Customers love to ask me, “Sooo, what else do you do, Sarah?” I’m not immediately insulted. I get it: They want to know why I work a part-time job as a barista instead of a six-figure career that’s financially bulletproof. But what if I didn’t do anything on the side? Would I be at fault for wanting to be a barista, to serve coffee as my primary source of income?
Generalizing the public perception of a barista in a coffee shop, it’s easy to throw the pity card. Many people are quick to imagine the miserable university student or aspiring artist, hustling or chasing pipe dreams. The truth is, working in coffee is a modest service industry job that’s less glamorous than bartending and more personable than retail. It’s enough cash to pay for the boring stuff like Internet, rent, and flat bicycle tires. The hours are ideal for early birds, and the tips can really make a difference month-to-month. So when customers ask me what else I do, I hesitate before telling them I’m a writer. Because heck, the only thing worse than the first question is their response: “Awww. That’s cute.” I know, right? I’m the cutest.
I’ve also graduated university, prompting the customer to wonder why I’m not using my degree to buy new blazers or invest in Disney stocks. Stuck in this socially awkward life Q+A, I get that self-conscious feeling that punches my gut, like working at a coffee shop isn’t enough for a woman who has a degree. Call the police! This loser should have a career by now! But nobody calls 9–1–1, and I’m the one left questioning myself as a stranger assesses my value in a big city of work horses. I can sense their judgement. I’m a fraud and they know it. That’s when I divert the conversation, “Umm, want a croissant with that coffee?”
The thing is, I chose coffee because I like being caffeinated, eavesdropping and killing time with strangers in a semi-personal way. I didn’t land my job at a coffee shop as a fluke; I got this job because I like the people who work there and the customers – the coffee lovers, dog walkers, entrepreneurs, cyclists and motorcycle riders.
Coffee is a cool industry filled with neurotic bean experts, roasters, competitive business types and partnerships. I serve coffee and in return I meet the regulars in the neighbourhood and have conversations that generate magazine pitches. Most of those pitches will be rejected, but that hasn’t stopped me from harassing editors with new ideas that I think their readers will enjoy.
Writing aside, I may not make as much money as the next person, but it’s nobody’s business to ask me how I make a living outside of the coffee shop while I’m working. I’m a barista and that’s all that matters. I don’t need to recite my laundry list of cash hobbies to justify why I’m working at a coffee shop to a nosy stranger who feels sorry for me and my so-called life. Go ahead, make assumptions. I’m making a career out of this, and whether you approve of it or not, I like my job the way it is, and I’m happy to serve coffee because that’s what feeds my vibe, or whatever you want to call it. Satisfaction. Personal fulfillment. Work-life balance. Yada yada.
Still, if my writing does come up, I want to vomit. “Well, what do you write then? Fiction, non-fiction, poetry?” That’s when my voice cracks. I write about all sorts of things, like the workaholic’s guide to Soylent (yes, the meal replacement beverage), top 10 lists, how-to articles, beauty tips and profiles on people I think are interesting. I write about relationships that sink and burn like battleships, and why I’m tired of people feeling sorry for me as a barista. Most of the time, I write about what strangers gossip about in the coffee shop. Eavesdropping is a skill of mine, and my most riveting stories so far have been from listening to people complain about stuff while drinking coffee.
It was, after all, in a coffee stall in Paris, where the Encyclopedia was born. Coffee shops, historically and presently, are spaces where people exchange ideas, information, confessions, observations and argue about opinions, fuelled by caffeine. It’s where news is broken, colleagues bitch, families relax and friendships rekindle.
Ideas run freely and there’s no such thing as interrupting when you’re talking openly about things that are relevant to other people in the city. Sometimes I pipe in to say my two cents like it matters, but my value is found by simply listening, by letting other people do the talking.
While most customers don’t think I’m listening, I am. Quietly, at my barista station, ears open to the wind, I take note of the tension, pauses and the plots. Just last week, a frantic mother went on a rant to her personal trainer about finding a workout class that’s kid friendly. This was followed by a young architect, contemplating trading his pompadour for a trendy man bun in preparation for his residence in Rome this fall. It gets me thinking, Is there a how-to article here? Maybe a list of exercise classes in Toronto where moms can bring their little ones? The Grown Man’s Guide to Man Buns? Fuck yes. The ideas never stop, serious and silly.
Most of the time, I’ll keep it secret. Lord knows, if customers knew their barista was a culture writer, they might think twice about speaking so openly in front of an undercover story chaser. I don’t think my regulars would be too happy if they knew I was cashing in their conversations for stories read by readers across the country. Maybe they’d laugh, be flattered, feel chuffed. Who knows?
All I know is that when I stand behind the coffee bar, I’m nothing more and nothing less than a barista. I grind coffee, steam milk, serve espresso, restock, wipe counters and sweep floors. It satisfies me to put in a hard day’s work, earn my money and spend it on living. So no, I don’t do anything else. I’m a barista. That’s it. Now please buy this croissant with your coffee so I can increase my average transaction and make my sales quota.
Thank you and have a nice day.