By: Owen Jones
It’s barely 10 A.M on a Tuesday and I swear to God this might be it for me. Don’t get me wrong— I appreciate the fact that it’s dead right now, really. At this time of day on any other day of the week, the Shuster’s Cafe would be swamped with tired architecture students demanding novelty coffees and fresh oven-baked sandwiches, but thanks to Labor Day all students have off campus-wide. Just. Not the workers. Wouldn’t you know it, the Shuster’s Cafe is deemed too important to close down for the working man’s holiday, even though the cafe is located in an architecture building with no hungry students. This was great for students like me who actually need to work their way through college, but it was pretty awful for those same students once it’s time to actually show up and do nothing for five and a half hours.
So here I am, scrolling mindlessly on my phone while I wait for the next customer instead of sleeping in or getting lunch with my friends. I can hear Josh in the back, playing with a pair of box cutters and an empty box. Hearing this was strange; normally, the back is a completely different world compared to the front— you can’t hear shit. Despite the fact that there’s no door attached to the hinges connecting the two rooms and the cafe really isn’t that big a place if it gets busy and you need something from someone in that other room, they may as well be on the opposite side of the planet. Just last week I was running the register as Josh was grabbing some more black forest sandwiches (big mistake by the way, they’ll absolutely tear through your colon) and I needed him to grab more straws. But we’re not supposed to leave the station unattended, so when you need something you kinda have to yell for it. But when the only other guy working is in that other room and there’s that hum of the cooler and all that foot traffic on the other side of the counter, good luck. Even if the back did hear you and they yelled back that they got you, there’s still a very good chance that you yourself missed that response. But right now, silence. Except for the cooler. And Josh’s damn boxcutter.
“Josh. Josh. Joshua Maynard. Please stop.”
“Stop. Stop with the cutting.”
Ugh. I jumped off the counter towards the back room, which landed a little awkward since it’s about a two step walk. Hanging on the side of the doorframe, I made a point to ask as clearly as possible “Please. Can you cut the shit? I can’t think straight with all that noise.” We both knew that it really wasn’t all that loud, but Josh quit anyway. But not before he busts my chops a bit.
“Aw c’mon Mark, this is important! If I don’t rip into this box, who will?”
“Maybe someone who isn’t being an asshole. Do the dishes if you’re gonna hide back here.” Josh shot a line out to try and get the last word in, but I had already moved on. I didn’t care. I wasn’t really mad with Josh; I was just generally frustrated and Josh was the lucky winner who got to take the hit. (This is something my sister told me I need to work on— I am working on it.) Besides, I liked the guy. We were just coworkers, but as far as coworkers go Josh is probably best case. We all work at a very small coffee shop so there’s only so many employees, and Josh is the only halfway decent of the bunch. Eddie Frey’s a rube and Jack Dever was lazy and annoying. Josh was a nice middle ground where he wasn’t completely useless, and he was even occasionally fun to work with. (But let’s be clear— he’s not not annoying.)
The thing about Josh is that just because he’s a good coworker doesn’t mean he’s a good worker. He doesn’t work too hard and doesn’t care about putting up that customer service front. He’s pretty blunt and likes to exacerbate that fact when working the register. He doesn’t scream obscenities or get disrespectful, but he never really went that extra mile and the boss doesn’t much appreciate that. I could at least play the game and mask my bluntness, and that often won me register duty. It’s basically a rule that I work the register and Josh makes the sandwiches. The coffee is, of course, handled by whoever gets there first. Which is usually me. Especially during slow periods like today, where Josh hides out in the back and slacks off, leaving all the actual work to be done by me on the rare occasion something actually comes up.
But at least it’s something to do. Jesus, do the hours add up. Most days, it feels like you can clock in and out pretty quickly. Show up at six, prep to open at seven, (the coffees alone take seven minutes to percolate (each) so that always makes time fly) serve the early birds for the eight to ten rush, let the rush simmer down a bit, clean up for the next crew and be gone by noon. But today’s Labor Day, and we’re open like a couple of assholes. You’d think I wouldn’t be that upset at this point, being that I’ve worked every Labor Day since I was fifteen. You’d think. But that’s the thing about me— I tend to hold grudges. It’s something I’m working on.
Every few minutes I like to actually look up from my phone and scan the lobby, looking for any possible sign of life. Days like this, I tend to wonder if it’s even worth looking. It frankly wouldn’t be out of question for a tumbleweed to pass by. It’s a strangely isolated feeling. For a minute I forgot that Josh was in the back, looking for a way to loudly wash a soup pot.
