The Arcade

Saturday, March 12, 2011

“The customer is always right” does not begin to describe the phenomenon. The phrase seems to imply that the customer said something. He doesn’t actually have to provide utterances that could be right or wrong. Communication isn’t even in the picture. The customer is right a priori. His desire is the only substance supposed to be here, well, that and maybe money. I am here to make the materialization of these desires as seamless as possible. This always involves a certain amount of divination. Customers want what they ask for, yes, but also what they think they have asked for, or what they just plain wish they had asked for. And they don’t mind speaking up if they don’t get it.

A west-coast Buddhist monk would either make a really bad barista or a really good one. There is certainly no shortage of dharma. But this isn’t the kind of labor assigned at retreats to make you reflect on futility. It’s too messy. But, then again, all this multitasking often does feel futile. Working here, I’m always keeping a mess of threads in order, and one or two always get tangled. Anxiety is defined by feeling that you are failing to be what you ought to be. You can only be anxious in aspiring to be something. Becoming seems at once impossible and possible. Sometimes this takes the form of trying to remember things that you never can quite, of being an inadequate vessel for memory. I am always trying to remember too many things in this job. I suppose this is because The Arcade is an awfully busy place. Did you know that some of these people actually order their drinks to specific temperatures? Sugar free vanilla lattes just don’t taste right at anything more or less than 140 degrees to some people. Can’t forget that I put someone’s breakfast sandwich in the oven, better grab it before it burns. There are more tasks to be done than there is time in which to do them. Coffee and espresso has to be made, cakes cut, sandwiches prepared, and so on. If there is a spare moment it is to be used getting restocked, cleaned up, and ready for the next wave of customers. Working here is to be made to dance by your own marionette strings.

Each day I walk in the door with a smile plastered across my face. It’s best to keep busy and to keep smiling. That way they don’t know that I hope half of them choke on their $3 scone. You mustn’t burst their bubbles of self-narration. Regulars, for instance, are always living a drama of their regularity. When they order something other than their usual, it’s a big event, worthy of at least a joke. I ask a regular “you’re getting a latte with raspberry today and a scone instead of a muffin?”
“Yeah, you know me,” he says, “livin’ on the edge. Gotta switch it up sometimes.” I smile and laugh like I actually care if it is vanilla or raspberry, scone or muffin.

One of the customers is shorter than I am, which is saying something. She comes up to the counter, her grey hair sticking out the sides of her hood, and takes her time ordering what she always orders. She doesn’t care that there’s a line behind her. She is a regular. Slowly, she tells me what she wants: “a piece of lemon cake and two small hot chocolates, not more than 150 degrees, with skim milk and whipped cream,” then fiddles with her wallet, trying to figure out how to use her husband’s credit card. I have learned to never give her the cake before giving her her hot chocolate because she will eat it with her mouth open and crumble half the cake onto the counter while I steam the milk.

The problem with being friendly to customers is that just because I smile and say “have a nice day” doesn’t mean I want to go out with them. This is a point of contention for some. I don’t even want to talk to them outside of work. However I do take a kind of interest in some of them.

There is a tall student who stays for half an hour. Before she sits down she tells me she’s tired. Her neighbors partying kept her awake, and as they continued being noisy into the morning, she has escaped by coming here. She tells me she has a lot to get gone, and orders two shots. During a lull I see her with her laptop open. Finding my coworkers distasteful, these are the things that entertain me. She opens a document, scrolls through it, takes a sip of espresso, and opens Facebook. She switches back and forth between these two every minute. “Hey, hello.” Someone has been trying to get my attention. As I make this new customer’s drink, I look past the espresso machine to see her walking out. Even with caffeine you can’t always work. You can’t always even be awake. Relieved of having to try, she goes home.

There’s a guy in the corner scribbling in his notebook, looking up not furtively enough. I see the little twitches of his neck as he tries to peer around a column. When I come with his coffee, he places his hand over the page, and as he does so an indication of how long ago he last bathed wafts up. I never care to know what these scribbler types are writing, but he seems to want to keep it from me. So when he reaches with the hand covering the page for the cup when I set it down, I read from the notebook “her white uniform, too, seems eager to evoke the garments of another era, yet as a color for someone who handles coffee is an amazingly bad idea.”

A man with a militaryish haircut in a loosened dress shirt is tapping his foot in front of his laptop. He is ruffled yet sleek, aspiring to be a swimmer of life, so that everything that would obstruct his purpose might slip past him. He must go and do and not wait. I can see that this business of his has become a habit when he blunders into three people rushing to the bathroom. Stubbornly attached to the agency for which he must ever find new handholds while below him crumbling away, he cannot be anything. He would have to let go, and he is afraid to. The toilet is no sanctum for him, it is only where things get crimpy. He must maneuver his weight as close to the wall as possible.

A middle-aged woman sits fussing with her sandwich, trying to keep the lettuce from blocking the pages of her book. Her motions are irritable. I can’t see what she’s reading, because she hides it nervously. When she removed the book from her bag, she kept the back cover facing upwards all the way to the table. When she leaves the table for a moment she places some papers over the book. When she sits down she immediately opens the book, so that only someone walking right next to her table looking down at the book could read its title, or perhaps just the chapter title, from the top of the page. Finally she packs up, after lingering over her cup of coffee for two hours and suspiciously eyeing everyone who entered. She carefully closes the book with the back cover up, and quickly puts the book back in her bag.

The Arcade is an elaborate gimmick. It’s a bit like a set for “Caravaggio”--the historical authenticity is really not so important as the colors, the light, and the decaying disarray of the artist’s studio. In short it only needs to create an ambience in which acting happens. The columns are made of styrofoam with a thin coating of paint, and I almost knock them over bringing drinks to tables. Without them, people would not feel like they’re in a baroque painting. The fantasies of customers, while powerful, are fragile. I am in the business of avoiding wobbly columns. They’re obstacles to both sight and movement, and without them this place wouldn’t work. Over them (but not on them) hangs a trellis which grapes have not yet had time to climb. When they do the grapes will be a squishy mess to clean from the floor in the Fall. By that time hopefully I will be gone, and it will be someone else’s job. You see, I have plans. This job is just a means to somewhere, something, and somebody else.