If I could show you my favorite place for lunch, I would lead you to the exterior of a quaint little strip mall located in quaint little Saint Anthony Village, Minnesota. There, exactly between a Jimmy Johns and a Caribou Coffee, would sit an overlooked coffee shop and sandwich café featuring the most delicious chai tea latte imaginable. Inside would be a small crowd sipping frothy cappuccinos at intimate tables and on couches around the fireplace. You would gaze at the metallic gold paintings of local artists plastering the walls and breathe the aroma of oatmeal cookies. The owner would probably stroll up to you like you are longtime pals and tell you all about the organic ingredients in his sandwiches. He would talk you into ordering the Turkey Milano—oven baked turkey, sundried tomatoes, and goat cheese on ciabatta—or the veggie capri—fresh basil leaves, thick slices of mozzarella balls, tomatoes, and balsamic vinaigrette on baguette. You would taste the crackling bread, the richness of the cheese, and the juicy tomatoes and wonder why it took you so long to find this secret spot. That is the place where I acquired my first real job when I was sixteen. It is also no longer around for me to show you.
In my coffee serving days, I was a little lost soul. I didn’t belong anywhere among my peers. I was simultaneously too smart and not smart enough, too pretty and not pretty enough, too artsy and not artsy enough. I was an outcast but not enough to hang out with the outcasts. I wasn’t much of anything. Except shy. I would go through full, seven hour school days without speaking a word to anyone.
To me, not belonging was regarded as a simple fact: nothing to get upset about, nothing to try to change. I quietly accepted my friendlessness. The last place where I expected to fit in was at my first job. My boss would probably yell at me all the time. My coworkers would probably gossip about me. Work was going to be strictly work and nothing more. This, I accepted with certainty.
It was a fresh April afternoon when I was forced (or “strongly encouraged”) by my parents to work at the coffee shop. My upbringing was built on the notion of contribution by work ethic. If I didn’t have this job, I would be delivering newspapers or worse, babysitting my brothers. So, I walked into the coffee shop inexperienced and awkward and eager to please. Dan, the first manager I encountered, was a twenty-something with baggy jeans and a beer belly standing at the counter making a gigantic Caesar salad. I tentatively approached him and asked who the salad was for—there were no customers in the store at the moment. Dan sized me up, and with his laid-back, minimal effort attitude he said, “When work is slow like it is now, I make a little salad because…I like to eat healthy.” I looked that the giant mixing bowl full of lettuce and nodded. Dan taught me how to make my own giant salad in my own mixing bowl adding chopped romaine, fresh parmesan, and homemade croutons. “Don’t forget to add bacon,” Dan said gesturing toward a steam tray brimming with giant meaty slabs, “it’s the best thing we have here.”
The rest of the evening Dan put me in charge of the counter because he preferred to do dishes in the back. It wasn’t long before I heard blasting music and Dan’s singing voice to Justin Bieber, “baby, baby, baby OHHH.” I peeked through the kitchen window to see Dan sliding across the floor, which he had greased with soapy water, while belting out the lyrics, “Thought you’d always be mine! MINE!” When he saw me watching, Dan waved me in as if he was inviting me onto a dance floor of one. I smiled and walked away to help a customer. Out of my peripheral vision, I saw Dan’s arm reach out of the kitchen door, steal a piece of bacon from the steam tray, and retreat back to the party. I smile crept into the corners of my mouth.
I was working with Dan when I met the store owner, Gary, for the first time. He was a short, bald, middle-aged man busy taping a hand written note to the coffee grinder; “Clean all the parts every night. Bacteria can grow and make people sick. Do you want to be responsible for making people sick? Well, DO YOU??” He greeted me pleasantly and proceeded to teach me the proper way to wipe off a table. Firmly grip the table with your left hand and vigorously wipe long strokes with your right. Everywhere he went, he walked urgently with his bald head in front of the rest of his body. To each customer, he gave the same spiel; “Everything in the store is all-natural and baked right in our kitchen…except the breadsticks, which I buy from Costco.” If there weren’t any customers, Gary would launch into the story about how the landlord promised that he wouldn’t put a Jimmy John’s right next door to us and how, if he could only find the paperwork, he would file a lawsuit. “That landlord is not going to get the best of Gary!” Gary would say in emphatic third person. Dan would snicker while playing a game on his phone and whisper to me, “that Jimmy John’s has been there for seven years.”
