by Jacob Martin
I am an addict, just like all of you that are reading this. Yeah, yeah, you don’t deal in the hard stuff, or maybe you do – I don’t care. All I know is that you are addicted to something. It could simply be your phone, it could be Netflix, it could be the gym, porn, video games, music, food, alcohol, tobacco, etc. Anything you can’t go a week without because we are creatures of habit. Especially, for the things that provide us with a sense of escape. Something that shuts down the brain, rips us away from our world or provides us with some sort of comfort. For me it was two things, stimulants both of them: caffeine and nicotine. I remember trying my first cigarette in high school, in that classic peer pressure fashion, from a friend who had a good heart but dealt in bad influences. I liked the sensation, that tingling in the back of my throat, the buzz in my skull. The aroma of fresh baking hay and herbs. Trust me, they don’t smell so bad when you’re the one holding it, and I know how gross it is, but we all have our thing. And yes, I know how bad smoking is, too, so I made the switch to the “safer alternative” of vapor, which left my lungs more fatigued than tobacco did. It was that clarity, the “tingle” that I craved more so than the taste, and in that craving, I found one other thing that offered a similar experience…coffee.
I have my parents to thank for that addiction. I started drinking coffee at eleven and never realized how large my tolerance was since I got the jitters out early in life. It became a daily part of my life, and most people function the same way. The day doesn’t start until that first cup reaches your lips. Wake up and start that ritual of worship. Pop in a k-cup, plop some scoops into a Mr. Coffee filter, or like the purist, grind the beans yourself, take a deep whiff, and brew it slowly like you’re praying to God.
I never realized how dependent I was on caffeine until I moved to school. When the town of Buckhannon was still new to me, I would get the dirt coffee from Sheetz and the caff. It was enough to get my fix, but it was always too bitter or too weak. It tasted like a mimicked version of real coffee… at least in hindsight it did. It all tasted artificial, like they were trying too hard to capture the flavor of coffee without actually using coffee.
My roommate was gifted a Keurig that year and barely touched it. I bought my own k-cups since he “didn’t like coffee,” then it broke before the semester was out. I always suspected he did it out of spite… but I certainly worked it like a mule. Anyone who was fortunate enough to have a Keurig was usually too ignorant to realize how good they had it.
When the weekends came around and my new friends felt adventurous, we would carpool into town. Mouths set ajar, stomachs empty, looking to fill our need of consumption. One of my gal-pals recommended this place called Stone Tower, and I was ecstatic when she said it was a coffee shop. Little did she know she was giving me the hookup for my drug of choice. If regular coffee was meth, then espresso was the stuff Heisenberg made. The baristas were nice, the ambiance was on point, and they served us our drug with a smile. The interior was a small space with a rustic modern look. It had dark colored woods with blue painted accents that were bathed in soft orange light. Broken-in hardwood floors polished by the many feet that passed through. The bar was topped with concrete and smoothed over with epoxy and dark-oak high-top chairs that whispered, “Hey, sit on me and spend some time.” The music that was played was hipster fueled indie rock. It was a place that begged you to sit down and stay. Begged you to spend your money, begged you to buy coffee, and I did just that. A week wouldn’t pass by where I, like many others, would go five, maybe six, seven times just for a latte.
Towards the end of freshman year, I found myself a bit broke like most junkies who use too much. Looking to fix both of my problems, I applied for a job at Stone Tower. I got the job and started out in the kitchen. It was fun, but I wanted to be up front, close and personal with the elixir of life. Instead, I was stuck making tacos. When you work with food for that long, the scent of it leaches into your skin. I could take three showers and still smell like taco meat. The only thing that made it bearable was that I could drink as much coffee as I wanted. I’d suck down three lattes as I cooked on the line. Playing with fire and showering in grease.
Those years in the kitchen went by like a prison sentence, fast and slow all at the same time. The world started to get antsy just as news of a virus from the east began to spring up in reports. I found myself bouncing back and forth between work and school until the day my boss asked if I was staying in town. He told me about how they had to shut down, how the rest of the world would, too. How we had to go home and that’s when my phone buzzed. That wonderful email about school going virtual for the rest of the semester. The world was covered in an invisible shadow, and they booted us off campus like a stray dog that wandered onto the porch. I remember getting my last cup before I went home. My bags were packed, in the car, and I stopped in for one last goodbye only to see empty faces, wrinkled with uncertainty. I drank that latte way too fast on the way home. It was extra good that day, maybe because I knew deep down that I wouldn’t get another in a long time, but there was a strangeness to it, to its taste. An emptiness that grew in my belly.
