Counter Service

Emma Törzs

Six years ago, in the autumn after I graduated college, I got a job in a coffee shop staffed almost exclusively by gay ex-meth addicts from Texas. They all hated me. Upon reflection, I think my hiring was a dual case of mistaken identity: they'd believed me trustworthy, I had believed them imaginative. I'd applied in the first place because the cafe was themed around a famous gay writer I particularly admired, and so I assumed I'd be entering the employ of fellow book-lovers, but in fact the owners hadn't ever read the writer in question; they'd simply heard secondhand that he loved food. "Everybody loves food," I said, betrayed. "You could have named the cafe after me."

"Fat chance," said the owner. A week into the job and I was already disappointing them. Big-haired and chatty, I'd worn red to the interview, and I believe this set up certain expectations—namely, that I'd be more like Daphne, the only other front-of-house female employee. Daphne was a raspy-voiced serial dater who could make five split-shot sugar-free vanilla lattes at once and still manage to carry on a conversation over the squeal of the milk steamers. "Dump his ass!" she'd advise, about anything. She was right out of a TV show, the best gay sidekick ever, and was the kind of woman who cared only about men, no interest in me at all. I was desperate for her friendship. I made up tabloid stories about the boys I was dating to try and win her attention, but she must have seen through my lies to the single, soup-from-a-can core of me, because she responded with indifference no matter what I told her.

"He's obsessed with micro-penises," I said. "His web history is full of Google image searches for them, and I always catch him staring at other guys' crotches. Thumb-dicks, he calls them. He'll stare someone down on the bus, then nod all sage-like and give me a thumbs-up." I waggled the digit at her.

"Did you slice the Obama Bars yet?" she said.

Obama Bars, formerly known as Kerry Bars, were house-made peanut butter rice crispy treats covered in chocolate, and in addition to supporting whatever Democrat was campaigning for president at the time, they were delicious. My knife skidded deliberately every time I sliced them, and I'd set aside a plate to hoard the resulting crumbles so I could shovel the whole pile into my mouth as soon as Daphne's back was turned.

"You have chocolate in your teeth," said Daphne.

Each morning I biked to work at 6:00 a.m., over the potholes of Franklin and across the trembling metal bridge of Highway 35, then down the side streets of Northeast Minneapolis. In the hazy city mornings these residential streets were indistinguishable from one another, grey house after grey house with the occasional thumbprint park, and I might have kept sleepily pedaling onwards forever, save for a fenced front yard a block before the turn-off for the cafe, in which lived three enormous, identical white dogs. Extravagantly furred and clean, they never barked, but stood at attention as I passed, inclining their noble heads in choreographed unison and following me with their brown polar bear eyes. My living landmark.

"Go fix your hair," said my manager John. "Helmets aren't a good look for you." John was barrel-muscled and tidy-bodied with an obsessive beard and a solemn, craggy face. His level persona was in strict counterpoint to my other manager, Robby, who was bald, butter-pale, and overweight like a duchess. Along with the two owners they'd all gone through the same rehab program many years ago. While I couldn't picture John so much as touching drugs, or having any fun at all, Robby liked to talk about his past in wistful detail.

"While I was onstage you would've thought I was perfectly sober," he'd say, scrubbing the espresso machine, "but as soon as the curtain fell I'd take off all my clothes and roll around like a seal. Art, art!"

At first I'd interpreted Robby's unstinting openness as warmth and thought he might become my one work friend, but his quickness to share graphic personal details was born less of bonhomie and more of his many years in Narcotics Anonymous, where week after week he detailed his most salacious drug-related exploits for a rapt and sympathetic audience. It seemed dangerous to me, this constant nostalgic rehashing, yet I too often told stories about the person I had been, perhaps as safeguard against becoming her again.

"In elementary school, teachers wouldn't let me sit near bookshelves," I'd told my high school friends. "Otherwise I'd read all day and ignore them. No one liked me. You wanna smoke another bowl?"

In college, while my artsy new lady-clique ceremoniously shredded my collection of tie-dyed dresses, I had regaled them with high-school tales of dropping acid at Phish concerts. "I didn't even like female singers," I said. "Except Joni Mitchell."

Now graduated, employed, adult (ha!), I tried to tell my new co-workers at the cafe about discovering feminism and being covered in gummi worms for the sake of art, but they didn't care. I told them anyway. I had to. At twenty-two, I was beginning to try and make some narrative sense out of my life, an undertaking that most real adults could've warned me would last forever. Already certain personal patterns were becoming clear to me, chief among them my utter co-dependence on my best friends and how absolutely sick to death I always grew of them. Or, not sick of them, exactly; rather, I became impatient with being known, and known well. For me being known, and being loved, was limiting.

In other words, I've felt safe all my life.

A few weeks after I began working in the cafe, Robby asked me to cover his shift so he could attend the ceremony to receive his ten-year sobriety chip. I said no. I had plans to make papier-mache masks with my roommates that evening. With fair reason any goodwill he may have had towards me evaporated and from then on I could feel his heavy sigh following me as I polished glasses, bussed dishes, burned espresso. When Daphne came in to relieve me at noon, he'd cry, "The cavalry!" and fold her into his bosom while she glared at me over his sloping shoulder.

Our customers, at least, liked me well enough, which baffled John to no end. They were mostly an upper?class on?the?go clientele with some younger artsy professionals mixed in, and they admired my jewelry (beaded) and my clothing (thrifted). In those days I often wore a pair of green, feathered earrings and after an exuberant "Aren't those adorable!" from a power?suited customer, John took me aside and asked me to refrain from wearing them again. "Feathers are unsanitary," he said. (You are unsanitary, he meant.) And he took issue with the pigtailed braids that were then my go?to style. "One braid is classy," he said, and raised a thick eyebrow. "But two? Two is excessively casual."

