Work In Early January

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Read Time:7 Minute, 55 Second

By Lauren Halbrook

I am just through the doors when the bitter smell of coffee hits me, familiar, yet still abrasive.
Matt’s steaming milk creates a distant hum, the smashing of his portafilter drums against my
ears. There is a sleek marble countertop island where our machines are placed that hints at the
shop imitating a popular new-age coffee shop, but the outdated wood paneling and overuse of
warm-toned decor interrupts the illusion of complete modernization. The wood tables and their
accompanying Ikea chairs house the usual early morning crowd, and the window to the sidewalk
reveals a bench in which people congregate around drip coffee, their cups are held by their
gloved hands while their words puff out in front of them: politics, arguments, football. Every day
when I pass the two men seated at the table, they blurt out “good morning Lauren!”. Every day, I
curse myself for not knowing their names.
The early hours of the morning are slow, but the flow is consistent, and my work on the espresso
machine is sharp and measured, my shots pour like honey and I produce the perfect foam. My
latte art is the best at this time. When the number of people that come filing in grows larger, so
does my bad mood. The lack of thank yous leads to me slamming milk pitchers and rolling my
eyes out of their sight. I try to think of other things; the essay I will soon have to write, and the
hike I am itching to go on. It is no use though; I feel my irritation in my calves, rising to my
stomach. I take it out on the knock box; smashing my portafilter way too loudly.
When John walks through the glass door promptly at 7:50 in the morning and gets in line,
wearing shorts and a collared long-sleeve shirt, I know my mood will relax for his presence.
When he reaches the register, he greets the employee with a gentle friendliness that is difficult to
feign, addressing them by name, always. John orders a medium almond milk chai latte in a metal
commuter mug for himself, and a large decaf almond milk latte with three splendas for his wife, in a paper cup. After his order is finished, he walks over to the bar to wait, and on his way says
“Hi Henry. Hi Ilya. Hi Matt. Hi Lauren.” When he reaches the bar, he settles into easy
conversation, catering the subject to each of us. Here, he waits, in absolutely no rush at all, with
a kind of patience that should be afforded to us, but usually is not. It is here that asks me what I
am reading in school, discusses football with Matt, and asks about business with the manager. He
tells me about a Shakespeare festival in Oregon that he is attending with his wife, asks for my
opinion on Pride and Prejudice, and imparts little shards of wisdom to each of us. “What did you
think of Wuthering Heights?” and “How’s your fantasy team doing?” are both asked in the short
five minutes that he spends by the bar. John leaves with careful care to thank each of us and is
out the door, the first regular of the day.
The pace is quick to pick up, and before we know it, we are slammed. People that I do not know
call out “Thank you Lauren!”, and others do not award me a thank you at all. My customer
service smile hurts my face, cracking against my dry winter skin, and eventually, I give up
feigning excitement at being here. At 8:45, I anticipate Karen and her usual order of a small
half-decaf coffee in a medium cup, so that there is plenty of room for cream. Or, if she is feeling
decadent, she might get a small dark chocolate mocha, with whipped cream of course, and will
refer to the mocha as “deluxe” when I sprinkle chocolate over the whipped cream. I do not tell
her that this is the standard, instead, I tell her “only the best for you.” Where John lingers, Karen
is in and out, swift and calm, with a similar kindness, but far less patience. She always has a gift
card and never wants to know what is left on it. She compliments my smile but aptly observes
that I do not do it very much when I am here. Karen has a one-track mind, so focused on getting
to her coffee that sometimes she does not answer my “how are you”, and instead blurts out her
order. Somehow, when she does that it does not bother me.

My mood afterward is in flux, unfortunately, dependent on the treatment that I am afforded. In
between regulars, Henry, Ilya, and I discuss who would win “Survivor” if the whole store went
and played against each other. Ilya asserts that he would win “Survivor”. I passionately disagree
with him, arguing that I would win. We do manage to agree that Henry would quit and Jesse
would lose patience for it. Ilya creates a million reasons to run pointless errands for the store, and
I make fun of his managerial pose that he takes up when he is about to announce that he is
leaving to get milk, or lemonade, or cups, or another thing that we do not even really need. These
debates occur amid the transactions and service and are sometimes annoyingly interrupted by
unpredictable rushes. Sometimes the customers laugh at our passion for the topics, and other
times they raise their eyebrows and sigh too loudly to indicate their agitation.
Shortly after the surge has dissipated, comes Jano, at 12:30 she arrives bundled in layers of
clothes that make her already small frame even smaller. Jano orders a large soy milk matcha with
no simple syrup and no foam and a medium decaf soy milk latte with extra foam for her wife,
Kate. The pace of the morning has slowed by this time, and oftentimes we are distractedly
working on tasks that involve the movement to the back of house, a welcome change when the
customer flow has become exhausting. She appears out of thin air, coming in without a sound, so
quietly that we often do not notice her presence at the register, her big eyes peer in with patience
as she waits for our greeting. Jano does not attempt to hide her disappointment when I am there
instead of Jaylien, her favorite, and I try not to act like her order is sometimes my very last straw.
She waits at the counter for her drinks, and stares again, somewhat awkwardly offering a hello.
Jano’s eyes pry as she watches my swift work with an implied agitation. Her voice is soft, quiet,
and scratchy when she thanks me graciously, and I realize with relief once again that her
watchful eyes do not intend frustration. I am always reminded that multiple things can be true at once; her order can be tedious and her staring bothersome, and I can also adore her presence and
her awkward nature, even though she does not conceal that she wishes I were someone else.
Oftentimes regulars are easy to pin down to a specific time. Their appearance at our coffee shop
is a precise time that is carved out into their schedules, a distinct part of their busy routines. Tashi
is nothing like this. His booming voice and long white hair walk through our doors at erratic
moments. Tashi could come at 5 o’clock in the morning when the doors are unlocked and the
pastries are the freshest. Or, he could waltz in at 9:30, in a T-shirt when he should definitely be
wearing a jacket. Or, at 5 in the afternoon when the pastries become rocks and the coffee is
definitely burnt and bitter. Regardless of the time of day, Tashi is the calm after the storm. His
words soothe the bitterness of the morning rush, and in those moments when everything seems to
be going wrong, his habit of smiling and nodding at us while he waits in line becomes a beacon
of kindness. Tashi orders a small dark roast in a medium cup and a scone of rotating flavor. He
will ask me if there are any broken scones that will be thrown out that his dog could have, and I
always lift up a perfectly whole scone and tell him “this one looks broken to me”. To this, Tashi
will put his hand over his heart and tell me his dog will be so grateful. Tashi used to be a
professional poker player, wears a newsboy cap every day, and could make vivacious
conversation with a brick wall. That is about as much as I know about his life, but when he calls
me family and says he loves us, I nod and tell him that we love him, too.
When I wave my hands goodbye at all of them, there are calluses from gripping the portafilter,
burns up and down my arms from the oven, and my lower right arm has a unique muscle defined
by the pulling and twisting of the espresso machine. I wonder if they can see these things if they
notice the marks that exist from serving them every day. It does not matter if they can, because I
would gladly burn my hand for John’s chai, or let Tashi steal scones, or not charge Jano for soy milk. And even as I write this there is something so intangible about this intimate space that we exist in together. These split seconds of entering each others’ lives for a few moments each day. That space of not knowing one another hardly at all, yet knowing so much, like touching each other’s soul, just briefly.

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