On the afternoons that I wasn’t paired with Dan, I would work with Megan, a stout twenty-five year old. She challenged me with pointless tasks, nit-picky details, and long-winded lectures about life. She would say intensely, “every time you use the sink, you have to use a paper towel wipe the water droplets off the bottom because cleanliness is the first sign of good character.” I would nod along even though room at home definitely did not portray good character by her standards. I tip-toed around Megan because she was so uptight and because she sighed loudly and rolled her eyes whenever I forgot something. She would say, “You, new people, are so slow,” as if I was causing her great suffering. The one thing that I liked about Megan is that she was interested in becoming a professional chef meaning that she loved to make tasty, off-menu snacks for me. She once made me the most delicious sandwich with rich brie cheese and green apple slices. Each afternoon we would take a break to sample her snacks and drink our favorite crème brule flavored coffee, and she would lecture me about the new religious fad that she picked up on. She tried so hard to convince me to become a Buddhist that I started to feel bad for saying no. I could tell that she was skeptical of my Catholic upbringing. Either way, I don’t think she liked me very much.
One day, Megan had a strange expression on her face. She explained to me that there was an old woman, Agnes, in the store on the previous day, who had a stroke and died right there on the beige tile floor. Obviously, I was concerned. Later that evening, I noticed that the oven was turned off when I was pretty sure that I turned it on to bake bread. That’s strange. It happened again when I stepped away from a faucet, and I came back to find it spewing water seemingly by its own accord. Suddenly the lights in the kitchen went off, and I screamed. Megan rushed in to turn on the lights and saw that I had goose-bumps and my hands were white and shaking. She confirmed my suspicions that the ghost of Agnes must be in our kitchen. “Just try not to anger it,” Megan whispered with her eyes lifted towards the lights.
Occasionally, I had the pleasure of working with Clint early on Saturday mornings. He was in his late twenties with a beard and a gentlemanly disposition. He was sweet to the older customers, who stopped in super early for coffee and pastries, chatting with them and giving them free refills (which Gary prohibited). Clint had an intimate fascination with World War II, and he would tell me all about his collection of artifacts and his reenactment videos. Sometimes he wore his combat boots to work. The best day was when he brought in some sort of German phone tap thing. We hooked it up to the store phone, so that whenever Gary got a phone call we would listen to a fuzzy version of his conversation through a little radio and pretend that we were hearing top secret information. We mostly heard, “…everything we have is all-natural.” From then on, every time the phone rang, we would look at each other and giggle mischievously.
Clint also worked across the street at the video store, which also went out of business. He had bad luck. But, he liked lending me videos. So many videos that I rarely watched them. Westerns, dramas, comedies, romances, suspense. One time he handed me an exorcist movie. “I don’t think I can watch this,” I said already getting anxious thinking about Agnes again, who still moved things around while I was alone in the kitchen. Clint knew that this was bothering me. “Don’t worry, I heard Gary talking about calling an exterminator,” he comforted. I didn’t know that they had those in real life.
One day, Psycho Steph came into the store while only Clint and I were working. Psycho Steph is notorious around Northeast Minneapolis; everyone has heard of her. She has a shaved head and tattooed circles where her eyebrows should be. Rumor has it that she is a paranoid schizophrenic, but others think it could be a combination of drugs and bipolar disorder. She yells to herself while walking down the street. That is, when she isn’t in jail. She is aggressive and terrifying. Her own son has a restraining order against her. I had never seen her before that day. She came inside the door looking torn up and smelling very bitter. She had a far off manic look in her eyes. She stumbled and talked urgently to no one in particular. Then she saw me cowering behind the counter. Her forehead had one long vein protruding. I was surprised to see her teeth were shining white and properly aligned. She had better teeth than I did. “Don’t. I need some money. Help. I don’t want them. They think I did. They think I did. They have my son. I need some money. Money…Where…Help…Money.” At this point, my heart was pounding out of my chest. Thank goodness Clint came in with the mind to give her a dollar and a cinnamon twist, so she would finally leave. He looked at me with eyebrows raised in shock, “I think that was Psycho Steph.”
