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.

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