This became a stock phrase among my friends. "I'll be ready in two minutes," I'd say, or, "I'll take two scoops of chocolate," and they would shake their heads and scoff, "Emma, c'mon, one's all right. But two? Two is excessively casual."

Throughout the four months I worked at the cafe, I was preparing to leave. On my days off I'd hole up in a different coffee shop and write my grad school applications. Here, fantasies of a windows-down cross-country move were spliced horribly with the nightmare that I'd be rejected, that I'd be forced to stay in Minneapolis, working in that cafe, that I'd keep facing the same people day in and day out until their fixed ideas of me sandpapered against my own protean plans for myself and hewed me down to the specifics of their stunted imaginations. At night I'd go home to a tiny houseful of well-known souls and chafe. Mornings I'd cycle through that cidery cold Minnesota air and take in great panicked lungfuls of movement, preparing myself for the confines of the cafe and the unchanging rituals of unlocking and wiping-down and setting-out and stocking. Golden croissants lined up like jewels in the window. Rich black coffee beans ground loudly into fragrant dust. Glasses stacked and filled and lipsticked and washed to a shine and then stacked again, and again, the tasks endless, the monotony agonizing.

Though not for Robby. He went away for a week and returned, threw open the door, closed his eyes in olfactory pleasure. "Home sweet home," he said.

To its credit, the cafe was a beautiful place. Ornately Victorian and lovely down to every edible detail. Even as I complained about polishing the silver mirrors I coveted them and imagined furnishing my own house like this someday—velvet armchairs, a roaring fire, gilded first-editions lining every mahogany shelf. I lived in a murky green room in an apartment of rickety tables, of stained rugs we'd found in alleyways and a couch that sagged in the middle from ten years of boys' video-gaming bottoms. Our only glory was a taxidermied bear skin with cloudy marble eyes that lay draped along the top of our sofa. Suffice to say, the most aesthetically-pleasing piece of my life was the cafe.

"You must love working here," customers gushed.

Once, I got into conversation with a despairing PhD student in molecular biology. He told me he'd just discovered that his past five years of research had panned out to nothing.

"Basically," he said, "I have to start my degree over from scratch. There goes my life."

To express my sympathy I made what is, in technical musical terms, known as a "chromatic descending wah," and colloquially called the Sad Trumpet or the Fail Sound. After the student had slouched off to his perpetual lab, John turned to me and said, "Wah wah wahhh? Did I really just hear that?"

"Well," I said, "he found out his PhD research is—"

"No," said John. "No." His face was as expressive as it ever got, which is to say, his eye was twitching. "We do not make those noises to customers."

"We were talking!" I said.

It seemed a perfectly good excuse—nay, an explanation, as "excuse" would imply wrongdoing. In my mind the student and I had been connecting in an egalitarian conversational space that wasn't based on the hierarchy of server/served, and because I hadn't felt a barrier between us in the first place, I didn't feel as if I'd breached anything.

And yet: the student had been on one side of the counter, and I on the other. For John, this separation was a fundamental tenet of his life. It was uncrossable.

Back then I assumed it was based on pecking order; assumed that John, as an employee, placed himself lower than the customer. Now, however, I believe it was a question less of rank than of protection. The cafe was a constructed world unto itself. Not my world, which is all I cared about at the time—but someone's. And that world was safe so long as we worked to keep it that way. Anyone who's been made weak by instability knows what power can come from a solid foundation, and unlike me, my co-workers had seen how precarious the wider world could be. And, unlike me, the men had completed and could point to one incontrovertible arc in their own stories, a narrative of redemption. From addiction to sobriety, their hero's journey had seen them vanquish the villain and land here, in this cafe, where hard work and routine were weapons to stave off the return of danger. For John perhaps the counter was not a barrier, but a buttress.

From day one, it was intrinsically clear that I did not belong in their citadel. Since I was not exactly bad at the job, I did not exactly get fired; the split was mutual. One day John called me up and said, "I'm making the schedule for next week and I'm just wondering, do you even like working here? Does it feel like a good fit for you?"

"Oh, well, you know," I said. "No."

"So maybe, we could think about, if you decided not to come back?" he said. "Will you give me a good reference?" I asked.

"Oh, my dear," he said, "of course," and though I'm certain he disliked me, he said this with great sympathy and he kept his word. When I think about John now, I always think about how kindly he spoke to me at the last. And when I tell this story now to friends, it is to illustrate the person I once was: a careless employee, an ungenerous colleague, a girl with excessively casual hair. I talk about her to prevent her return.

In the six years since, I've moved several times, and have worked several different jobs and lived several different lives, and met enough new incarnations of myself that I've begun to tell stories about her, too. These days I am working again in a cafe, as a recent re?transplant to that same city I was once so thrilled to leave, and I live again in a well?worn house with too many roommates. Considering the facts, you could say that in six years nothing has changed. But it has. Time has passed, and I'm older, old enough to know I won't be young forever, and barring early death, six years won't always make up a significant portion of my life. In this, my twenty-eighth year, I spend my weekends arranging berry-studded muffins on a silver tray. I roll clean forks into blue cloth napkins. I slice loaves of aromatic bread, and I fill glasses, and I empty them and shine them and stack them and fill them again.

"There goes my life," the PhD student said, and I think, yes: here it goes.