Archive for June, 2008

20
Jun
08

My New Life, Part III: Excessive Workload May Lead to Removal from the Honor Roll

*****

This is the last of a three-part series.  Feel free to read part one and part two first.

*****

“So you’re working at Starbucks?” my mom asked.

“No.  No, I am not working at Starbucks,” I replied.  “I am working at a Barnes & Noble Café, which just so happens to sell Starbucks products.  I still get my paycheck from Barnes & Noble, we only accept Barnes & Noble giftcards, so technically, I still work at Barnes & Noble, just a different department of Barnes & Noble.  It just so happens to be a department of Barnes & Noble that very, very much resembles a Starbucks in every possible way.”

There’s a reason that I got to feeling this way, and it started on my second day of work.  I had already begun to think that the idea of working in a coffee shop was a bit humbling, but it was nothing compared to the first conversation I had with Heather, the girl I would work alongside that day.  Heather was a short, bubbly blonde with an exuberant disposition, the exact idea of what you would imagine someone who worked at Starbucks would look like, which is to say, the total opposite of me.

“So, how long have you been working here in the café?” I asked.

“Oh, like only four months, which isn’t really that long, but ever since pretty much everyone left, I sort of, like, have a little seniority, I guess, which is why I stayed.  Also, I like having the discount on books, even though I don’t really have much spare time to read.”

“Oh really?” I said, “Are you going to school for anything right now?”

“Well, not right now, because it’s summer, but I’ll be a senior next year.”

My reaction to this discovery was, in retrospect, lacking in tact.  I believe, if I can recall it with the accurate inflection, my exact words were as follows:

“In HIGH SCHOOL?!?!!!

Heather either didn’t comprehend my shock, or she took it incredibly in stride.  “Yeah, and you know, I had to talk to Janine, the manager, earlier, because they had me working like 40 hours a week during the school year, which was fine, but I seriously had no time to do my homework, and I was getting a C in my Trig class, and that’s really bad for me, ’cause normally I’m really good at math, so they cut my hours back.  But now since it’s summer I’m back to working a lot more, which is good, ’cause I, like, really need the money.”

I think by this point of the conversation I was huddled somewhere near the milk refrigerator in the fetal position, weeping.  It was as though I was staring my pride in the face, and it was babbling back at me about its favorite shopping malls and whether or not it thought it would continue to play volleyball in junior college.

There was nothing particularly wrong with Heather.  She was a very nice girl, and seemed mature for her age, which I’m sure added to my surprise in learning she was, in fact, seventeen.  It was just difficult for me to wrap my brain around the fact that this spunky young thing was, in all respects, my superior, and she didn’t know what it felt like to have to buy her own groceries.  Throughout the day I’d attempt to try and forget she was seventeen, and remind myself to treat her like she was a peer, but it was difficult.  In making small talk, I’d ask her questions and find out her best friend worked at Forever 21 and “totally gets me a discount on anything I want,” or I’d read the note she left for Maggie, which read “there is one soy milk left and we are COMPLETELY out of asiago pretzals.  and chocolate chips.  Heart, Heather”

I really couldn’t blame her.  She was simply acting her age, and I couldn’t ask any more than that from her.  I was more and more discovering that this was a pride issue for me, that it was going to be up to me to find it in myself to be okay with this.

Ashley came in to the café around 3:30 to cover Heather’s lunch break.  I had met her on my first day, when she had shown me a few of the things Barnes & Noble had changed since I had left my older store.  She was my age, and had been working at Barnes & Noble through college, like me, but then just stayed on afterwards when she was given a full time position as a retail lead.  It would be an easy job to manage as she prepared for her wedding, she said, which would be in October.  She was infinitely more easy to talk to than Heather.

“So how’d you end up back at Barnes & Noble?” she asked.

“Well, it’s not a long term thing for me, actually,” I explained.  “I’m planning on substitute teaching in the fall, but my certification hasn’t come through yet, and I needed something to help me pay the bills and keep me busy during the summer, so here I am.”