You can only scroll for so long, which is something I’m all too familiar with. When it gets dead like this, it’s important to keep busy. Otherwise you start to wonder what else you could be doing with your time, and that’s a dangerous road to go down when you have to work your way through college. (There is no feasible alternative, no better opportunity— that’s how they get ya.) When I need a go-to to keep busy, I personally like to wipe down the coffee station behind me, which somehow always finds a way to end up a sticky mess, even when we’re dead. Especially then.
After a minute or two of wiping, my mind started to wander anyway, and I came to the grand realization that I was kinda hungry. I could just steal a pre-packaged Italian sub in a few minutes, but what about dinner plans? I assumed I’d grab some food with my girlfriend Janet after work, but where would we go? I kind of really don’t want Taco Bell again, and we got Wendy’s the other day. She’ll probably pitch Swensons, but Swensons is ass- I really would prefer anywhere else. Hell, that’s probably why we always end up going to Taco Bell— she’ll pitch something I hate first so the next request sounds more reasonable. Maybe I could just throw in one of the frozen pizzas that’ve been sitting in my freezer and call it a night. I’ll pitch it to her, see what she thinks. Sorry. Not important. Getting sidetracked. You don’t care.
After another minute or two of wiping and brainstorming dinner plans, I heard a brief yet condescendingly loud cough behind me. Apparently a customer had snuck up behind me in my fuge state of wiping. And oooh boy, is this guy trouble. Take my word for it, you could tell this guy was a real jerk just by looking at him. Jesus, what a schmuck. The first thing I noticed was the jackass Ray-Bans sitting on his face, confidently oblivious to the fact that we were indoors. Of course, I’m pretty sure this guy was oblivious to most things, being that he hasn’t looked up from his phone once since he got here. (At least that I know of, who knows when he snuck up.) Outside of the douche-visors, he had one of those windbreakers with the little whale on it and the tightest chino pants you’d’ve ever seen. (At least that I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some pants, goddamnit.) He certainly wasn’t young, which I bet upset him deeply given the fact that despite looking forty, he dressed like a rich man’s twentyyear-old son. His face? Annoying. Just take my word for it. What I found interesting at the time was that his dinged up architecture portfolio practically screamed budget. Why would he cheap out now, after shelling out the big bucks for those nice sunglasses? It didn’t even look like a nice-yet-beat-up portfolio that’s clearly a little older, I’ve seen a couple of those float through her from time to time. Interesting. Maybe Mr. Moneybags isn’t as well off as he’d like us to believe. Credit where credits due though— what his bank account lacked in Rich-Asshole was certainly made up by his demeanor. Ray-Bans still hasn’t looked up from his phone, guess being an asshole didn’t cost anything. Wonderful. I could just tell what I was in for— he won’t be respecting my time, and I had better respect his. Lucky me. I’d be lying if I said my anger didn’t preemptively flare a good bit.
“Oh. Sorry about that. How long were you standing there?”
“About a minute or two.”
“Oh. We do have a bell you can ring if no one’s at the register.”
“I see that.”
What an asshole. “Why not ring it? It’s why we have the bell.” Fucking moron. I should note he STILL hadn’t looked up from his phone.
“Wouldn’t need the bell if someone was paying attention.”
Holy SHIT what a dickhole response. Sorry pal, it’s been dead for hours, what can I say? I’ll be sure to never turn my back to the counter till I die. All’s forgiven?
“Oh. Sorry about that. What can I get for you?” Asshole.
“Yeah, could I just get an americano?”
“An americano? I’m sorry, I don’t think we serve those.” What’s up with this guy? That’s not on the menu. Can he read?
“You’re a coffee shop. Of course you serve those.” He almost looked surprised by this, but not enough to look up from his phone. Dude’s worse than I thought.
“I’m sorry, but we only know how to make the items listed on our menu. If you’d like to take a look and see if anything catches your eye, I could happily make you one of those.” Jerk-off.
“Are you sure? It’s an incredibly common drink. Double check?” Like I don’t know my own fucking menu. Brother, I fucking LIVE this menu. This menu is my breakfast, lunch and dinner. The fact that you think I don’t know my menu backwards and forwards is physically offensive. But. Whatever. I’ll check. Even though this guy’s clearly a complete know-nothing.
I check the cheat sheet we keep by the counter for the newbies, and suprise suprise— no americano. Shocking. “I’m sorry sir, but it looks like we really don’t make americanos. Is there anything else we can get for you?” Unsurprisingly, him actually being told no was enough to get this guy to start paying attention— the son of a bitch actually looked up from his phone. Around this time Josh also snuck up to steal a drink from the fridge before quickly slinking back after realizing there’s actually a customer. This didn’t seem to phase Ray-Bans, who looked pretty peeved.
