Judging on Appearance (Through the Lens of Coffee)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

One of the benefits (and admittedly, downfalls) of working in a retail environment is the constant and varying interactions with society. With the given exception of the always predictable and welcome regulars each and every experience is unique, allowing you to observe the human psyche at work and in what ways it manifests itself.

Back when I worked at the coffee shop I was able to watch as a sort of invisible man. To most I wasn't so much a person rather than an object that exchanged caffeine and food for money. To this effect it allowed me to simply meditate about the various personalities that came to the counter without much interference from the subjects themselves, cataloging them.

Now when you are the device that stands between a person and their satiety you gain a unique perspective. From my position I was in a peculiar place where I could observe how their mannerisms and personality expressed themselves in their drink orders.

Take The Procrastinator, an obvious type. Bag full of disorganized papers. Dressed in clothes that stick to them in sour, wrinkled mass. That girl with the hair bunched in a rat's nest with a scrunchy or the guy who clearly hasn't shaved in a few days (these physical descriptions can be switched or combined regardless of sex)who decided to blow things off to party. It's not just crunch time, it's do I cut the red wire or the blue wire before their life utterly implodes upon them like a neutron star. Large mocha with triple espresso. Probably a sugar cookie. Whatever gets them through the night.

Since I worked in a college town, I was smart enough that during finals I actually kept extra cups pumped with extra chocolate on hand for the expected 8 PM queue of haggard students and the occasional professor or TA trying to grade papers.

Given there were a few suits who lined up, not just students, but the signs were all there and the same. One woman came screaming for a mocha with espresso "as fucking fast as possible." She was late, she was unprepared, she was likely more screwed than a piece of Ikea furniture.

She seemed to only realize it when I told her that her skirt was tucked into her underwear and she had been inadvertently flashing the entire shop for about four minutes.

Let's move on to Cappuccino, No Foam. Far too busy and self absorbed to listen to me that that order is, in fact, a latte. A cappuccino is all foam. Get off your damn cell phone, actually look at me when you make your order and be polite enough to maybe pause your conversation for three seconds so I can give you your four cents change which you'll dump in the change jar as a convenience to yourself. Jerk.

Then we have Complicated Order. Medium caramel soy latter, no whip, extra shot of espresso, high foam kinda stuff. A unique individual who looks down on the sheeple that plague their space. They're the only people in the world who really knows what's going on and feel the need to inform the coffee person behind the counter.

"People just don't seem to realize how media/the proletariat/pop culture/Iraq/the government/McDonald's/Scooby Doo is actually influencing their lives," and then tell me how they've subverted these powers and demagogues and live outside influence.

I recall one guy telling me how he wired his computer to be off the grid, and unknown to The Man. (Who is this Man? I like to think it's Niel Patrick Harris. He would be an awesome The Man.) All I can do is smile, roll my eyes when I turn away, and then repeatedly slam my head against the walk-in door and pray that I black out before the practiced diatribe on how MTV VJ's are warping the minds of youth to become slaves to Mountain Dew begins. A speech I had already heard from him. Twice.

It's been years since I've worked at a coffee shop, but I can still generally look at a person and figure what they're going to order. Anyone who has worked in a coffee shop can do the same. It's one of those stupid human tricks you pride yourself in.

However, you don't always get them all. I was thrown today. Totally left field.

In front of me was an biker, the owner of the Harley Davidson out front. Leather clad, dark shades. The salt and pepper ZZ Top beard covered the rest of his face. The only flesh I could see, and this guy had a lot, were his arms where the scantily clad women he had had inked in his your were now as stretched and saggy as the walking canvass they were imprinted upon. I figured this was a dude few people ever messed with, and those that had were dead.

A guy like this? He wants his coffee black, LIKE HIS SOUL!

"Iced Earl Grey tea and a vanilla scone." He asks in the lightest and most cheerful of tones.

Guess that shoots down my theories.

Or, at least, shows exceptions.


  1. What about the people who walk in and order a water? Or who never enter the coffee shop at all? Where do they fall in the assessment of humanity I wonder?

  2. Cheater! I've used that line for years now: “I'll have coffee, black… like my soul!” I always give a decent pause at the ellipsis, round my eyes as big as they'll go, and end the sentence with the intonation of the parched and thirsty damned.

    Those Starbucks folks just never seem to know how to take that.

  3. I agree - Neil Patrick Harris would make an awesome "The Man," especially if he was in character from Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog

  4. reminded me of this:

  5. Neil Patrick Harris would make an excellent "The Man".

    I worked for a little while in a wine shop and could similarly classify people and their adult beverage desires.

  6. I really enjoy when people specify what temperature they want their milk steamed to.

    As I'd steam I would count off the three numbers before whatever they said.

    "One fourteen, one fifteen, THERE!"

  7. Oh my, the thought of Neil Patrick Harris as "the Man" just made my morning. He could do it, he could do anything!
    And as a former coffee shop slave, I love when you get those surprise customers. Those few who order something so outside of your expectations. I myself love fancy high maintenance drinks, but I almost never order them. It makes me feel like a nuisance, so I typically just get coffee. It's a combination of courtesy and shame that motivates me.
    And the most dreadful part of working in a coffee shop to me what people who order macchiatos. They always want that sweet Starbucks concoction, and when you hand them the little cup of bitter espresso barely lightened with milk, they stare at it in terror and then claim it was not what they had ordered. Despite the fact that our menu very clearly described the drink.

  8. Love the descriptions! I worked at a cafe during my undergrad years - you are SO ON.

    Btw, love the new look!

  9. I worked at Dairy Queen in high school; it was a comparatively nice Dairy Queen, but the management was terrible about protecting us from the occasional outrageous, outraged, irrational customers. Therefore, I feared those customers. Once, a huuuuuge biker who otherwise fits your biker's description walked up to the bar and ordered a dipped ice cream cone. I made him one with perfectly shaped swirls of vanilla and an expert dip in the melted chocolate, but I was afeared of handing it to him. When I turned around, he smiled sweetly at me and said gently, "You are an ice cream artist!"

    Never judge a book by its cover, right?

  10. Ah hah hah, yes I work at a home decor shop, has all kinds of candles. A biker guy came in once, was telling me how he had made his own bike etc etc, and then asks if I had any particularly country-ish candles. I nearly went 'bwuh?'


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