Yes. That’s the one.
I work in a big bookstore and usually you can find me helping customers locate books or working behind the cash register or in the Kids Department playing Mary Poppins. It’s a great job, I generally know what I'm doing, and it's pretty much a spa experience compared to other jobs I’ve had.
Especially the one where I was a movie usherette had to clean up after the Rocky Horror crowd every Friday night. All that toast and malt duck. Egads.
However, on occasion, I don’t work on the bookfloor.
On occasion, I work in the bookstore café where I make - I mean, I create - steamy, frothy, fancy-pants coffee drinks.
And I will admit, I was a bit apprehensive at first if only because the last time I had to steam and froth milk for a fancy-pants coffee drink, I instead steamed my hand, screamed really loud, knocked a plate of moussaka from another waitress’s hand, and then got yelled at in frothy Greek by Nick, the owner of the Kangaroo Restaurant in Boston.
That was 1987, and I still get shaky thinking about it. The psychological trauma was that bad.
Anyway, after getting acquainted with the newfangled espresso machines in the bookstore café, I felt immediately at ease. Short of being one of those one-button instant “espresso” computers you find in bowling alleys and gas station convenience stores that deliver cups of warm, java-scented Yoo-hoo, our espresso contraptions make it pretty darn stupid proof when it comes to creating - I mean designing - a fairly accurate version of a steamy, frothy, fancy-pants coffee drink.
And so, after exhaling and saying “Phew-ee!” out loud because I probably wouldn’t be poaching my hand again, I began the process of memorizing the 2,398 combinations of milk, steamed milk, foamed milk, whole milk, non-fat milk, coffee, espresso, Italian flavor syrup, whipped cream, drizzle, powder, seasonal goo and salted topping that make up the myriad drinks on our café menu.
And then I gave up memorizing.
Because, holy 5-pumps-caramel-syrup-venti-except-for-cold-then-it’s-6-add-espresso-before-milk-except-macchiato-then-add-shot-after-ask-about-whip-except-for-latte-remember-vanilla-bean-is-one-thing-vanilla-café-another-vanilla-comes-in-sugar-free-but-hazelnut-doesn’t-oh-my-freakin’-lord…do they hire baristas directly from MIT’s graduate chemistry program?
This is where coffee drink recipe cheat sheets come in.
And believe me, I use them.
The real baristas are very patient with my consulting the recipe sheets for almost every drink and supportive of my efforts to eventually learn all the combinations through repetition, trial and, hopefully, not too much error. After all, these is expensive drinks people is payin’ fer!
However, when the café queue starts getting long and customers start ordering smoothies and cremes and frappaccinos (think all of the above ingredients and exceptions when making a drink, but now add thirteen more recipe steps and a blender with sharp, pointy teeth), the other baristas take pity, rescue me from the sticky, exploding disasters I begin creating, and instead let me just take orders and draw on the cups.
The markers smell good.
Working the cash register in café and marking cups with the customer’s order in the café codes (latte = L, mocha = M, etc.) also requires a bit of education. But think MIT undergrad instead of Ph.D. program. Or, maybe think Boston University instead of MIT, I don‘t know.
In any event, I got the hang of it all pretty quickly.
Once in a while, some customer who looks extra tired and Already Agitated and who is wearing the kind of really expensive, really extreme eye wear that makes me think “cranky, dangerous artist who will openly disdain my coffee-speak illiteracy and bourgeois suburban mom fashion sense” - a customer like that - will go off-menu and ask for something like “a Black Eye, extra Cyclops, two times through Hades,” and I will become paralyzed in slack-jawed panic until the professional barista I’m working with - bless her very much - removes the paper cup from my frozen hand and with great compassion, patience, and perfect sense of retro-hip street style tells me, “Don’t worry, Hon, I got it.”
And the customer will leave our store happily caffeinated, sure to return for another day, and with no idea for a new sculptural installment entitled “Middle-Aged Persephone Considers Her Bitter Cup Of Maxwell House”.
Less frequently, a customer will approach the counter, take a look at the menu boards, and become wide-eyed and slack-jawed with her own feelings of panic and confusion.
All those choices. All those Italian drink names with double Cs and all those drink sizes that when translated are really just different ways of saying “big”. All the anxiety over saying the wrong thing and getting, perhaps, a cup of cold coffee grounds with a raw egg cracked on top. All the rushing cold sweat of inadequacy and self-doubt and then self-consciousness because now a line is forming and you can hear the woman behind you sighing and the five-year-old kid behind her is telling his mom that he can’t decide between a venti mocha macchiato with extra Cs or a SFV skinny soy frappuccino twice-blended extra roasty and, here, let me take your hand…
We’ve all been there. Or, at least, I have.
It's just coffee.
Here’s a cheat sheet. One of many on the Internet. Search around and find one that works best for you. Study it a bit. Write the rest on your hand in marker.
In the meantime, the next time you want a cup o' Joe while in a bookstore, you can use my Never Fails trick for getting through most social anxiety-inducing situations with your self-esteem intact:
Just stare at the menu with a furrowed brow, sigh, and then say with great patience and gentle compassion, "I'm so sorry, Hon. This is just so different from what I'm used to in Paris."
And then order a house blend, black.
Bookstore trumps bowling alley.
But European city trumps almost any suburban bookstore.
Down the hatch!