“I get it’s not on the menu, but an americano is kind of my go-to. Could you go off-the-menu, just this once?” This really shook me. See, the menu is stupid. There’s no argument otherwise. We technically don’t even make iced coffee. People accidentally order off-menu all the time. But what is it about ‘there’s no going off-the-menu’ that this wannabe big-shot doesn’t understand? Who does he think he is, the pope? I’m not making special coffees for every Larry, Dick and Jane who strolls in here, why should he be any different? What’s so special about this moke? He wears tacky sunglasses indoors. God. Realizing how worked up I’ve gotten, I made myself take a breath for a second. I made sure to remind myself that nothing good comes from feeding your anger. “I’m sorry sir, but we’re unable to go off-menu.”
“I get that, but I don’t want any of that other crap, I just want an americano. It’s not exactly hard. You know how to make one, right?”
Wow. This guy doesn’t know when to quit. At this point there was now a lady in line behind him. My first reaction was to get pissed that there’s now somehow a line when we’ve been dead all day, but then I got an idea. Oh yeah. This’ll fuck with him.
“I’m sorry sir, but at this time, there’s nothing we can do for you. Is there any chance I could serve the customer behind you while you look for another drink to order?” Your move, chump.
“Sure, bud. See you soon.” The schmuck steps out of line and the lady moves towards the register. She seems nice enough, but you can never be too sure.
“Sorry for the wait. What can I get for you today?”
“That’s fine! Just a highlander grogg caramel macchiato, please.” Hey! That’s a drink we can make! “Of course! Go ahead and tap-swipe-scan-whatever on the PIN pad there and I’ll get that going for you!” See? A normal, stupid order! We can do those! I fully intended to shove how fast I was gonna prepare this order in this guy’s face. While he’s standing around like an asshole, this lady’s gonna get her drink in like three minutes. Tops. Eat it, yuppie. While I prepared her coffee, I noticed how quiet it was in the back, and for a second I thought Josh was listening in to the whole ordeal. Good, honestly. We can complain about this guy’s nerve til the shift ends. Unfortunately, I heard the ruffling of chips in the back a second later. Damn. He tuned us out, if he was listening at all. Nevertheless, the order was ready. “Alright, looks like that’s everything for you, is there anything else we can help you with today?”
“Nope that should be all, thank you!”
I made sure to smile warmly as she walked off. Couldn’t’ve gone better if I planned it. Near immediately after she left, Mr. Americano stepped up to home plate. I couldn’t help but stiffen my smile a good bit. “Alright, sir, find anything that catches your eye?”
I swear to god I saw the guy smirk for a second. “Uh, yeah. I’ll just take that americano.”
I had already written this guy off as a complete asshole, but this surprised me. I’ve dealt with my fair share of jerkass customers. There’s been some real oddballs on the other side of this counter, comes with the territory. But I had already told this guy no, and even sent him away to think for a minute— and this guy’s still putting up a stink about the fucking americano. What even is an americano? How do you make an americano? I don’t know, I don’t want to know. Why should I? It wasn’t on the menu!
But I could tell now that this wasn’t just your normal coffee craving mope. This was somebody who wasn’t just willing to put up a stink— they were willing to put up a fight. This was an opportunity, a challenge. This was gonna be the Big Thing today, the thing you mention to a friend or family member after work. (And boy, will I mention this— Jan is gonna lose it after hearing about this guy. I couldn’t wait.) So alright. We get it now. Let’s lay into this guy. Worst case, he wants to talk to the supervisor. Two problems with that, pal: 1) in this scenario, that’s basically admitting defeat and 2) Good fucking luck. If there’s one thing I wasn’t worried about, it’s this guy complaining to my supervisor. I could barely get in touch with the boss when it’s important, best of luck to this bag of gas.
“Sir. I’ve established that I cannot serve you an americano. I will not be making you an Americano. What else do you want.” I was careful not to phrase that as a question. Let’s give this guy some attitude, see what he does with it. I could already see the disbelief in this guy’s face. I bet he could practically taste it. “Look bud, I don’t have time for this. It’s a fucking Americano. There’s no way you don’t make them! What about your pal in the back? Bring him out, he’s gotta know how to make one.” I could tell this guy’s patience was running out. Good.
“Let’s see, sir.”
I yelled to the back room, making sure I was louder than I needed to be. I knew Josh would have my back here, and this guy would look like a complete ass. “Hey, Josh. Do you know how to make an americano?”
“What? No. An americano? What is this guy, some kind of asshole?”
Yes. Perfect set up. Take it.
I turned to the customer as if I was on a stage, hitting my mark. “Are you some kind of asshole, sir?” Gotcha! Perfect line read.
