Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Barista Seduction Follies

I always try to tip baristas well. Not only do they have to know the exact composition of a bewildering array of coffee drinks, they also have to put up with customers. Customers are, as a rule, absolute swine. On one hand, they’re ludicrously demanding–they want their latte this way but their mochas that way and they can’t understand why the biscotti is always stale or the whipped cream is so frothy or some other piddling shit like that. But, on the other hand, they’re also the worst kind of crybaby: fail to banter with them or even neglect to flash them a fake smile and all of a sudden the underpaid college girl on the other side of the counter starts to represent all that is wrong and hurtful in the world. She’s sullen, she’s a snob, she hates everybody all because she forgot to kowtow appropriately when HRH Pickyass Patron strolled through the door with their laptop and their inflated sense of self-regard.

And these are just the normal ones. Baristas must also deal with a dizzying array of batty types. Coffeeshops are magnets for the ill-adjusted: the lonely, the sullen, the strange, and the creepy all come flocking. They sit for hours over a single cup of house blend, staring, wringing their hands, and giggling out of turn. Woe to the fool who dares to sit in their favorite spot, for this is a territorial breed. The quiet ones are the most unnerving–they’ll just glare at you with their red, beady eyes until you finally take the hint and leave. Sometimes they’ll even draw an unflattering caricature of you, the loathsome wretch who dared to steal the one chair in the entire universe where they can feel comfortable. They draw caricatures of the baristas too, but these are of a different sort. For a lot of these people, the barista is their only source of genuine human interaction. She may be the only “regular” person who has treated them with kindness that day, her voice may be the only one they can be certain isn’t just in their head. Bankers, engineers, and international businesspeople usually don’t have to deal with this element. They also get paid a lot more.

Worse than both these unhappy few and the inconsiderate many are the suave Starbucks Romeos. These are men–always men–who wear their lusts on their sleeves, who mask their frightening desperation in transparent banter and awful jokes. One shouldn’t mistake them for your average, harmless flirt, however: their tense smirks and tendency to talk only to a woman’s chest give away their secret selves. They would be ladies’ men, but ladies always hate them so their sexual frustration builds and builds until they become weird and twitchy. A barista is a stationary target for this kind. She can’t run away, she can’t claim to be “just waiting for her boyfriend”, she can’t even throw a scalding chai tea into his face. No, she must stand there and endure his mortifying attempts to charm her. When I’m waiting in line behind them, their antics are a torture to witness. I can only imagine how it would feel to be the recipient of a pickup line such as “I’m going to spill this all over my crotch and burn myself and sue you!” or “How come your shirt is so tight?“ or “Admit it–you think guys who drink cappuccinos are gay, don’t you?” It’s appalling. It’s as though they think anyone who works in the service sector must be “easy” and so all an acne-scarred, snaggle-toothed fiend has to do to score with them is come up with some line that wouldn’t pass muster at an Albanian cathouse.

I have a story about one particular acne-scarred, snaggle-toothed fiend that I would like to share with you today. This took place at a coffeeshop I seldom go to, on a weekday afternoon a three or four years ago. There was no one there but the barista, your humble narrator, and a gentleman I’ll call Biff. First allow me to describe Biff: besides the aforementioned complexion and dental problems, he was reasonably normal looking. Perhaps just into his late-30s, he was tallish, pale, and dressed in the sort of attire you seldom see in a Minneapolis hipster neighborhood: khaki shorts, a white t-shirt commemorating some sort of sporting event, and sunglasses pushed up into what little hair he had left. He also stood out by his drink of choice–a bottle of cream soda. The whole time I sat there scribbling into my notebook, he busied himself with one of two tasks: 1) pretending to read the Star Tribune and 2) surreptitiously ogling the barista’s bosom. Now I can admire the physical charms of 24-year old punk rock pixies as much as any slavering pervert, but I try my hardest not to be gross about it. If one must leer, there are ways to do it discreetly and there are ways to do it that make you obvious to everyone. I watched Biff start out along the former route and then, as the barista’s (just to give her name, let’s call her Penelope) youthful abundance got the better of his decency, I watched him as he eagerly adopted the latter approach. Before long, he was staring at her like she was working a brass rail, not an espresso-machine. It was discomfiting, but she didn’t seem to notice. This went on for quite awhile. I think I wrote an entire page and he didn’t stop gazing at her the entire time.

Eventually, he made his move. He slithered over to the soda cooler and drew out a Pepsi. With a yelping voice, he asked “How much does this cost?”

“One dollar and fifty cents,” Penelope answered.

This gave Biff the opening he was looking for. “One dollar and fifty cents!” he shouted. “That’s highway robbery, you know!”

With admirable sang froid, Penelope said, “That’s how much it costs, though.” I got the sense that she was no novice at these sorts of situations.

“It’s still highway robbery,” Biff said. There was then a brief moment of silence as they transacted the purchase. He probably considered it an awkward lull in the conversation. She probably thought of it more as a moment of respite. As soon as he had deposited his change into the tip jar, though, he started in on a fresh new tack: “You know, I was reading in the paper that Britney Spears is still a virgin.”

It was an interesting gambit, I have to admit. I put down my pen and sat up straight to better take in the scene. I felt no guilt at this: he was talking loud enough I felt I could have heard him from the street outside. Penelope wrinkled her nose and said “Oh, wow,” before walking away.

He didn’t let her get very far. “What?” he bellowed, his words pouring out with panicked gracelessness “You don’t buy it? You don’t think she’s a virgin? You think she’s some kind of slut? Is that it?”

Penelope halted her retreat and said “I don’t think of her at all.”

“Are you one of those people who thinks that just because you’re famous, you have to be a slut? Just because she’s rich and pretty and on television all the time she can’t be a virgin?” Biff howled at her. He was on a tear. He didn’t seem to be demented, though. He gave the impression of an extremely embarrassed man trying to save face in the worst possible way, if you can believe it. It was as though the shock of having his tantalizing line shot down had deranged him to the point where he just couldn’t stop babbling. I wish I could have transcribed the entire speech he let loose at this point. It was a thing to behold. Suffice to say, he used the word “virgin” perhaps sixteen times and the word “slut” maybe twenty-five or so times.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no master of the pick-up line, but I do know that certain words and concepts are usually considered off-limits for that whole process. If you asked me what words I wouldn’t say if I wanted to impress a pretty stranger, I would probably have to put both “virgin” and “slut” near the top of my list. I’d also want to avoid “blogger”, but that’s neither here nor there...

Anyway, as his noisy discourse on Britney’s chastity came to it’s ringing peroration, he thundered,“Well I think she is a virgin! She’s a beautiful, rich and famous virgin! I don’t think she’s a slut! I don’t! I’m not that kind of guy!” His face a shiny scarlet color and his voice hoarse, he marched back to his seat. He popped open his Pepsi, took a tremendous swig of it, and declared with finality “She’s a virgin! She’s not a slut!”. A minute later, he gathered up his things and bolted out the door. I followed him shortly after. His outburst had totally derailed my creative process. As I was leaving, I overheard Penelope on the phone, breathlessly telling one of her friends what had just transpired. She looked like she was going to fall apart from laughing so hard.

(Note: Because I'm lazy this Easter weekend, I'm posting this little story, which I wrote about a year or so ago and just had lying around. Fresher material should recommence shortly...)