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.


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

  1. June 14, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    Where did you get your blog layout from? I’d like to get one like it for my blog.

  2. June 14, 2008 at 9:19 pm

    Nice writing style. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Chris Moran

  3. 3 mattvaudrey
    July 12, 2008 at 9:39 am

    Excellent. You, Dr. G, do not disappoint.

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