“But didn’t you say you graduated in 2007?” she asked.  “What have you been doing since then?”

“Well, the past year, as I see it now, was kind of like time off for me,” I said.  “I just had a tremendously boring and generic office job that I got at my school in the graduate education department.  My old school kind of handed out jobs to its graduates like candy, if they wanted them.  But I literally sat at a computer all day long, and some days wouldn’t say a word to anyone.  It was mindless work, which in some ways was good, because it didn’t take anything out of me, but it was just so boring.”

“Yeah, but you probably made twice as much as you make here,” Ashley said.  “I’ve been working here for three years, and I’ve only gone up three dollars an hour from where I started, which was minimum wage.  Sometimes I wish I could find a desk job like that.”

This took me by surprise.  “Sure, I made more money,” I said. “But I didn’t do anything.  I barely spoke to anyone.”

“Are you kidding me?” said Ashley.  “That’s perfect.  You got paid more money to do less work.  I’d take that in a heartbeat.”

“You say that now,” I said, “but it wears on you.  Trust me.”

It was about this point in the conversation when Heather came back from her lunch break.  As Ashley went back to the bookfloor, Heather put on her green apron, and I grabbed a wet rag and went out to wipe down the tables that weren’t being occupied by people reading, sipping coffee or talking into their bluetooth headsets.

It was then I really started to think about the conversation I had with Ashley.  Would I rather be back at a desk somewhere, doing nothing and making more money?  Was that the better option for me?  It didn’t take that long to come to a firm conclusion.  And the conclusion I came to, as I took that germ-infested rag and wiped the drop of caramel frappuccino off of my shoe, the same shoe I had worn to work every day at APU, was a resounding no.  This was temporary, I reminded myself, and if it was going to be something temporary, it might as well be something that allows me to interact with my coworkers, where I can make things for people that make them happy, and I can chat with customers all day long.  In two days I had already had more conversation with some of my fellow baristas than I had with a large portion of my coworkers in the APU Education Department the entire time I was there.  And that, in my opinion, was worth three months of a pay cut.

So I finished wiping off the last of the vacant tables and went back behind the counter, taking my new attitude with me.  I dropped my rag in the small red bucket filled with sanitizer, washed my hands, and looked at the monstrous black espresso machine on the opposite counter.  Turning my head I looked at my seventeen-year-old companion, who was in the back room, finishing off the text message conversation she had started on her lunch break.

“Hey Heather,” I said, shooing aside my ego for the last time.  “I haven’t made any hot drinks yet.  You think you could show me how?”

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14
Jun
08

My New Life, Part II: Viva La Vida, or: Can You Drink White Chocolate Mochas In Space?

*****

Note to Readers: this posting is a follow-up to part I, which you can read here.

*****

There’s a song that’s been stuck in my head the past few days, and it just won’t get out. It’s “Viva La Vida” from Coldplay’s new album, and the first verse goes like this:

“I used to rule the world,

Seas would rise when I gave the word.

Now in the morning I sweep alone,

Sweep the streets I used to own.”

I couldn’t help thinking those words as I took those humbling first steps into the café to meet my new manager, Maggie, and my fellow trainee for the evening, a crew-cut Eagle Scout of a guy named Dylan. Dylan, upon meeting me, stepped forward, looked me square in the eye, and extended his hand out, grabbed mine, and firmly shook it with a single, hearty pump.

Maggie, on the other hand, described herself as “an empty-nester,” who was “re-discovering her relationship with her husband,” a statement I chose not to think about for too long.

Aside from making uncomfortable references to her post-menopausal sexual encounters, Maggie couldn’t have been more kind. Maggie was fairly new to the café as well, only having been a café manager for about a week and a half. From what I could gather, a great number of the employees in the café had up and left all at the same time, requiring the store to replace quite a few people, which is what brought Maggie, Dylan, and myself all together on that particular afternoon.