Sundays at the café were implicitly let-it-all-hang-out days. That is because Ted was in charge. Ted was a very skinny, flamboyant, middle aged banker who liked to work at the café on Sundays solely for the discounts. He would come into the store astoundingly hung-over and pass out on the couch in front of the fireplace overwhelming the store with the smell of last night’s escapades. It was an eyesore. It was also a serious problem because, as the manager, Ted was the only person who could use the password protected cash register. That means that I had to politely take a customer’s order over for a Lox and bagel over the sound of snoring. Then I would have to direct the customer to the cash register with an upbeat, “One moment please!” I would walk over to Ted and shake him awake as discretely as possible, which wasn’t very discrete with the customer standing right there. He would mumble curse words under his breath and his hair would stick out, and by the time it was over, I was pretty sure that customer was never coming back.
Ted’s favorite distraction was to stand by the cooler waiting for me to get more tomatoes then use his whole body to slam the door closed. He flicked the lights on and off. At first I laughed. I mean, I can take a joke. Then it became several minutes of shoving back and forth. I was cold and annoyed and stuck in the cooler. After he finally released me, Ted would say the same line, “Thank God, I found you! Agnes really got you this time.” Then he would laugh like a maniac. The funny thing is that Ted thought that he and I were best buds (a fatal flaw of my Minnesota heritage). His favorite subject of conversation was Gary’s incompetence. “You know, Gary has no idea how to run a business.” True. “He is wasting all his money on that stupid lawsuit with the landlord.” Definitely true. “This place could really be something with the right person in charge.” Probably true. “And that person is me.” All the Minnesota nice in the world couldn’t fake a yes to that answer. I hated the guy.
Every once in a while I got to work with Jonah who was actually my age. He had shaggy brown hair, blue eyes, and aspirations to pursue acting as a career. We had fun together all shift. We read Gary’s passive aggressive notes aloud doing our most comical impressions; “If you are incapable of cleaning these filters, then maybe I should hire someone that can actually do their job! IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT?” We competed to see who could make their lattes look the prettiest. He could pour the steamed milk into the espresso to make a delicious white heart right in the center. I secretly wished he would give a heart latte to me one day. We also had a deal that we would make each other’s lunches for break and the other person had to try it. I made him the thai chicken—grilled chicken, sprouts, cucumbers, and spicy peanut sauce. He made me curried turkey—oven baked turkey with curry mayo and lettuce on pita bread. Together, we tasted all the latte flavors. Even the orange, which curdled.
A Girl Scout troop came in one summer morning all wanting smoothies and Jonah was over an hour late for work. I rushed to find the syrupy stuff for the smoothies because even though Gary claimed we were all natural we didn’t use any real fruit to make a smoothie. Not that they weren’t delicious. Unfortunately, the only flavor syrup that Gary had in stock was lemon, so I had to explain to thirty girls and their parents that we were out of every other flavor. Then I had to make iced hot chocolate for all the disappointed girls. I was sweating by the time Jonah called to say he overslept and was on his way. I turned to Megan, “let’s play a joke on Jonah.” We went into the office, and found Gary’s dusty stack of disciplinary sheets and started to write one out for Jonah’s tardiness. There were checkable boxes with a list of offenses: attendance, inappropriate behavior, unsatisfactory performance, insubordination, damage of property, etc. We checked every single box. Then we forged Gary’s signature. When Jonah came in we told him that Gary was upset, left something for him in the office, and would be back shortly. Jonah went into the office, and everything was quiet for a long time. Finally, I went in to check on him to find him red faced writing an apology letter. “Insubordination, huh?” I said with a grin. Then his eyes got very big, and he caught on. To this day, that is the best joke I have ever played on someone, and he got me back a couple times over the next time he made me a sandwich.
