Where everybody knows your name

Today, one of my baristas excitedly served a couple of customers of hers from a store back in Connecticut: They remembered her right away, and asked what she was up to in Manhattan, even without knowing her name when they walked in the door. She was all smiles, joking with them about not telling her old employees that she's working with a different brand of beans these days.

"We drive down to New York every weekend," they said, "so we'll see you again soon. So good to run into you here!"


That five minute conversation today reminded me of the very good reasons I've stuck with coffee for even this long. Sure, I love the science and style of it, the weird sort of satisfaction at creating something as beautiful as it is perishable, whatever. All that stuff's great and all, but I've never been and will never be the kind of barista who spends her free time reading about boilers and dispensing pressure.

It's about the folks, very particularly.

Funny thing is, I wouldn't consider myself to be the friendliest barista--not by a long shot. The relationships I've formed with people on the other side of various espresso bars, however, have had a specific and surprising kind of significance to me, and a three minute conversation with one regular for whom I truly care can still manage to erase six hours of being asked the same inane questions ad nauseam by strangers who don't know or care to know me from Adam.

In short, our girl's reunion with two old clients reminded me of the lines of people who may or may not even remember that I ever existed. Like strange little Ruby, who would practically leap across the counter to give me a hug at 7am; the Dreadlock Cowboy, who wore about nine pounds of turquoise jewelry and drank 6 shots of espresso in a 12oz latte; Natalie, a law student, tea drinker, and very particular kind of Los Angeles hippie who would become a trusted confidante; my first boyfriend (now one of my closest friends), who connived me into giving him my number as I tried desperately to sweep around him at closing time.

And, of course, my absolute favorite: Barry, the three-times-a-day small coffee who would gossip with me about journalists over the constant whir of the grinders.

The entire staff of the shop eventually stopped charging Barry, because he paid us by being one genuine smile in the middle of a rush of frowns. After a while, he and I started taking each other to lunch to talk about politics and art. We shared books, went to readings and took long, chatty walks. I'm not positive we ever even exchanged phone numbers, but we did what we could to make time outside the store to shoot the breeze, without being interrupted by the inevitable au laits and mint mochas.

He was the only person, out of every single one of the folks I met at that job, whom I allowed to call me by my first name. That was then and remains now one of the things completely off limits to all but the most adored of customers and coworkers: Everyone else can still expect to be politely corrected.

Although we spent some quality time together outside the store, I would never have guessed that he ranked me among his "friends," even though I counted him among mine--I was just a barista, after all. But when Barry passed away rather suddenly two years ago, his family set out to find me despite my having moved away because he had mentioned me to them, he had told them stories. "My friend Erin," he had said.

It's an honor to have been considered a friend by him, and to consider him one in return -- as well as countless others who have strolled up to any number of cash registers and espresso machines over the years.

I guess what I'm driving at here is that it's easy to snuff at the idea of your life being impacted by near-strangers, but the truth is, we sort of get used to having each other around, and we seem to wind up caring a whole heckuva lot about people we barely know. And that is the best damned thing about this job.


"By the way, I'm not sure we ever got your name," the Connecticut couple said through giant and genuine smiles.

"Esther," my barista replied. "And it was great to run in to you, too."