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


Changing the Conversation

“If you don’t like what is being said, change the conversation.”

-Don Draper, Mad Men

If you know me, you know that I talk about TV more than bored party goers mumble about the weather. Lately, Mad Men is the focus of my TV talks.

I think Mad Men is brilliant. It boasts beautiful cinematography and skillful editing, accompanied by a strong cast and concrete writing. I feel as though I can slip into life 50 years ago. I see chronic alcoholism spill through the hallways of a Madison Avenue office. My eyes nearly squint over the smoke in every scene, and I can feel the sticky summer air before the days of centralized air conditioning. Still, there is one aspect of the show I don’t understand: the women.

I identify as a woman, but I felt so disconnected from the women on Mad Men. The housewives spend their days gossiping between cigarettes and waiting to polish their husband’s shoes when he gets home. Yet these women feel so overwhelmed by their seemingly monotonous life that they see psychiatrists. There are some women who work—secretaries— but they mostly count calories and babysit their drunken bosses. And as soon as they land a fiancé, they leave the workforce and enter motherhood.

The women in Mad Men are close to my age, but their lives are so different from mine. I went to college. I never had time to sit and chitchat about my neighbor’s dress at the grocery store. I worry about making a life for myself in my twenties, not seeking someone else’s life to give me direction. Specifically, Don’s wife, Betty is a skinny, blonde housewife who spontaneously breaks down on her afternoon errands for no apparent reason. I just assumed January Jones was a poor actress.

And I wasn’t alone. Fans do not sympathize but rather criticize Betty Draper. They call her a little girl and sneer as she drowns in her mundane laundry list and visits a psychiatrist.[1]

A few weeks ago, I found myself bookless on a beach. My friend offered me his “spare” book: The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.

Friedan wrote this book in 1963, after she surveyed Smith College alumni and discovered many of them were miserable as housewives. She defined The Problem That Has No Name—the term used to explain the stress and angst a housewife experiences when managing the laundry, cooking dinner, while still appearing sexy and devoted to her husband. Housewives across America cracked open this book and peered wide-eyed as Friedan echoed their feelings of emptiness: a “child among her children.”[2]

Blaming advertising and the media, Friedan fueled the protest fire for second-wave feminism in the 60s. Women read her words and found a voice. When Friedan led the Women’s Strike for Equality, 20,000 women advocated for equal pay in the workplace and social equality in marriage.[3]

As I began reading, I found myself catching up with the lives of women I didn’t understand. Suddenly, the woes of Betty Draper in Mad Men seemed real. With every page, I felt myself falling deeper and deeper into the era— imagining the cloth diapers in the laundry, the suds of my child’s bathtub in the evening and the smell of Rye on my husband’s breath when he came home long after the children’s bedtime story. Of course I would be screaming for a way out! I couldn’t imagine working this full-time job confined in the home, my only release being gossip with the neighbors and countless Virginia Slims.

I found myself sympathizing in a way I hadn’t considered before. I wanted these women to have a voice, these women whose vocal cords were clenched, muscles yearning to scream. I could feel my heart racing with every line, every picture Friedan paints of women in those days. Women who are stagnant as “little girls”—confined to the home all day, considered too naive to participate in scholarly discussions and given a weekly allowance. Women who are unknowingly at the beck and call of the media who, “accept the feminine mystique, operate as a kind of youth serum, keeping most women in the state of sexual larvae, preventing them from achieving the maturity of which they are capable.”[4]

I had to buy the book.

I went to a well-known bookstore a few minutes away. I perused the aisles for the non-fiction section, but the non-fiction section was broken down into subgenres. And that’s when it hit me—what is The Feminine Mystique considered?

Well, the book was written over 40 years ago. And I remember hearing about it in a history class one time. It did start second-wave feminism, and that’s usually mentioned in American history courses. I searched in the American History section to no avail.

I convinced myself Friedan was a philosopher. She wrote with all the pomp and prose of those philosophers I studied freshman year, and she invented an oxymoronic term, The Problem That Has No Name. She developed theories about women that no one ever considered, while making universal connections that nearly every American woman could understand. But no luck in philosophy, either.

After about twenty minutes of frantic searching, I broke down and asked an employee. She told me they had three copies in the other room. I followed her directions, and I saw a section tucked away, with a nearly hidden label that read “Gender Studies.” Ah. Atlases and now obsolete roadmaps of every state surrounded this tiny bookshelf. As I skimmed through the titles, the words, “bitch,” “vagina,” and “lesbian” dictated the section. No man would come near this shelf, unless he was looking for a roadmap of Montana.

This microcosm of the bookstore was forgotten. Secluded. It was not easily accessible, and it was easily avoidable. With books ridden with these “taboo” words about women’s identity, why should this shelf be made convenient to the masses?

I eagerly cracked open the book, excited to travel back in time again. But this time, I didn’t feel like I was in an episode of Mad Men. I thought about where this book was displayed. It resided under an exclusionary genre that would make most people look the other way. It was confined to an isolated area, much like the women discussed within its pages.