“Gary says that Agnes has been acting up lately,” Megan warned me. I shivered. Agnes seemed to have a special attention for me alone. I dumped out Jonah’s bucket of sanitizer water because I knew that Agnes likes to tip over things like that. Jonah hadn’t yet left for the evening and asked what I was doing. “I’m dumping out the bucket before Agnes gets a chance to,” I explained very logically. “Who’s Agnes?” Jonah lifted an eyebrow. “You didn’t hear about the lady who died of a stroke and came back as a…” I realized the ridiculousness as I was speaking. It was a little weird that I had never actually seen Agnes turn over a bucket. Megan made up the whole story and told everyone how gullible I was. I guess that I should have felt betrayed, but I was flattered to be the blunt of their joke. They were treating me as part of the gang.
There is one specific day and one specific sandwich that I will never forget. It was a Sunday. Ted’s day. A woman in her fifties ordered a roast beef sandwich and specified that she wanted the mayo spread to the edge of the bread. So I got out a knife and spread the mayo. She paid, and she took it to go. A half hour later, the same lady was storming, red-faced into the café with the sandwich shredded in both hands. “I said spread the mayo to the EDGE OF THE BREAD!” She hurled the shreds of sandwich across the counter hitting the center of my apron and sending chunks of roast beef and coleslaw onto the floor. My jaw unhinged with mortification. Miraculously, Ted was off his usual couch and at my side. He curtly ordered the woman to leave the store. I was startled and relieved by the reinforcement. And I needed it. Not long after the woman left, she returned. This time she was calm and brought the police. It must have been a funny scene for other customers. A previously crazy, sandwich-throwing woman now calmly explaining, “You see, officer, it’s just that I don’t like one big clump of mayo, which is why I specifically asked for it to be spread to the edge of the bread…” Her husband stood next to her looking embarrassed, and Ted calmly offered to remake the sandwich himself. We ended up giving her a refund. After everyone left, I turned to Ted with my eyes burning and my nose beginning to run, “I’ll *sniff* pay for the refund *sniff*.” I braced myself for a lecture. Instead, Ted really looked at me for the first time. “If anyone treats you like that again, I will be a lot less polite than I was this time.” He stormed away lost in his thoughts. My mouth fell open in astonishment for the second time that day. He actually cared.
The customers were dwindling. The café was nearing its final days. No one gave explicit information, but the signs were all there. There were extra charges tacked on extra ingredients, the tip money disappeared with Gary every night, and the broken dishes were never replaced. There were unpleasant customer reviews written online: “Had to wait an hour for a bagel.” “Girl with piercings wouldn’t honor my coffee card and scared my child.” “It is honestly a running joke around our office that 100% of them have got to be high on pot.” Finally, I arrived to work to find a handwritten note on the door with the straightforward, “closed.” My last check came in the mail without a return address. The check bounced. I tried to contact Gary but couldn’t track him down. I think he changed his last name.
Since then, I haven’t seen much of my eccentric coworkers. I only talked to Jonah once when he tried to sell me Amway. Megan sent me a Facebook message asking me if I wanted to become a Jew. I saw Clint a couple times at the grocery store. He is doing well collecting unemployment. I still haven’t heard from Dan, but Clint said that he took home an entire pan of bacon the day before the store closed. I saw Ted walking in the local parade with his bank. He came up to me and gave me and hug. I welcomed it. Work has a weird way of putting together people who would normally never associate with each other. Food has a way of joining associations into relationships. These people made up a year of my life, and now they are gone. This cute café was replaced by a tobacco store as if nothing happened. I have long taken “Café Barista” off of may resume. It almost isn’t real.
The last place where I expected to fit in was at my first job. My boss was supposed to yell at me. My coworkers were supposed to gossip about me. In my experiences, coworker and family are words that feel intertwined. Life stories are spilled then the next day they quit, and you never see them again. Perhaps it’s the lack of closure that makes me remember the coffee shop with its comforting fire and that crackling baguette. I will never find another coffee shop that has crème brule flavored coffee. I will never know of a café that serves only lemon flavored smoothies on a summer day. I will never know another kitchen that doubles as a dance floor. Knowing this, I know that the difference between belonging and isolation is a thin line. That line is one cup of coffee at a time. One specially wiped table at a time. This, I accept with certainty.