say three strange things in a row.
“My turn,” said the prettiest girl. “A copy of yesterday’s Times, heart shaped ice cubes and an elderly cat.” More laughter.

I liked these people. I thought about what I would say if I were playing, too. There are so many strange things to say it would be hard to choose just three. Japanese clowns, endangered species, bullfighting, the internet, bongo drums, acrobat couples. So many…

It was the other girl’s turn. She seemed deep in thought, like she was trying to conjure spirits. “Okay, how about an injured hand, French novels and…pubic hair,” she eventually said. The others laughed politely.

Brenda whistled to get my attention, a confusing habit of hers, and beckoned me over to the till. She leaned in close and whispered, “I think that the man on table three tried to hypnotize when he ordered just then.”
“How do you know?”
“There was a lot of eye-contact.”
“Too much?” I asked.
“Way too much.”
“And did he blink at all?”
“I don’t recall him blinking. It’s possible that we blinked at the exact same time but I doubt it.”
“Alright, I’ll go suss him out,” I said and made my way over to table three. As I passed the trio I overheard the prettiest girl. “And stubborn dads,” she laughed. They laughed with her. It was contagious. I broke into a smile and chuckled softly as I approached the suspected hypnotist.

To be continued…

Monday, 22 February 2010


“Maxwell’s coming!” hissed Brenda. Maxwell is the big boss, the owner of the café, our Lord. I sneezed. It felt like an appropriate reaction to the news. He had the aura of a giant, an unpredictable one at that.
“Good morning, Maxwell,” I said, grinning, nodding my head ever so slightly.
“Mr Barista,” he said, acknowledging me but showing no emotion. He proceeded to do a few slow laps of the café, seemingly deep in thought. It was like watching a caged panther. But if he was a panther then what did that make us? Feeding mice. Or in Jonathon’s case, a panther-cub. I made a mental note to call Jonathon just that on my next shift with him. He wouldn’t understand but I thought it would probably be better that way.

The café was quiet at that point in time and it was obviously playing on Maxwell’s mind. His brows were furrowed deeper than usual. Had he walked in half an hour earlier he would have found a different scene. There was a backlog of orders, dishes were piling up and I was on the verge of panic. At one point I even snapped at Brenda, “Come on, woman! Time is of the essence!” whilst waiting for her to take out a black coffee. See, her priorities were all wrong. She thought it more important to finish loading the dishwasher tray than tend to my request.

When a black coffee is made it must be taken out immediately. Each second that passes takes its toll on the crema. On so many occasions I have tossed black coffee down the sink in frustration and started again from scratch because it hasn’t been collected in time. “Fallen soldiers,” I call them. I very rarely snap, though. I am known for my calm nature and to this day feel guilt towards Brenda for my meltdown.

“Mister Barista, could you make old Maxwell a latte?” he demanded in the form of a question. Talking in third person was one of his funnier habits.
“You betcha, sir.” You betcha, sir? Was I living in the 1950’s?

I enjoyed making coffee for him, though. I saw it as a chance to make him proud of me, to show him what I’m worth. I followed my routine and produced one of the better lattes I have ever made. I watched him intensely as he sipped it, looking for even just a hint of pleasure. He caught my eye and smirked, nodding in approval. I completed my shift with the confidence of a panther-cub.

Thursday, 17 December 2009


Everyone needs an enemy in their workplace. In my first few weeks at the cafe I spent a lot of time observing my new colleagues, searching for signs of personality disorders, trying to decide which one of them I would refer to as my enemy when talking about my job to outsiders.

I found him one Friday morning. His name is Damian. At first I thought he was a good man, genuine and youthful. We even shared handshakes and jokes during our shifts together. I'd written him off as an enemy because we seemed to have the chemistry of childhood friends, but that morning he took a joke too far. In a matter of seconds the joke became an insult. I laughed it off but then it kept happening throughout the day. After the lunch rush I pulled him aside to let him know how I felt.
"Damian," I said. "You are my enemy. Our hands will never shake again. If we happen to be playing football or field hockey against each other and at the final whistle our teammates are all shaking hands in good sportsmanship, ours won't even come close. Understood?"
He smirked in a way that suggested I was joking, that this was all some big, weird joke I was playing on him.
"Understood?!" I snarled, grabbing his arm and shaking him violently.
"Um...yeah. Understood," he conceded with a strange look in his eyes, a look I read into as one of guilt and remorse.

I released him and went back to my post on the coffee machine feeling settled, at peace. I had finally made my workplace enemy and immediately started rehearsing the stories that I'd be telling later on to my flatmates and neighbours when they asked about my day.