“I feel like I should let you know, right off the bat, that I literally know nothing about coffee. I mean, literally nothing. I know that it comes from some sort of a bean. That’s about as far as I go.”

“Oh hon,” Maggie said, “don’t you worry that little head of yours. We’re all learning together, that’s why they call it training. You’ll be just peachy.”

Turns out she was mildly right. The cash register at the café ran on the same system as the bookstore, so I was familiar with that, and Maggie took care of making most of the drinks that evening, with brief stopovers for lessons on flavored iced teas and frappuccinos, which, if I don’t say so myself, were fairly easy to pick up.

It was good having Dylan there with me, as well, considering that my ineptitude and inability was slightly counteracted by his similar state. We were both terrible choices to work in a café as far as our knowledge of coffee goes, but we could handle ourselves in the customer service and order-taking departments.

Dylan, as it turned out, was an astronaut. Or rather, was going to be an astronaut. He had just finished his second year of college in Florida on a path towards a degree in aeronautical engineering with minors in mathematics and computer science, and he stood and spoke like the career path he was on, his posture rigid and his eye contact scorchingly deliberate.

“I applied to Barnes and Noble because I myself am an enthusiastic reader, partial mostly to works of science fiction and fantasy. I’ve often found myself engaged by the works of Tolkien or Orson Scott Card, as well as a number of lesser-known series of fantasy novels, primarily Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’ series, which currently stands at eleven books, with a twelfth due in the fall.”

“So what you’re saying is, you’re gonna be loving that employee discount,” I said.

“Yes, that certainly will be a rewarding benefit of my employment,” he replied.

It seemed odd to me that Dylan didn’t appear in black and white. By that I mean he was the ideal picture of what a mother or father would want their daughter to bring home for supper. In 1955.

He was a good guy, and a smart guy, and it didn’t take long for us to bond, in a strange way. The college graduate and the future astronaut, both characters you wouldn’t think you’d encounter in your corner coffee shop, and perhaps it was our mutual displacement that allowed for our connection, a connection that was only aided by Maggie’s decision to lump us together as “her boys,” a choice I’m convinced was a symptom of her empty nest syndrome.

“How are things going over here, Maggie?” the store manager would walk over and ask.

“Oh, everything’s just fine and dandy, long as I’ve got both my boys here with me,” she’d say. “Just like a little family, we are.”

Over the course of the evening, Dylan and I learned about sanitizing tables and countertops, how to brew a standard pot of coffee, and how to properly sell pastries from the pastry case and record their departures on the pastry log, which served to let us know when each item in the case expired, a fact which Maggie encouraged us to be aware of to make suggestions to each customer.

“One tall cup of black coffee,” I would say to a toothy old man paying with quarters. “Can I interest you in a Caramel Apple Purse Pastry to go with that, sir?”

I’m sure customers understand that we’re trying to push our products on them, what they likely don’t understand is that we’re pushing the items that are closest to being hardened, stale, and inedible.

“So, if it comes to the end of the day and we haven’t sold an expired item,” Maggie told us both, “we have to deposit it here, in the waste bin, and mark it in the waste log binder.”

“Where does it go after we put it in the bin?” I asked.

“Well darlin’, we have to throw them all away,”

It seemed wasteful to me. “Really?” I said, ogling a piece of black forest cheesecake. “There’s nothing we can do? No one we can… give it to…? Like a, uh.. vagrant. A homeless person,” I quickly added.

After learning I would be going home without any cheesecake, Maggie announced it was time to begin the closing activities for the evening, cleaning and preparing the café for the next day of quality service and selling of near-expired pastries and sandwiches to unsuspecting customers. All the day long, I had slowly begun to accept my coffee shop job. It wasn’t all that bad, and it was starting to seem like something I could eventually enjoy doing, once I finally learned the ropes. Then she showed us a checklist a page long of detailed cleaning assignments we’d have to accomplish before we could go home.

