Category: Work

Soul Wide Awake

“I can’t leave this,” I tell myself. “I’m too afraid. This isn’t fun, but it’s comfortable. This isn’t right, but at least I know where I’m sleeping and how to get around. I’m afraid to go again. I should stay where it’s safe.”

136 South Dubuque Street

You may have heard by now the sad news: As of November 1, May’s Cafe and the Wedge Downtown will be naught but a beautiful memory. Just as I accepted that I was going to be here for two years, reality burst my glorious bubble. I knew I would leave some day, but I expected it to be on my terms. May’s was always just supposed to be there, with or without me.

I transferred to the University of Iowa as a junior. I was lonely, lost, and doubting that I would ever make a home in this city of 100,000 citizens and students.

This is my fourth August in this city, and I would consider myself as local as one can be without actually being born here.

I’ve watched Greta grow from a freshman to a senior. Watched the benches in the ped mall be painted and repainted. Listened to the debate about the validity of tree scarves when there are so many homeless people without. I’ve taken pictures with Herky, applauded local theater troupes, attended folk concerts, volunteered at the ReStore. The faces of Iowa City started to change: a mass of strangers became a blend of friends. I thesised, I graduated, and I became one of the rare ones to stay in this transient town.

Through the last four years, classes have changed, friends have moved, priorities have shifted, my address changed. The only constant: 136 South Dubuque Street. A little coffee shop in the middle of the ped mall: patron, barista, manager.

136 South Dubuque Street.

Capanna taught me to make coffee.
May’s Cafe taught me to appreciate it.

Capanna taught me to hide my clumsiness.
May’s Cafe taught me to (mostly) overcome it.

Capanna taught me to build relationships with people I saw for 45 seconds every day.
May’s Cafe taught me to keep a smile on my face when people were treating me like subhuman for the third day in a row.
(By the way, the regular patronage of 136 South Dubuque is unreal. People are so genuine, so kind. 98% of our customers are either neutral or fantastic. We are human beings at my shop.)

Capanna taught me to problem solve for myself.
May’s Cafe taught me to troubleshoot for other people.

Capanna taught me to listen to people smarter than myself.
May’s Cafe taught me how to search out the answers when all the smarter people had left.

136 South Dubuque Street.
Two cafes.
My story.

I’ve poured my soul into this shop. As a full time student, I would work here 20-30 hours a week, then study or hang out with friends another 10-15 hours. I was proud to be part of the transition team from Capanna to May’s, loving the people of Iowa City and glad that I could stay with my regulars. It gave me such joy to return after my internship and continue the craftsmanship I had quickly grown to love.

The fours supervisors started running the cafe last November when our manager moved to Minneapolis. By March, Claire and I were co-managing, and in July I was holding the position alone. It startled me to watch myself grow – do I really have it down to an exact time how long it takes to do first day training? Did we really just develop and implement a new menu? Did we really just participate in (and host!) latte art competitions? Is this really my team? Did this new girl really just analyze her shot and tell me what was wrong with it and how she thought she could fix it? These beautiful baristas, excited and passionate about their job? Is this still the culture, where the staff comes to hang out for hours on their day off just because they enjoy it so much?

And then there was Steve. Boss Man, as I call him. Muffin Man, as Hiba did. “Good”, as all called him. I have worked for many people. Bad bosses, good bosses, and Steve. The man who believed in me. The man who introduced himself to everyone working for him, and made sure he knew their name and personally asked them questions so he would know their story, too. The man who believed in investing in his employees. The man who spentevery. single. day. at his store on the floor. If something broke beyond my expertise, I would just walk up to him and say, “Steve, help.” If I was running low on something, or needed new equipment, I would just shoot him an email and a week later it would magically appear on my shelves. The man who told a coworker who needed extra cash, “Yeah, I wasn’t planning on being open the day after Christmas, but if you want to, go ahead and open the cafe for a while. We might sell a couple of coffees.” The man who would buy a slice of cake for you on your birthday if you wandered into the shop, and if you were going through a family crisis would make sure that you got a hug and definitely didn’t pay for that breakfast sandwich – it was on him. The man who knew the name of just about every regular customer in the shop – who was surprised that he hadn’t heard about our latest “Snickerdoodle Lady” before she gave us a thank you note. The man who poured blood, sweat, and tears into his shop, trying his best to make it a good business and a good place to work.

I once was chatting with a stranger and mentioned I worked at May’s Cafe. “Oh no,” he interceded. “another Disciple of Steve. I hear people come back for his parties that worked for him in the ’90s! Steve, the great and wonderful.”

Not long ago, a worker from the Wedge was getting a different job. When I jokingly protested, he laughed it off. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll see me again. No one ever actually leaves the Orbit of Steve.”

I am so, so blessed to have worked for that man. I do hope everyone someday gets a chance to work for a Steve.

