VOICES From behind the bar

A look inside the mind of a barista.

You never get used to your alarm going off at 4 A.M. You can pick the most tranquil tone out of the hundreds in your phone and you still wake with a jolt, your heart pounding because your body can’t comprehend that it can be awake at this ungodly hour for any reason other than a burglar, a fire, or the apocalypse.

This has been my reality four mornings a week for the past few months, waking in a panic, staring into the dark of my bedroom, and grudgingly hoisting myself out of bed and into the clothes I have piled on my desk to save myself that extra five minutes of sleep.

If you’ve gotten this far and can relate, I have two guesses: you’re about to go on a hike or to some sort of sunrise exercise class, and for that I commend you, but also think you’re insane. Or you’re like me, and you make coffee for a living.

It isn’t until I start driving that my body is released from its state of shock and the exhaustion sets in. I drive the same 24 minute route to Bear Coast Coffee every day. The only thing keeping my eyes open and my foot on the gas pedal is the promise of sweet, sweet espresso.

My introduction to this world was nothing special. There was no magical realization that this was my calling, that I was meant to be serving the nectar of the gods to mortal men. I was simply a teenager who needed a job four years ago. It wasn’t until this past year that I discovered coffee was a true passion of mine.

The first hour on the job is weary work. The crew autopilots through their tasks quietly, baking pastries, setting up the shop, and preparing for the morning rush. My job is normally dialing in the coffee. I pull shot after shot of espresso, changing grind settings, water volume and grams of espresso until it tastes just right.

Let’s be real: coffee is kind of gross. It’s a brown, bitter liquid that sometimes tastes like someone set some dirt on fire and stirred it into a cup. Making coffee taste right takes a lot of work. Just like wine or brandy, it takes a lot of tasting, testing, and tweaking to bring the ideal sweetness out of a cup of straight black coffee.

The rest of the morning is peaceful conversation, the occasional customer wandering in. This is my favorite part of the day; the sun rises, turning the clouds a soft pink, and a cool breeze blows from the ocean. I get to laugh and make jokes with some of my closest friends. When you spend seven hours a day in a 185 square foot box with the same people five days a week, you tend to get pretty close, both physically and emotionally.

As we discuss coffee theory, current events, and our personal woes, time unassumingly slips by. No matter how many shifts I work I don’t think I will ever understand this magic. Time for me exists in a vacuum at Bear Coast Coffee, and how 30 minutes can turn into four hours I will never know, but will be endlessly thankful for.

By 9 A.M., I look up to find that I am suddenly a tiny goldfish in an even tinier bowl, surrounded by dozens of very irritable, uncaffeinated sharks. The space I work in, behind the espresso machine, is no bigger than a ping pong table, and customers can stare right through a glass panel to where I am frantically composing their drink.

I feel like a mime in a box some days, having to act my way through polite small talk while pumping syrup, pulling shots, pouring latte art. I pour a heart here, a tulip there, all while my brain has already moved on to what needs to be done for the next drink.

But this is the rush that I live for. The constant line of tickets in front of me is a game that I get to beat every day. Every time I get a compliment from a customer or recognition from one of my managers it only stokes my prideful fire. Even the occasionally rude customers that leer at me from behind the counter motivate me. If I can please them, I can please anyone. I come to the bar every day wanting to be better, faster, stronger, Kanye reference intended.

While I occasionally look out into the crowd of customers and see them as a ravenous pack of wolves or a video game level I need to complete, I genuinely do love our customers. My coworker Josh always says, “Sometimes you’re the first person a customer is talking to in the morning. You have to make that interaction count.” I have made friends with incredible people who started out as customers. Having the ability to really engage with customers and discover who they are as people is hard to come by in any industry other than coffee.

Before I know it, my work day is done by noon. I leave the bar buzzing with energy and warmth, feeling more fulfilled than I thought possible. Or, I leave the bar completely exhausted, feeling like the life has been sucked out of me. Either way, I don’t know how I got so lucky. When you boil it all down, I’ve somehow grown to love working in the service industry. I try not to question how that happened. I’m just gonna roll with it.