“And once a week, tonight in fact, we’ve got to not only mop our floors, but mop the whole magazine section and all the way across the store to the cashwrap. Andy, why don’t you get started on that,” she said, pointing me towards a rolling yellow bucket of murky brown water.

Halfway through my mopping job, Maggie pulled me aside.

“Now, I know you’re coming in tomorrow, which is my day off. But you won’t be all by your lonesome, at least not all day. For the first half of your shift, you’ll be working with Courtney, and she’s very good, she’ll help you out. Now, once she leaves, you’re scheduled to work with Heather. Now, to tell you the truth, I haven’t met Heather, and word is that she’s leaving in a couple days anyway, so I’m not sure she’ll even show up. Just a heads up.”

“Oh. Thanks, I guess,” I said.

“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine regardless, you’re picking this stuff up just about as fast as anyone. Now get yourself back to that moppin’, and when you’re done, I’ll show you how to scrape the charred bits out of the panini grill!”

Perhaps it was the prospect of having to work four hours by myself the next day, or maybe it was what seemed like an acre more of floor I still had to mop, but my attitude started to shift. The more regular readers of this site (and those familiar with me personally) will remember that my previous job, the one I held at my alma mater, was not what I would call the ideal career. That being said, no matter how I ended up feeling about my previous job, there is one thing I can say about it with complete certainty: under no circumstance while I was in that position was I asked to hold a mop, let alone use it. I realize that comes off sounding a bit elitist, but if there’s one thing I realized about my first day of being the new Mr. Coffee, it’s that time has a funny way of changing your perspective on things.

When I started my first tour of duty at Barnes and Noble, back in 2006, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. Now, two years later, and the only thing different about me is that I have a degree and I spent nine months at a generic desk job, and all of the sudden I start feeling like holding a mop is something that should only be done on my terms.

“I’m a professional adult, doggone it, I’ll choose when and where I mop, thank you very much,” I thought as I mopped the green and white tile floor, all the while humming ‘Viva La Vida.’

“…One minute I held the key,

Next the walls were closed on me.

And I discovered that my castles stand

Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand.”

…Viva la vida, indeed.

12
Jun
08

My New Life, Part I: Why My Hands Smell Like a Vanilla Frappuccino

As of recent, the tone and subject matter of my postings have been more cultural than personal. I started this blog talking a lot about my life out of college, my search for a job, and my experiences with the new job I found. That was the reason I called it “Life Out Of The Bubble.” Gradually, though, as I became more comfortable in my newfound surroundings, I began writing less about personal experiences, and more about thoughts I’d have about various topics outside of the details of my daily life. That changes with the next three posts. As many of you know, I recently packed up my life and moved to the Denver area to start a new chapter of my life. My plan is to take a stab at teaching, starting with substituting. Teaching, however, and especially substituting, is a bit slow in the summer, so I thought I’d take a surefire method of some steady income during the summer while I make connections with different districts and pave my way towards the next school year. And that’s how I ended up back at Barnes and Noble, where I worked during college.

It was a fairly big step, walking in that door and asking for an application. Sure, I had done it before, but then I did it while I was getting a degree, before I had a little certificate in my desk that said I had completed college. Sometimes, however, the need for steady income is greater than the need to maintain my pride, so there I was. Comforting, however, was the fact that I was so eagerly taken back. Not three hours after I dropped off the application and informed the manager that my stay would be temporary at best, I got a call and a first day of work scheduled. That was last week. As of today, I’ve been back at B&N for two eight hour shifts.

While it was a slight dip for my ego going back to a retail job, feeling as though I was walking into a situation I could already somewhat handle felt pretty good. About a half hour into my first day, that feeling would leave, quickly.

Considering I had been away from bookselling for a long while, I had to go through the short orientation that goes with being an employee again. Most of it was familiar, with a few minor differences thanks to my new geographical setting. Reading the “how to board up and close the store early in case of severe weather” handout was a bit shocking, but not as shocking as the enthusiastic “what products to push during a tornado warning” handout (Crossword Puzzles! Board Games! Booklights!).