I’ve spent a lot of time weeping since we got the news. I weep, not because I’m afraid, but because I’m grieving. I know people will be okay. My staff could easily jump to another of the half a dozen coffee shops around downtown, and Steve (!) is personally asking if people have another job they can go to or if they need help. I know Steve will be okay. I know I will be okay. But still I grieve. May’s is me and I am May’s. May’s is every one of my baristas. May’s is every one of my regulars. May’s is Linda-large-latte-no-foam. May’s is Danny-70-30-house. May’s is Abbie-iced-cafe-miel-and-a-warmed-up-muffin. May’s is Jake-triple-americano. May’s is soaking children trotting before their mother to the restroom. May’s is the weekly cappuccino and scrabble meeting. May’s is a daily game of speed chess. May’s is finding the small table or the one with the coffee mug painting. May’s is dissertations and bible studies. May’s is conference attendees and permanent business folk. May’s is different students every semester. May’s is a bottomless cup of incredible coffee. May’s is you, Iowa City. May’s is me.

I stayed in this town after I graduated.
I stayed for Steve. I stayed for May’s. I stayed for home.

I literally have no idea where I’m going now. I doubt I will stay in Iowa City. I doubt I will stay in the midwest. The future is wide open. Usually that would be a beautiful thought, but today I just look at it. I turn it over in my mind and I put it back on the shelf. Because today, I’m still grieving the loss of my 136 South Dubuque Street.

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Blogging, a question mark

What is the purpose of blogging?

The last several months I’ve noted that more and more of my Facebook friends have taken the proverbial pen in hand to broadcast their thoughts and lives to the world in the form of a blog. I am by no means a regular writer in my own, but take pleasure in reading from others.

I also am constantly searching for new blogs, seeking validation in the emotions and questions that I have – how do other people in my stage of life handle situations, make decisions, move from one day to the next? Although I suppose I qualify as a “digital native”, I am lost in the tangled world wide web, using rudimentary search functions to try find my far flung peers.

I was complaining about this to my roommate the other day. “I can’t find blogs about twentysomethings just trying to figure out what they’re doing with their lives! College students, young mothers, business professionals, sure! But what about those who DON’T know what they’re doing with their lives? Who have graduated, are not married, and are not working for a multi-million dollar corporation? Where are we represented? Why can’t I find their daily ponderings about how to survive?”

She looked at me, and bless her heart, said, “Why don’t you write it?”

Well, the reason is: I’m an external processor. I write when I have something to say. That’s usually when I’m processing something. It’s hardly professional to write about wrestling with the decision of whether to stay at my current job or move on, publishing my thoughts for the world to see before I’ve had that conversation with my boss. (For those of you keeping track: I’m staying.) Nor is it kosher to write about the frustrations and victories at work or in relationships.

I can’t write in an abstract way. I can’t discuss in real time what I’m learning, how I’m changing, what questions I’m trying to answer. It is only after the coals have cooled that I am able to speak with clarity, fairness, and quality.

But frankly, that doesn’t help the next person searching for answers. The thought process I think is just as important as the answers. It’s messy, it’s ugly, and no two people can ever follow the same road map. Viewing a situation through someone else’s lens, and understanding their reflections, can reveal more angles and ideas in ones own world, even if the final outcome is completely different. The journey is the destination, after all, isn’t that what has always been preached?

I do not have the ability to write about my journey. I can only stand on the plains and look around me, sometimes euphoric, sometimes just introspective. I can talk about where I have been, but I can’t talk about how I got there. Forgive me, but I can not write the blog I so desperately want to read.

Humans of New York
“What we see is affected by our memories, our feelings, and by what we’ve seen before.”

Behind the counter, or blogging again

March 27, 2014

It’s been almost a year since I’ve touched this blog – ironic, since part of the reason I started it was to chronicle the changes and travel in my life. While there have been lots of both, particularly recently, that’s not my goal this round.

Instead, I’m going to use this as a story dump of sorts. Several friends have jokingly said I should write a book about my life, and with graduation bringing all sorts of unknowable free time, perhaps this is where I shall (re)begin instead.

If you have spent any time around me in the last two years, you know that I work in a coffee shop and am pretty much in heaven. Hence, many of my stories revolve around this place – especially now that I manage there and more or less live behind the counter.

I like people quite a bit, and the line between “regulars” and “friends” often blurs to the point where I can’t remember which is which. Today I watched that line blur – as I was walking downtown for my shift, a silver-haired ‘medium house’ reached an intersection at the same moment as me. We continued towards the law library together, sharing brief histories and parting amiably. I know that next time he comes into work, the interaction will be more than surface level. Something about being outside the box, you know?

I remember the first time I saw one of my regulars in the real world. A freshman decided that our coffee shop was his, simply because after a week we recognized him as a regular and figured out his name and order. While sitting in Old Capitol Mall one day, I looked up to see him striding past me. “Jarad!” I called. Startled, he looked at me. “What are you doing here?” he accused. Slightly insulted, I shot back, “I don’t LIVE in Capanna, you know.” “Well, yeah,” he agreed, “but you’re not supposed to exist outside the coffee shop!”