I read a chapter on feminism and heard myself agreeing with the misconceptions about feminists today; still people stereotype them as “man-hating, embittered, sex-starved spinsters.”[5]  I felt like I was reading about contemporary women. Which got me thinking that our society has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to gender.

Today, women are still not as economically self-sufficient as men. Single mothers are the most likely demographic group to be poor, and their children are 4 times more likely to live in poverty than children of married couples.[6] Most single mothers work, but they earn 77 cents to every man’s dollar.[7] Thus, the fear of being single is still prevalent, not unlike women 60 years ago, who read articles like “An Encyclopedic Approach to Finding a Second Husband.”

Also, Congress is still debating whether women should have access to contraceptives, or if they should be allowed to terminate their pregnancy. These are valid questions, but in a government where over 80% of politicians are men, how much are women making decisions versus being told what they can do?[8] It reminds me of a woman Friedman mentions, whose husband tells her when she can buy herself a new pair of shoes and how she can spend her weekly allowance of $42.[9]

Betty Friedan comments that at the same time as men were trained to travel into space, the same time schools were integrated in the South, women were inside, scrubbing the dishes and trying not to chip their manicures. [10]

Today, we’re successfully transplanting hearts to save lives. We type noiselessly on our gadgets to communicate instantly with people on the other side of the world. We’ve been to space 168 times.[11] Still, women are trying to move up the corporate ladder and participate in political discussions about their own bodies.

After catching up with my favorite show, I inadvertently caught up with the history of my gender. While women have come a long way from earning an M.R.S. degree, we still have a lot to catch up on. We all should be reading more, talking more, and following Friedan’s lead to advocate for our rights as human beings. Even if you begin to view the women in Mad Men differently, I hope you’ll tell someone. We can all change the conversation together.

[1] It’s noteworthy that Betty’s psychiatrist does not adhere to modern patient confidentiality laws; Betty’s husband, Don calls the doctor regularly to hear updates on his wife’s “issues.”

[2] Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton, 1963. Pp.138.

[3] Gourley, Catherine. Ms. and the Material Girl: Perceptions of Women from the 1970s to the 1990s. 1st. Minneapolis, MN: Twenty-First Century Books, 2008. 5-20.

[4] Friedan, 133.

[5] Friedan 138.

[9] Friedan 94.

[10] Friedan 83.

Serendipity on East 21st

“Taxi!” they both shouted, standing on opposite sides of a one-way street. The heavy rain muffled the sounds between them so neither heard the other’s call. Although they had both been standing there for some time, they had failed to see each other through the watery sheet. They just as easily could have gone their separate ways without knowing they had, for a moment, been close to the other.

Instead, a bright yellow cab slowly rolled to a stop in the street between them, and they both rushed for their respective passenger door to find solace from the storm. They were so frenzied getting into the cab that it was already zooming through the city streets before they noticed they were sharing the car.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said one, “I didn’t realize.”

“No, it’s my fault,” said the other.

Recognizing the each other’s voice, they looked up, and suddenly realization registered on both their faces.

“Are you…” they both started, and then began laughing

“I can’t believe it.”

“It’s been years.”

“More than years.”

And with that it all came flooding back: the adventures they had together and the un-adventures that were made that much better by the presence of the other; the time spent learning everything about each other’s lives and families, their passions, their quirks; the laughter, all of the laughter that came with their time together; the tears that would eventually follow.

The tunes that had played on repeat floated through their heads—they used to be able to sing Fleetwood Mac Rumors in their sleep, and now they hummed along like nothing had changed. Together they visited their old haunts—the outcropping by the river they liked to think was only theirs, the bar where they had done so many things that they could only laugh about the next day, the dingy Mediterranean restaurant that they discovered one day when they were lost that had become their go-to. They could taste the falafel now.

As the cab swerved around a corner, they began to think of the years spent apart. So much had changed: new lessons learned, new favorites found, new songs to sing. They had become new people. They began to tell each other about their lives, to share everything they had done since they last parted. One had a spouse and a kid on the way. The other was preparing for a move overseas for a new job and a new life.

It was clear how much time had been lost, but still, they slipped back into conversation as if they had seen each other yesterday. They didn’t know how long they talked in that cab, but they could have gone on forever. It seemed that the result of everything changing had been no change at all. It was just like it had always been between the two of them, easy and free.

All too soon the cab stopped at the first destination. They both thought about exchanging numbers, meeting up some other time, bringing their two lives back together. But neither said anything. They had both done things they weren’t proud of at the end, things they could never bring themselves to atone for. They knew their reuniting could only happen by fate—if they tried to make it happen it could never work.

One got out of the car, and the other drove away.

They never did see each other again. They didn’t really expect to. They went on with their lives and continued changing and growing. But every time either of them was standing on a street corner on a rainy day, waiting for a cab, they always peered across the street hoping to see the other.