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.


2 Responses to “My New Life, Part I: Why My Hands Smell Like a Vanilla Frappuccino”

  1. 1 mplimasol
    June 12, 2008 at 9:34 pm

    “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.”

    ha. i had to laugh at your starbucks experiences. i thought that i was the only one who thought that their menu looks like a board written in a different language by some secret society that i didn’t subscribe to. either that, or it seems i have misplaced their decoder ring…. what kills me is that my brother will still say “small,” “medium,” or “large” for the size that he desires, and the workers will look at him as if he has just thrown up gibberish down the front of his shirt. boo for nonconformity, i suppose – how easily they abandon their native english in the name of corporate.

  2. June 13, 2008 at 3:08 am

    Andy, I almost want to go out to Denver just to have you take my order for a Double Ristretto Iced Venti Whole Milk Organic 3 Pump Vanilla 2 Pump Cinnamon Dolce Extra Hot with Foam and Whipped Cream Upside Down Stirred Latte (thank you Google). i just might… leaving tomorrow for a two-week retreat in Crested Butte. Nice place in Colorado. Secondly, didn’t know you had unfastened your life from sunny California! Best of luck with everything over there!

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