Today was my first day back at the coffee stand since I left my teaching job. It had been 48 days and a lifetime ago that I last worked as a barista.
When I first walked in this afternoon, I felt overwhelmed with how foreign the place seemed. Nothing inside had changed, but in those first few seconds, my footsteps felt awkward and clunky; my gaze fell upon items both familiar and daunting. It felt like all my years working there was a hazy dream that I half-remembered. My entire body tensed. I started singing to calm myself as I inched into my routines.
Once I got into the swing of things (and I had no choice; I was the only one there), it felt so good.
With all the uncertainty in my life right now, I know for certain how to make a mocha. How to operate the cash register. Where to find the back-up baked goods. How much syrup to put in a Red Bull drink. How to greet customers and how to use my self-created shorthand to record their drink orders.
My barista persona came back like she’d never left. And it’s a lot less draining to wear one’s barista face for a few minutes at a time than to wear one’s teacher face all day.
There were a couple of little rushes, which did stress me out — as they always have. But all the customers were amazing. No one drove off. No one was rude. No one seemed to mind waiting.
What scared me the most about returning to the stand was answering questions about why I was back. I’d rehearsed a couple of pat answers constructed by friends in the many conversations I’ve had about the ordeal: “It wasn’t a good fit.” And, if pressed, “It just wasn’t a healthy environment.” And, as expected, some of my regulars asked. But they couldn’t have been nicer about it.
One customer gave me the biggest tip of my coffee-making career. I just about cried. Another — who didn’t know anything about my situation — gave me some food.
At one point, I was half-convinced I needed to give up the idea of teaching and be a barista forever. It makes me happy. It offers that instant gratification that only comes from making something by hand. Yes, it’s a little different if you’ve, say, knit a sweater as a gift than if you’ve made a drink they’re paying for. But the sentiment is similar!
I didn’t have time to dwell on my situation, or be irritated by initiating small talk (a fact of life in the retail profession), or worry about my future. All I had the mind-space for was the task at hand. And unlike in teaching, my perfectionist tendencies are well suited in the hospitality industry.
As is prone to happen these days, my high was instantly followed by sulking about my concerns in my capability to teach and my fluctuating desire to do so. It’s almost as though I’m suspicious of happiness — I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, so I give it a push. Clearly, I still have a lot to work on. But if nothing else, I know I can make a damn good cup of coffee.