Matt was on his fifth shift of the week and as a result, his apathy had reached a peak. He had been sheepish when his supervisor had outwardly recognized his mood, surprised to find that his face was revealing a symptom he had been sure was specifically interior. “Large, no-whip mocha,” Matt had inaudibly grumbled while placing the drink in the serving sector of the bar. His supervisor chuckled, “Once more with feeling, Matt, c’mon. I know it’s early, but we’re not trying to depress people.” “Sorry,” Matt quickly responded, straightening the arch in his back, grateful that the scolding had come with amusement too.
The drink orders continuously rolled in and Matt complied. Most of the orders had been processed with ease, but as usual, it was the occasional complaint that shifted Matt’s apathy to actual disgruntlement. One woman had insisted her cappuccino wasn’t frothy enough, requesting Matt to re-make the drink a total of three times. She was a wealthier regular too, so he knew management would want him to comply with her requests. He apologized each time, following it with a, “let me know if that’s better for you,” as if to suggest he cared about her needs at all. When on the third drink she felt satisfied, Matt forced a smile and said, “Sorry again.” Her look softened and she replied by shrugging and saying, “It happens.” While this was intended to reveal some commonplace humility in the woman, it only infuriated Matt moreso. To Matt, she was feigning as the kind of person who didn’t take things too lightly, when he knew first hand, she had been burdensome enough to care more about the weight of her milk froth than that of her own character.
Matt internalized most of his customer complaints, occasionally sharing a look with an understanding coworker. He was, and for the most part, had generally been, a good employee. Never having been fired from a job, he knew how to keep his head low. For this reason, small raises and small promotions came easily to him. He externally projected a conformist identity, but internally, he was no different than the rest of his peer group. It always stunned him when a customer, at any job, had ever appeared flummoxed when Matt didn’t satisfy their specified questions. As if, in wearing the nametag, he affirmed that his whole self was devoted to hi-definition television settings, the make and wash of a t-shirt, or the specific ritual in which the coffee bean had been planted. Did no one realize he was just another student that financially required a part-time job? He was studying biochemistry—no customer ever asked him about the mechanics of that.
Senna, Matt’s co-worker tapped him on the shoulder. “You’re up at cash,” she said. The shifts had rotated, and she was to take over at the bar. “Oh, right yeah, thanks.” Matt wiped his hands on a towel, straightened his apron and shifted over.
He quickly surveyed the cash before welcoming the next customer. He was disheartened to see a nearly empty tip jar, removed a pen from one spot to another, and then called out, “Hi, can I take your order?” An elderly man inched closer to Matt. “Yes sir, you can,” he said. To Matt’s horror, the man added on an enthusiastic inquiry, “How’s your day going?” Despite the earnestness evident in the question, the man had mumbled the words out in a slow utteration. This made Matt’s response of, “Good, thanks” seem to tumble out at lightspeed in comparison. Matt realized the polite thing to do then was to follow up, “And yourself?” he asked. “Oh, fine, fine” the older man responded, squinting at the chalkboard menu directly above Matt. Again Matt inquired, “What can I get you today?” After an uneasy pause, the older man responded, “A coffee?” he asked, somehow puzzled by his own request. This tested Matt’s patience. It was obvious that he would want a coffee, he had entered a coffee shop. But Matt needed more parameters filled in order to continue his job. Moreover, this coffee chain did not sell cups of coffee in and of themselves. They sold lattes and cappuccinos and mochaccinos, at differing sizes, with various supplements. Matt needed the older man to complete this formula as determined by the company’s personalized corporate language.
“What kind of coffee?” Matt asked. The older man’s brow furrowed—a bushy pair of thick gray caterpillars sprung into a new position. The question puzzled him. “A regular coffee, just a cup of coffee, I’ll add in the sugar and milk myself,” the older man responded. Matt’s shoulders relaxed a bit. He realized it was a simple enough request, that he should have been able to adhere, but unfortunately, it would not do.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Matt began, “We don’t serve single cups of coffee. But, I can make you an Americano, which is an espresso mixed with hot water…”
As Matt spoke these words he observed the older man’s responsiveness. Again, Matt begun the explanation at a quickened pace, but once he noticed that the man’s brows furrowed again, his eyes squinting, and that his mouth was beginning to open agape revealing a sticky stretch of saliva between top to bottom lip, it occurred to Matt that despite this information being perfectly digestible for himself, it came across as convoluted and complex for this older man.
Matt paced his speech a bit in response to this realization and used his newfound stretch of time to scan the older man’s appearance more intricately. “It… makes… for an… easy substitute.”
Matt observed what looked like an hearing aid buried under sprouts of white hair, similar strands of which could be found in the man’s nostrils. His face scattered with the beginnings of overnight facial hair, a light buzz of grays and blacks. He was wearing a heavy rounded leather baseball jacket, with a checkered scarf tied around his neck. His wardrobe insinuated intention, alertness, and a confirmation that the older man’s mental capacity was strong despite how his interaction with Matt was going—he had conscientiously dressed himself in accordance to the weather this morning after all.
“Is that alright with you?” Matt inquired.
Noticing that the older man’s mouth was still agape in processing this information, Matt simplified, “It’s just like a regular coffee, I assure you.” This seemed to work as the older man unfurled his brows and responded, “Oh, fine, that would be fine then.” Suddenly Matt noticed the increasing buildup of a line behind the older man. Matt attempted to conclude the ordeal by quickly asking, “Great. What size can I get you?”
“Just a small coffee please,” the older man responded, nodding in affirmation of his own specification.