After the short re-orientation, I was approached by Janine (FYI, all names in this and all other upcoming stories have been changed… just not that much) the store manager, and told what amounted, in my opinion, to a bombshell rivaling the intensity of, oh, say… Hiroshima.

“We’ve got you scheduled pretty much entirely in the café for the next three weeks, because that’s our biggest need position right now. I hope that’s not a problem for you.”

A number of things ran through my head as possible responses. Somewhere near the top of that list was: “are you completely whacked out of your pretty little booklovin’ head?!” though I managed to hold my tongue. I shall explain. The B&N I worked in before was a smaller store, not one of those mega-branches that includes a Starbuck’s, a music/DVD section, a complex network of moving sidewalks, and a hospital wing. My old store didn’t even have a café, so this would be a completely new field for me. Add to that the fact that I am most certainly not a “coffee guy,” and we’ve got ourselves a bit of a conundrum, explaining how I was beginning to think such terrible things about my manager so very early in our working relationship. I wanted to tell her that quite frankly, that is the most ridiculous, ludicrous, and idiotic idea since people decided to put sweaters on dogs, and that the very thought made me want to throw myself in front of a train.

“Great. I’m excited to learn,” was what I said.

Now, when I say that I’m not a “coffee guy,” that’s not saying that I’m just a lighter-volume coffee drinker than the average American, it means I simply don’t drink it. Me walking into a Starbucks is the equivalent of… well, me walking into a Star Trek convention. I’m unfamiliar. My hands clam up, I try not to make eye contact with anyone for fear of them discovering my inadequacies, and there are a lot of big words tossed around casually that I don’t even begin to understand. It’s not that I don’t like the coffee culture that has invaded this country, it’s just I’m not a part of it, and so I don’t know anything about it, and that frightens me, considering I had just discovered it will now be my job to produce the product that gives life to that very culture.

Working in retail, you slowly begin to perfect the art of the twenty-second conversation. The twenty-second conversation is key in customer service: you make the customer feel like you intensely care about them and their life by engaging them in some sort of topic that interests them and makes them feel unique. This is particularly easy in a bookstore, because whatever book it is that’s being bought is the natural conversation starter:

“I see you’re purchasing Digital Photography Guide for Beginners… Starting a new hobby, eh?”

“So you’re a big sudoku fan? You must have a very logical mind.”

Considering doing this in a coffee shop setting was daunting at the very least, considering my knowledge of the kind of drinks in a Starbucks-type store is similar to my knowledge of cars, or quantum mechanics, or 14th century French agrarian business. With some subjects, there’s just too many variations and too many details for me to keep up, which is why my twenty-second conversations were often limited to topics I felt like I could contribute something to. I knew this would have disastrous results in the café.

“A caramel macchiato for the gentleman… tell me sir, should I put any coffee in one of those?”

“Venti…? Okay, well… I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to point out which cup that is for me ma’am.”

These are not exaggerations. Until a few short days ago, I was under the impression that ‘tall’ was the biggest size you could get, and I still think I’m right. When short people tell me that I am tall, it is because I am a bigger person than they are, hence the largest cup should be called tall. Nobody’s ever told me I’m venti before, whatever the hell that means in English.

It seems Barnes & Noble has a knack for putting me in situations where I feel informationally inadequate. About a year ago, on the last night I worked in my old store, I was asked to check in and greet over 1,500 customers on the night the final Harry Potter book was released. I would be the first face those eager young wizards would see as they excitedly ran through the store doors, desperate to talk to someone in the store about what they thought would happen in the final book. I hadn’t read a word of any of them. Try making twenty-second conversations there.

But I had survived that, and even come out of it smiling, so I began to think I might be able to make it through working the café for a while. And as I walked towards the café, and through the waist-high swinging doors, I thought that yes, I would physically be able to survive this. So I put my apron on, buckled down, and took my first steps as a barista, which I’m pretty sure now is a word that means someone who makes coffee.