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Jun 19, 2013, 07:32AM

My Life Detour to the Land of Baristas

Oh, the places you never expected to go.

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One of my favorite books as a child was Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, and right now John Lithgow is reading the Dr. Seuss classic to me via YouTube. “Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to great places! You’re off and away!” quickly morphs into “I’m sorry to say so but, sadly, it’s true, that bang-ups and hang-ups can happen to you.” I don’t remember the book being so honest about how up and down life can be. Trippy colors, landscapes, that boy in the yellow and pink balloon doing whatever he wanted, yes, but winding up at “the waiting place” where you have to wait for buses, mail, and pots to boil? Well, that sounds a lot more like real life. Perhaps in my youth I spaced out on that big yellow and pink balloon and went on some deep space adventure, missing the true message of the book—life isn’t easy, but you can handle it.‚Äč

A few weeks ago I took my first dive into the world of cafés and baristas. I was, and still am, in pursuit of a pipedream recording records, writing daily haikus, and finding ways to travel the world that somehow coincide with making a living. Needing income to sustain myself until that happens, I chose this Portland-esque route of what I thought would be awakening part-time work. There is a 75 percent chance this life detour was a form of escapism from my soul-draining non-profit career.

I was not too surprised to find myself in barista land, but my first day on the job I had the urge to page the Seuss and ask, “Where am I going?” This thought isn’t hard to conjure when a $20 palm-sized block of gourmet cheese is being sold for the 10th time in one day. After doing the math, you realize one block of cheese is worth more than your daily pay. That’s because you’re on a four-hour “training” day getting paid half your hourly wage. Apparently the café and barista world can be mastered in three days, granting you access to $8 an hour and tips. The joy!

My manager peers at me peripherally as I wash the dishes. According to him this is the only task one is capable of on their first day, claiming the register would be an overwhelming experience. I can see him fidgeting and finally he sighs and makes his way over to say that the dishes need to be done faster and stacked for efficiency on the drying rack. He steps in to show me how fast he can clean them and how properly he can rack them. He does this with a vigor that is definitely passive-aggressive. He is the Mohammad Ali of dishwashers and I’ve been KO’ed in the first round. Then he sends me on my break.

On break I’m not allowed to leave the cafe in case we get busy, but can purchase one of our $9 sandwiches at 30 percent off. I guess I feel good about this, but then I start thinking about that block of cheese again and all good feelings dissipate. The sandwich has a bland gourmet taste to it that I suppose is accepted because of the fresh ingredients. When I return from break the boss has a quick chat with me about my beard, which is currently at mountain man status. It needs to be trimmed up. This defeats my entire purpose for being here; how does he expect me to make music without a beard?

A week later I’m fighting the urge to walk out and quit every time my boss asks me how I like the job so far, which he does three times a shift. He knows the answer: I’m miserable. Then I receive a phone call from the heavens, or perhaps it’s the boy in the yellow and pink balloon swooping in to take me away from this waiting place. I answer even though I’m on the clock and it turns out to be an interview offer from, of all places, another café. I make plans to meet up the following morning.

This new café has a few things going for it. First, I live two blocks away, and second, the employees and clientele are cut from a similar cloth; they too are life detour-ists to some degree. When I arrive the owner is waiting for me outside and greets me as if I just discovered the meaning of life. I immediately feel like I’m in good hands. Two minutes later, after running through the mandatory questions, she pauses and gives me an inquisitive stare. It feels like she is peering into my soul, her voice breaks the silence, “I don’t normally do this on the spot, but you’re hired.” I’m flattered, but for the moment being hired at two different cafes doesn’t really change my circumstances. I need to be won over to make this work. She has me at, “Better pay, free food while clocked in, free drinks on off-days, discounts for friends” and the kicker, “y=You can work whatever hours and schedule you want.” Suddenly the American Dream feels revived. I do my best to stay humble without laughing at the realization that I’ve experienced upward mobility as a barista in just one week.

I feel empowered. My boss at the first café tells me we can “play it by ear” when I put in my two weeks, but then texts me the next morning at six to come in immediately and cover for a call-out. I let him know I wasn’t coming in, not because I couldn’t, but because I didn’t feel respected. Later that week I start at the new café. People have beards and are wearing odd outfits, my co-workers are helpful, my break feels like paradise; the food is delicious. Oh the places you’ll go!

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