New Girl in the Octagon

I self-identify as a career waitress. What can I say? I want to feel wanted and I love to be loved. I deliver the goods that satisfy your cravings and hankerings. I relish being the one to drop off your coffee/beer/cheesecake and I don’t want to do anything else.

The industry being what it is, you’d be hard-pressed to find a server that’s only ever worked at one place. I’m no exception. Coming from a grimy sports bar (by way of an Italian “enoteca” and my beloved family-owned restaurant) I was once the new kid at my current full-time gig. Of all the clueless moments and unhappy accidents I graced my coworkers with (trust me, there were many), some of my finest embarrassments occurred at the hands of coffee. That time I mistook a skim Cuban for a soy cappucino. That time I forgot to grind the coffee beans first. That time I spilled a scalding hot Americano down a coworker’s arm (sorry, Juan). I still shudder to remember various instances of baristas glaring at me, wordlessly condemning me for my inadvertent insult to their profession. From day one, I was forbidden from the “octagon” that enclosed the barista station.

When the dust settled and the newness wore off, I learned to play along. I learned the difference between a latte and a cappuccino, between a cortado and a Cuban, between a Starbucks macchiato and an actual macchiato. I came to appreciate the fancy latte art my colleagues could pour and wrote off the talent as something I would never need to know, much less be able to learn. Until now.

Recently my boss informed me that I would train as a barista to gain a better and wider understanding of the restaurant’s operations. Excuse me while I choke on my skim decaf latte. Happy-go-lucky people like me, people with the unwavering and inexplicable desire to be nice to people, who have literally been met with the startled remark “oh! you’re smiley…” upon greeting a table, belong on the floor. People like me don’t have the discipline to learn the craft. I can’t see, feel, taste, explain, or smell the difference between Arabica and Robusta.

Coffee terrifies me, but what’s more: baristas terrify me. I never aspired to be one simply because I am far too intimidated. For one thing, what is the verb form of the word ‘barista?’ Ask me what a barista does and I won’t know what to say. Second, they don’t let nerds like me become baristas, who are definitely all much cooler than I am. Third, I was always told that I should never. Touch. The espresso machine. Under any circumstances. Consequently I became afraid of this stainless steel Italian beast. The baristas can play this machine like a fiddle, can whisper it out of a funk and talk it through any tantrum. Clearly I lacked the demeanor to tame the angry machine.

I couldn’t bring myself to go back to being the new kid. To feeling so out of place at my own place of work. To wrassle with the espresso monster machine and pretend I’m picking up on the floral notes of this particular blend. To starting fresh and being totally clueless.

When I was scheduled to shadow David the Barista’s shift as a part of my training I breathed a sigh of relief. David and I are cool, I figured we’d pull a couple shots of espresso, maybe steam a little milk, and joke around about how poorly suited for barista-ing I am (seriously, what is that word?). Assuming I could get away with sub-par coffee proficiency, I assumed (incorrectly) that it would be an easy shift. As it turns out, baristas don’t let just anyone mess around on their machines.

When I tried to pull a shot he took the portafilter away. “You’re not tamping it hard enough. It should be packed tighter, like this.”

When I reached for the milk he stopped me. “We’re going to start you off with just steaming soap and water. It looks just the same but this way we won’t waste any milk.”

When I asked to pour a latte he shook his head. “Just keep watching how I’m doing it.”

I steamed dozens of pitchers of soap and water before I steamed any real milk. Pitchers that I felt looked exactly alike were somehow better or worse than the other. To me, it all looked and sounded the same but David could tell without even looking that I’d screwed up. I’d turn to him, hot and steaming pitcher in hand, and he’d say without further consideration “Okay. Dump it out and do it again.”

“Do it again.”

“Now do it again.”

I felt like one of the hockey guys in Miracle.

When finally I had the “milk” steamed to the proper temperature and my froth levels were about right, I started to pour. Well, I started to watch David pour. For him it was effortless. He could pour a masterpiece in his sleep.

“Alright, David, I think I’ve got it,” I insisted.

“Just watch me this one last time.”

I spilled the first couple. As precisely as David managed to position the cup and direct my movements I messed up every time and piping hot milk came seeping over the edge of the cup. The floor became a Jackson Pollack of my mishaps. Once I mastered the art of keeping the milk in the cup, I still struggled to get the latte to look like anything, let alone a masterpiece leaf/rosette/tulip. There wasn’t enough foam, there was too much, or I nearly overflowed the cup before any of it escaped the pitcher.

I’ll spare the gory details of my numerous failures, including one I dubbed ‘Blair Witch Latte.’ I didn’t really produce anything of value that day. I didn’t learn everything there was to know about the craft of barista-ing (I give up) but I definitely didn’t get away with pleading permanent and hopeless ignorance. It didn’t matter that nobody actually expected me to become a professional barista. When you’re the new kid in town (or in the octagon) you’ve got to appreciate how very much there is to learn and respect the opportunity to learn it. You’ve got to be patient and have a little humility.

So I’d like to say I’m sorry to all the baristas in the house who must have cringed each time they heard me incorrectly steam a pot of soap and water. I’m sorry, David, for overflowing every cup I poured in spite of your best efforts. I’m sorry to the busboy that had to mop up the octagon at the end of the day. And I’m really sorry to the guest who received Blair Witch Latte, because seriously, that froth was creepy. This girl’s starting at the bottom and working her way up from complete and utter cluelessness. She appreciates your patience.

Blair Witch Latte

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One thought on “New Girl in the Octagon

  1. I’ve been out of the game for a couple of weeks, and I’ve been asked to run a coffee-making day for a local cafe. Terrified I’ve lost it all. Understand your barista fear!

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