“Great!” Matt said, with more enthusiasm than intended. He could see people starting to get visibly frustrated at the pace of ordering, some of them were staring directly at him as though he were a negligible monster, and others were starting to fidget their hands, legs, and feet.
“That’ll be three fifty,” Matt said.
The older man nodded, pulled out a pouch from an inside pocket in his jacket, and then dumped it’s contents (a lot of change) onto the cash counter. Matt tensed at this next elongated step in their transaction. He decided then that it was time to return back to his speedier mannerisms, dived into the pouch and counted out three fifty via a healthy helping of nickels, dimes, and thankfully some quarters, tossed the change into the cash and quickly scribbled the order for the bar. He winced at the loud clang of the cash closing and said, “Thanks! Please just move over to the end of the bar, and they’ll call your drink when it’s ready.”
The older man smiled at Matt, said, “Very good, thank you, thank you” and began to fumble over. To this, Matt offered a genuine smile back.
Matt then quickly welcomed the next customer and speedily processed the remaining line thereafter. The fluid pace of new faces, new personalities, and new orders flurried by. In these kinds of rushes, Matt became a kind of automaton, jotting orders, sliding cards, and closing cashes, until he briskly looked up and saw that the line had finally ended. He exhaled and relaxed his shoulders observing the now nearly full cafe that was laid out in front of him.
Again, he spotted the older man, who was now at the customizing station. The older man was adjusting his coffee at his slow pace, pausing to determine which canister was cream and which was milk. Matt was amused that the older man instinctively picked up the low-sugar packets over the regular sugar packets. It occurred to Matt that despite losing older instincts, old age also brought on the adaptation of new ones. This comforted Matt.
The older man slogged over to an isolated empty table, sat down with his coffee cup, and exhaled at the exertion it all required. He shakily picked up the still steaming cup and blew over it in order to cool the drink for consumption. This caused the old man’s lips to pout as lips do before a kiss. Matt found his heart breaking, a bit. This perfectly customary move came across as particularly tender and adorable, no different really than if a toddler had attempted the same gesture. The difference lying in polarities—this older man knew this custom presumably from years of experience of coffee drinking. A toddler would perform the gesture in its early stage, possibly replicating an older figure. One knew exactly what they were doing, the other didn’t, and yet they both appeared equally naive.
Matt wondered if this meant he looked naive to the older man. Maybe the older man had puzzled in the ordering transaction, wondering why Matt had to make things so complicated, was he so young he didn’t know what a cup of coffee was? Maybe Matt was the delicate being of the two, the one who needed coddling, and the older man had done his best to accommodate, it being his generational duty. Matt had shifted through multiple modes of emotion for this strange old man, first annoyance, then projected shame, and now, finally, Matt felt protective most of all.
The older man still sat there, sipping on his coffee, observing the cafe around him. Matt was impressed at this choice of activity. He had worked in a coffee shop for almost a year now, and as a result, rarely stepped in one if it wasn’t for a personal shift. He realized now that he had been missing out in this solitary and deeply humane action. The cafe was littered with a variety of people, but the majority of them were close to Matt’s age and thus propped up on their laptops and the cafe’s free wifi. But not the older man. He was blowing on his coffee in slow paced sips. This was an entire activity in and of itself for the older man, tasting the coffee, and observing those gathered around him. It occurred to Matt, that not only did the older man stand out in the laptop crowd, but that he in fact emanated a newfound kind of dignity amongst them all. Something he first lacked in the process of a clumsy coffee order.
Matt observed as a young boy attempted to squeeze himself into the seats right next to the older man. A much too bulky backpack clung to the young boy’s shoulders, and was going to briskly knock the older man’s cup over causing the Americano turned “regular coffee” to spill. Matt observed this performance in its entirety, but it had sped by, leaving no time for Matt to jump in and prevent the inevitable.
“Oh!” exclaimed the older man, shocked at the noise and newfound mess. Luckily, the spill wasn’t too dramatic, some of the coffee had spilled over onto the table. The young boy realizing what had happened said, “oops” and his accompanying older guardian began to apologize profusely on his behalf, scolding the young boy into an apology. The older man smiled back, endeared by the young boy’s fresh look of terror, and reassured him that it was quite alright, these things happen. At this time Matt had scurried over from behind the cash with a rag and began to wipe the table down. “Thank you, thank you,” said the older man. Matt replied, “No problem, no problem.” He hadn’t meant to mimic the older man, or maybe he had, maybe he felt it ought to be he who tried to adopt the older man’s language this time. “I’ll refill that for you,” said Matt.
“There you go,” said the older man. He turned to the young boy and tried to reassure him, “See? This young man’s going to get me a new coffee. Everything’s going to be just fine.” The old man smiled reassuringly at the young boy, who’s look of horror began to meld into a pleased smile, and all the while Matt stared at the old man with a pleased smile all of his own. For a moment, the three of them stood still in time, a framed scene filled with three generations worth of momentarily knowing.
When Matt’s shift ended, it suddenly occurred to him that he was in fact a vital functioning cog in society. He fueled a greater chain of supply and demand, that was helping him pay his rent, somewhere down the line helping new parents put a mortgage down, someone else retire, someone else cover the funeral costs and so on. He had never considered himself a capitalist, and still didn’t, but it was disorientingly satisfying to leave his usual bummer of a shift with a newfound feeling of unity. It had been just another day of clocking in at 7am and clocking out at 12pm, but this time when he untied his apron he found himself feeling accomplished. Not proud or joyful really, just accomplished. As though for the first time in his life, he had finally finished a day’s work.