Being back at my country home was nice. While I certainly liked being at school more, there was a level of peacefulness there that Buckhannon never had. I would listen to the birds sing in the meadow while the world burned and waged war over toilet paper. I was thankful to live in nowhere country where I didn’t have to wait in spaced lines and lock myself in a small apartment. In the mornings I would get up and look out over the countryside, then shamble into the kitchen and pour a cup of my mom’s sad excuse for a cup of coffee to start my day of virtual learning. I would look out our bay window with my weak cup, wishing it was espresso, while my professors, bless their souls, would lecture to empty, silent black boxes. I lived like that, missing my friends, being in my own space, the taste of work.
When the world calmed down just enough for students to return, once again I needed some money to support my habits. Luckily for me, a barista position opened up, and I giddily accepted – hell I even begged God that it would work out. After a month of waiting, I got my first shift.
Those first few weeks were a barrage of information, so much so that my head would spin. It’s confusing, but as time passes, you get the hang of it, like trying to tame a wild horse by riding it. The more you try, the easier it gets. How much coffee it takes to pull a shot, how much it has to weigh, what syrups go where, what type of milk to use, how to use the register, cold foam, restock, beans, matcha, prices, miscellaneous purchases, yada, yada, yada. Despite thriving through all that chaos, I could still make as much coffee as I wanted. Sucking it down like nectar poured from the hand of a chrome mechanical angel that hissed steam and spat hot water.
I couldn’t make the real money until I completed my training in Fairmont, under a previous barista-now-turned-roaster-and-coffee-connoisseur. It was a formal process through the company’s “quality control.” You had to have the training before you could serve coffee to customers, before you could make tips. His name was Peter, and he was a thin, ruggedly handsome type of guy with jet black hair and sharp eyes. Anyone who would look at him would automatically think of a lumberjack, since his second skin of choice was flannel. And if you thought I had it bad, you should meet this guy. He loved coffee so much he bought half of a roastery. He knows enough about coffee, and the science behind it, that he could write a series of books. Like how pressure, temperature, and water develop the flavor of the shot. How to create a recipe for espresso. How the grind size of the bean changes the quality of a brew. How coffee was sometimes used for religious rituals by ancient peoples. How coffee beans are first berries. How scientists argue amongst themselves about how coffee is and isn’t addictive.
Peter was quiet and had a sense of humility during the training and didn’t strike me in the same way as others had described him to be an intense man. He made me taste good and bad espresso, and I tell you the difference is stunning. Good espresso tastes like a bitter caramel with a hint of smoky citrus on the end notes. Bad espresso, well, dig up some dirt from a firepit and give it a taste and you’ll get the idea.
Next was learning how to tamp coffee and pull a shot. It feels like soft sand when you push the grounds into place, smoothing it over the top of the filter to uniformity, then tamping it down into a puck. When you “pull a shot” you twist the portafilter into place then flip the loud cracking switch and hear the water gargle in the machine. It spits and sputters as the espresso slowly dribbles into the glass. The scent that follows is that of dark chocolate hickory smoke which bleeds through your mask and into your soul. It flows like thick milky dark amber from a mythical tree. From there, it leaps into the supple mouths of eager customers, waiting for their indulgence.
Lastly, Peter taught me how to steam milk. It looks fancier than it is, but I learned the hard way that you can burn the shit out of yourself. I drove home with a blister the size of a golf ball between my fingers, buzzing on caffeine until midnight.
When I truly started “slinging coffee,” I paid more attention to the people that came in. It’s interesting what you can see and hear in a place of business. People seem to forget that servers have a brain, they forget we have eyes and ears. It’s like we are drones, that our only purpose is to make them coffee and bring them their food.
