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.