I suppose it is a bit like seeing a teacher outside of school, but still, just because I’m your barista doesn’t mean I never hang up my apron (yes – I used to wear one every day) and do things like, you know, be a full-time student!

The reverse situation has happened as well, though. I started spotting “large caramel latte” all over town, usually carrying a cup from a competing coffee shop. When she would notice me, she had the dignity to look slightly ashamed, and so began quips and jokes. One day I was early for work and spotted her sitting in our dining room. I, being my natural, awkward self, pulled up a chair and sat down. Nikki and I started chatting, and I found myself meeting several of her coworkers. A few weeks later, this regular came to my birthday party, and thus was the beginning of a beautiful friendship… And far longer conversations as I would make her latte every morning for the rest of the year!

The things I see and the people I meet behind the counter are kind of incredible. Brace yourselves 🙂

Smartphones and Saturdays

December 1, 2012

Two 20-somethings guys came into my coffee shop this morning looking slightly bewildered.
“Um…” said the one closest to the register. “I’d like a cup of coffee.”
“Sure!” I responded, and then proceeded to query which size and roast he wanted. Finally, filling up the cup, I asked if he wanted me to leave any room for cream. “That’s the last question on this, I promise!”
“That’s fine… but now I have a question for you!”
As I brought his coffee over and finished the transaction, he continued.
“We’re from England.” (At this point, I had to stop myself from saying, ‘Well, obviously.’) “And we’re in Iowa City.” I couldn’t help myself– I did have to laugh at that statement. This bewildered gent continued. “We’re in a band on tour… and our band left without us last night.”

As I handed him his change and he promptly dropped it back in the tip jar, he finally sheepishly asked his question. “We need to get in touch with our manager. Or our agent. Or somebody. And we were wondering if we could use a phone to make a quick phone call.”

I pulled out my cell phone and handed it over. “Here, go ahead.” Now, I do not have a smartphone. As these British gents found the number on their Iphone 5, they puzzled over how to dial it (a problem I can relate to– the joys of traveling!). Then came the brilliant moment: when technology surpasses skills. Looking at me in a panic, they asked, “Now, how do we call it?” I pushed the send button and went back to my work.

Ten minutes later, my coworker had lent them his smartphone and I had my Verizon LG back.

Pretty Little Liars

August 31, 2012

Because I have far more important things to think about, the world wide web is treated to the introspective ponderings that have been plaguing me for the last several days so that they will stop hounding me.

Following so far? Good.

I’m just a well-dressed wreck

I’m just a made-up mess

Working hard, trying to keep everybody impressed

All the while, falling apart on the inside

Stephen Curtis Chapman — Broken

I despise the question, “How are you?” Several of you have been treated to my venting sessions regarding this statement. In American culture, this phrase means little more than, “I acknowledge your existence, moving on…”

In some ways, this question turns us into the biggest liars.

“Good, thanks.”
“Fine, how’re you?”

I ask it sometimes at work to my customers. Sometimes they give me a, “Good, I’ll have a tall classic mocha.” Sometimes they say, “I’m alright, how’re you? I’d like a grande dark, no room.” Sometimes they are surprised, take a second to blink, answer and order. Other times they completely ignore the question.

I tend to fall into that last category, even in real conversations.

See, the thing is, people ask it but don’t mean it. Most of the time, they don’t even realize they have asked a question. It is acknowledgement of existence, much like, “Where are you going?” or “Have you eaten?” in Chinese culture.

In conversations with people, it is my habit that I will not ask the question, “How are you?” unless I have both the desire and time to hear a legitimate answer. If both of those are in place, I tend to push for more than a knee-jerk answer. Otherwise, what’s the point? I’m guilty of following the same pattern, but I try not to.

People matter.

Life isn’t easy.

We are too busy. Too distracted. Too focused on ourselves. What I have to do next. Where I have to be. My world extends to my fingertips, and we view our fellow man through foggy glass. They are there, but not clear enough to care about what is going on beneath the surface.

This makes it very easy to lie.

“I’m fine.”

Have you ever thought about that? Seriously? Why do you ask people this?

I ignore the question most of the time. But every once in a while, I’ll run into someone that will pause and actually ask me, “Hey, how are you?”

It’s moments like that when I’m honest. It really isn’t that hard to get me to open up.

The thing is, no one ever asks.

And most of the time when they do, it is easier to deflect the conversation, redirect it. Or answer, “Fine, how’re you? No, really, how are you?”

Then I’m safe. My soul stays tucked away. No worries about actually answering that question. No actually having to think about life, analyze it, and be honest with myself. At least not today.

Because when someone actually does ask, then I go into psychoanalysis mode and I ponder the question for days.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programing. Acoustic and Articulatory Phonetics, you’re next in line!