Coffee shop karma: Common sense with little compensation

By Emma Claire Sohn

Winter break is a time for relaxation, contemplation, dear ones and new starts. While my friends collectively slalomed down every slope west of the Mississippi, I steamed milk, mixed shots of espresso, and learned to differentiate between lattes and cappuccinos.

The first steps to alleviating a problem are in accepting its existence. And so, I give in. I’m a coffee snob. And also a caffeine addict. A veritable coffeehouse hermit.

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Such snobbery is often misconstrued. I know a lot about coffee, and I enthusiastically act upon that knowledge. This is something that escalated when I began my career as a barista at a new coffee shop back home. While my job has increased my caffeine intake ten-fold, it has taught me some thinly-veiled life lessons as well.

For example, a friendly smile will get you far in life. This is key in serving people espresso. There is nothing better in the morning than being greeted with a warm smile and a sense of belonging.

And also, be favorable and you will be favored. If the customer has a coupon for ‘buy one get one free,’ give them the more expensive drink on the house for Pete’s sake. Save them the symbolic fifty cents separating the double tall non-fat-light-flavor-mocha and the triple-grande-sugar-free-soy-vanilla-cappuccino with extra foam. This simple act has day-making capacity, and at a minimal cost.

Finally, be less confrontational. Or at least more eloquent. Since I began writing my leftist whines last summer, I’ve taken it as my job to exercise my freedom of speech – especially in the political realm. But for the most part, it isn’t very much fun to banter about the slanderous slime bags that make my tummy churn outside of my other career as a columnist for this fine publication. I would much rather converse with my customers over the film that earned Woody Allen an Oscar for Best Picture in 1977, which happens to be our trivia question for the day (as well as my favorite movie.)

Standing at the coffee counter contemplating the escalation in Iraq and the Manhattan-sized ice cube, which has just broken away from the Arctic Circle, I gaze at the new customer whose eyes are fixed at the menu board above my head and think that I don’t have it so rough.

I am 20 years old and in good health. I attend a distinguished public university, funded by kind strangers who are honest with their taxes.

I write what I think and sometimes, every so often, people read it. There are people in this world who love me, which is more than some can claim.

I like what I do and, in the long run, mixing shots of espresso when the shop is busy and sipping tea with the regulars when the shop is quiet is a pretty decent job. So I smile and prescribe a caramel latte to the crabby customer, who’s maybe less fortunate than me, who may be down on his luck. He might smile back and toss a tiny donation into my tip jar if I play my cards right.

I’ve frequented numerous coffee shops and watched surly baristas empty feeble change from their tip jars. Then they’ve turned to me with a scowl and said, “All right. What do you want?” And I’ve thought, “What malady has befallen you that I, a perfect stranger, am recipient of your ire?

What have I, the innocent customer, done to deserve this?”

Espresso drinks in the American landscape are a part of the new-fangled technology that’s brought us hands-free cell phones, automatic fish feeders and drive-thru library slots that, on one hand, have made our lives easier, but have allowed us to overstress ourselves even more. And so coffee shops thrive, employing caffeine to help us emulate the work ethic that inspired our forefathers to pursue this great land. But beyond that, they are social environments that remind us of the dynamic individuality that inspires us to maintain that freedom.