For those of you who don't know, I have a day job. I'm a barista at (without argument) the most popular and famous coffee chain known to man: Starbucks. This coming June marks one year of employment at this establishment, and this anniversary means more to me than a typical employee.
Fair warning: what I'm about to write is cheesier than a Bacon Gouda Breakfast Sandwich and sweeter than a Single Grande Caramel White Chocolate Mocha in Venti cup with extra whipped cream and mocha drizzle.
I legitimately always told myself that if there was one job I could never do...it was barista. Prostitute really sounded promising at times, but making coffee? God no. The lingo was strange, the pace too fast, the atmosphere too crazy. High stress levels. Big fancy people in big fancy suits throwing coffee in your face because you put in two packets of Splenda instead of demanded three. Uh-uh. Not for me. Frankly, I wasn't smart enough to do that.
It was my sister, Dana, though, who pushed me. Her favorite Starbucks (in Muskego of all places) was hiring, and I was in desperate need of a job. Did I mention desperate? I had quit QuadGraphics after a mere two weeks (but that's a story for another day) and the shifts at the daycare simply weren't cutting it...plus, I was seriously considering becoming an alcoholic. Because of the daycare. Not just for kicks and giggles. So I applied, got an interview and was hired. Woo-whoo.
Now the fun part began. I don't mean to be dramatic (who am I kidding?) but last summer was probably one of the hardest times of my life. Most of 2015 read like a bad country song. My lover left me, my dog died and my truck broke down. Well, my Escape broke down so I bought a Taurus and that broke down so I drove my brother's truck and then that broke down. Maybe you should just keep your cars away from me. Anyway, last summer I was fresh off the breakup, directing a show ("Taming of the Shrew") that I believed with all my heart I was totally unqualified to do and was training at Starbucks.
The way training goes down over there is two weeks of watching videos, watching other baristas and learning how to make most of the drinks at a leisurely pace during the afternoon lull on a Monday. After the two weeks are up, they throw you to the lions and pray to God that you last. It's sink or swim.
And for a long time...I sank. Everything that I dreamed would happen happened. My first month there, a woman SCREAMED at me for accidentally making her drink a Venti (the big one) instead of a Grande (the medium one). I was called stupid more than once (to my face) by people going through the drive-thru. I dropped things. I messed up the mocha. I go the black tea confused with the green tea. I asked stupid questions, like "Do you want the classic syrup in addition to the caramel or is that substituting it?" I was slow. And I couldn't shake this thought that everyone who looked at the schedule and saw that they shared a shift with DEANNA let out an audible moan and considered becoming a prostitute.
One shift in particular, Malayna, terrified me to no end. I remember distinctly one time, she came up to me and simply asked which coffee I had just brewed and I froze in my tracks. I mumbled and stammered and then finally blurted out, “You really intimidate me! It was Blonde! I brewed Blonde!”
I hated going in to be perfectly honest and had it not been for that stupid need for money in order to survive, I may have quit. Starbucks for the first months seemed to only strengthen in me the idea I’d had from the beginning: I’m not smart enough for this.
Early on (while still training) I was doing some exercise that involved drinking watered down raspberry syrup (I don’t know) with Malayna when she looked me in the eyes and said, “You can’t be a dummie and work here.” She meant it, of course, as encouragement. “Only smart people can work here and you’re here so you’re smart.” But all I heard was, “If you don’t make it here, you’re dumb. Maybe you don’t belong here.”
I don’t’ know where this idea comes from really…that I’m dumb. I have guesses. I’m very quick to respond to things. I grew up in a family of Hamlets (people who know what they should do but can’t bring themselves to do it). Because of that, I guess I kind of turned into a Romeo (someone who makes decisions too hastily). I talk before I think. I do things quickly. I want to prove myself. And that makes me come off as immature and stupid. I can see that. I’m also not very cultured. I’ve never seen Back to the Future, but I’ve read all the Harry Potter books and most of the Chronicles of Narnia books.
Whatever the cause, Starbucks only seemed to make this idea take root and grow into something that was out of control. One day I was in the bathroom on my lunch, sitting on the floor with a triple grande soy latte beside me and bawling my face off. I was stupid. I was dumb. I couldn’t do this job. I would be homeless. I have no useful skills. I can talk to you all day about foil characters in Pride and Prejudice but as far as actual, useful in the real world talents go, I was hopeless. I was stupid. Just like I had always feared.
And then something happened. One day…there I was, minding my own business, trying to keep up with these people who seemed to have been born to make espresso macchiatos while simultaneously dealing with problem customers and ordering extra stir sticks…I turned around and Malayna was there. And she complimented me. She told me that I did a good job. Actually, I think her exact words were, “You kicked ass.”
And that meant the world to me. Because Malayna is scary. Malayna intimidates. Malayna doesn’t sugarcoat anything. And Malayna was suddenly proud of me.
That was the foot hole I needed to begin a climb. It was slow. Believe me. I’m sure that if there were an actual school for baristas, I’d be riding the short bus, but I kept at it. I found a rhythm. I found jobs that I liked more than others and volunteered to do those. I found I was now addicted to espresso and if I wanted to remain pleasant, I should drink copious amounts of it during the course of my shift. One day, a woman came in and ordered some extravagant drink and I plugged that puppy into the computer and onto the cup without batting an eye before stopping dead in my tracks and thinking, “I shouldn’t understand what she just said, but I do.” I really did.
It didn’t start off that way, but Starbucks has become proof to me…proof that I am capable of anything. I know it seems silly to equate making coffee to, well, anything else, but you have to understand how deeply and honestly I believed barista was something I just could never do. You may as well have asked me to run for president. I’m not dumb. I still am too hasty with decisions and often put my foot in my mouth but that goes nicely with the mean flat white I’ve learned to make. There’s still so much to learn, and I’m BY NO MEANS perfect but I’m confident that’s all I need.
I’m so glad that I didn’t give up. My Starbucks family came to see a show I directed last January. We’re friends on Facebook. I consider many of them to be close friends. They’ve seen the worst of me and yet still want to talk of me outside of work. They’ve seen me screw up and ruin everything and drop a pitcher of iced coffee on my head and get so angry that I throw things and get so flustered that I have to excuse myself to the back room, but we kept at it.
Months ago, a bunch of us were standing around talking about our Starbucks journeys; a couple partners turned to Malayna and asked, “Were we bad when we started? Did you think we were lost causes?”
“Of course not,” Malayna replied.
I stepped in then, “Did you think I was a lost cause?”
Over the headset, all I heard Malayna say was, “Oh yeah. But then you proved me wrong.”