At this point Ray-Bans was baffled. “What the fuck? Who’s running this hole? I’d like to speak to a manager.” Ohhoho. I win.
I couldn’t help but keep going. I could barely conjure a reason why I shouldn’t. (I should at least take a breather first, things are going too well for me to slip up now. I can’t chance a stutter and give him an opening.) “I’m afraid it’s just us today. See, our boss trusts us to mind the shop all by ourselves. She’s a very busy woman, and can’t spend all day managing a middling coffee shop in the middle of an architecture hall. The best I can get you in terms of human relations is my friend Josh back there, but believe me when I say that between the two of us, I’m the good cop.” This was mostly true. At the very least, no one was around to contest it. “Now sir, I can make you anything off this menu. I’d be more than happy to make you a macchiato or a cold brew.”
“I don’t want any of that, why can’t I just order an americano?”
I sighed heavily. This fucking guy. “I think you know damn well why I can’t do that for you, buddy.”
“That’s complete bull! It’s just watered down Espresso! Just make it! The hot water nozzle’s right there! The espresso is sitting right next to it! Just make one so I can get out of here!”
Ray-Bans’s tone cut deeper than it already had. Who does this guy think he is, making all these demands? Fuck this.
“Look, man, how many times do I have to say it? I’m not making you an americano! We’re just not making that! Jesus, you’re a stubborn bastard, y’know that? I sound like a broken record here, what’s wrong with you? Shut up about the americano, man! Just shut up! Just shut up, man, just shut up!”
At this point, I knew I was laying it on a little thick. I officially lost my cool, and I went in a bit harder than I meant to. But I didn’t care. It was done. I won. Whatever this guy says next, he’s putty in my hands. I win and this guy loses, with both Josh and God as my witnesses.
For a second Ray-Bans just stood there, shocked. Who could blame him? No one ever expects a fight back. Especially not this brand of asshole. After a couple seconds he replaced his blank stare with a stern look on his face. “I don’t know what your problem is, but there’s something wrong with your head. Expect a call to your supervisor. Have a terrible day.”
Always one to get the last word in, I yelled after him, “Thank you, come again!”
Deciding I wanted one more, I shouted again “And lose the shades, dick, it’s fucking overcast!” With that, I watched the customer walk off. The silence of the lobby only accentuated the sound of his footsteps, clearly weighed down by frustration. I savored every stomp. But after the last lingering echo faded, I was alone again. In all the excitement I had almost forgotten what I was mad about in the first place and how stupid it was that I had to be here. I wasn’t even certain I was upset anymore. Not after that asshole. Labor Day and all that other shit seemed kinda small potatoes now. It honestly took me a good minute to realize that I wasn’t alone, and Josh probably heard all of that go down. God, what’s his take on all this? He’s gotta have some pretty snarky comments ready to go.
I turned to the back room, popping his head in. “Man, can you believe all that? The nerve of that guy.”
Josh looked up, taking a break from stacking some paper cups. “Huh? What, all that yelling? With the coffee? I don’t know man, I couldn’t hear much besides just general yelling.”
I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t legitimately disappointing. I had finally fought back and Josh didn’t even pay attention. I had no audience.
“Oh. No. That uh- that dude was being a complete asshole, kept asking for an americano no matter how much I told him that we don’t make those.”
“Damn dude and you went off on him? Cold blooded.”
“I mean the man had it coming. Total asshole. But whatever, right? Who cares.”
“Yeah, man.” Whatever attention Josh afforded to me was quickly revoked as he turned back to his cup stacking. I slinked back to the front, a little disheartened. I had gotten all riled up and Josh gave me nothing to work with. He didn’t even care. Whatever. The adrenaline of the moment was falling anyways, and it was getting kinda cold. I grabbed my jacket and lent back down against the counter and popped my phone back out. Nothing else to do, right? The rest of the shift was generally more of the same. Leaning and scrolling until a customer walked up and ordered a novelty coffee. We picked up a little bit but we were still pretty slow. Josh wasted time in the back as I tidied up and made orders. At one point a kid from my class walked up and ordered a coffee, but we didn’t make much conversation. My mind was elsewhere, and we really weren’t that close.
Eventually noon rolled around, and the closing shift came in 15 minutes before it was time to go. They asked how busy it was, not anticipating their usual crowd today. Josh warned them to prepare to be bored, and I mentioned how they might get a couple of stray assholes. It got a couple of chuckles.
It was about five minutes til I could clock out when another customer walked up to the counter. Everyone else was talking in the back, so it was up to me to take the order. “Hello sir, anything I can get for you today?”
“Uh yeah, could I get an americano?”
“I’m sorry sir, we don’t… Yeah. I can get that going for you. Call it $3.99?”