Watching the line is the biggest thing. People were not built to stand uniformly. They fidget and pace in their small space. Their similar, familiar, and strange faces all gawk back at you, all smiling, frowning, or are gaunt as a whiteboard. All impatiently waiting patiently, both calm and antsy, just to place an order, then wait another 15 minutes for an indulgence they might have to go another 4 months without. Their eyes glare with intensity and rapidly dart away when met. You are making their coffee, best they don’t be rude and stare. You see friends, the usuals, and strangers who wander around like a child looking for their mother in a grocery store. Some of those faces are still covered, with sad, timid looking eyes. Eyes that are reminiscent of the time passed and the thing that has never really left. You ride that chaos like driving a car without brakes because it never stops. The faces fly by like the trees on the roadside, and you wonder who they are, who they really are. You know you’ll never know them, no matter how many times they come for coffee, no matter how many sessions of small talk you conduct, they just go away and pay you no mind beyond the casual “Hello, I want this.” Because in service, when you have thirty orders to fill in thirty minutes, that’s all they are… just faces.
In all that chaos, people forget how to act like people. They are snappy and rude, a single frustration away from being a wild pack of animals. I hypothesize that it is due to the pandemic. They need that caffeine fix, or they need some type of comfort, and until they get it, a bad mood is the norm. When you try to take someone’s order, they get all jumpy. Maybe it’s having to wear a mask, how it takes away the calming powers of a smile. How eyes without the accompaniment of that smile are intense and bright. How the plastic divider makes it hard to hear or be heard.
People make silly decisions or mistakes and look to blame anyone but themselves. Once, two girls ordered some lattes and spilled one all over the table in the back of the restaurant. Rather than tell us about it, they asked for another latte. It was policy to make a replacement for a spill because “accidents happen,” but thankfully I asked where they spilled the first one. They pointed to the back of the restaurant and the younger of the two answered, “Oh! It’s ok, I already cleaned it up with my jacket!” She raised her coat up high like she was showing off a trophy. It was clearly soaked through with coffee that lightly dripped to the floor. Ironically, she had only smeared it around.
Those two girls made me pay attention to something else, too: how people order. My generation and the younger customers seem to enjoy iced drinks over hot, and so sweet even a non-diabetic would need an insulin boost. Worst of all, they never tip and always look at me like I am a scary stranger. But I am the proverbial keeper of the keys. The provider of the coffee. They still pay us little respect or kindness. Middle aged customers are a mix, but somehow, I can tell what they want just by looking at them. It’s like a gut feeling. They want it sweet, extra sweet, extra espresso, hot, cold, and the term basic can be applied just as you would expect. Trust me, it’s laughable. Older folks are my favorite. They do tip well, and they are patient and wholesome. They talk to me like I am a person when most people just want their service. People are strange when they want something, but no matter how they are, I just listen and give them what they want.
When that line isn’t there, I just listen and hear the wildest things. Now don’t take that the wrong way, I never actively eavesdrop, I literally just listen. I hear sorority girls talking loudly about drama and sexual encounters. How it all aligned with their horoscope for the month. College athletes obnoxiously shouting obscenities about that game and another, carless of the young ears around them. I hear teachers complaining about horrible students once they’ve had another pint and asking their friends how their marriage hasn’t failed. High schoolers cracking PG-level sex jokes and editing TikToks while squealing over extra sweet lattes. Old women babbling to their husbands who have dead eyes that linger on their joe. Young couples on nervous first dates, barely talking about anything besides work and the weather. Not all of them are bad. Some conversations are nice, and most of the usuals that know us by name send love our way. Ask about our day and banter. But most people forget they are in a shared space; they forget they can be heard when they have coffee.
After things opened back up, it seemed like everyone forgot their manners. We always needed a reminder of how to treat others, but now it seems worse. Middle aged customers are snarky and petty, younger folks are quiet and run away as soon as they can. Lord forbid you ask them about their day. I don’t know what’s different now, I just know that it is. People are quicker to anger than before. They just want what they want and to leave without being seen. Maybe it’s that fear that something will go away, that they have to grab it now while they can.
Coffee has made me think a lot about people and the lockdown. I think about how that last shift would have gone when I close alone. I wasn’t there that last day, but I wondered how it was when the line was gone. How a mess of napkins and crumbs were left, like an offering to the gods of consumption. When I put up the chairs on the dark wooden tables and sweep the pile of spilled coffee grounds up, I can look again out those large bay windows and taste that same taste. That last latte on my way home. That emptiness in my chest. That feeling of saying goodbye. Only to come back the next morning to brave the line again and fight the crowd who all come for coffee.
Jacob Martin is studying on the general English track. He originally came to Wesleyan with the intent to study music but soon changed his major to English once he realized that he loved writing much more than music theory. It was a hard change to make, but it feels like it was meant to be. He was born in Nicholas county, WV and was raised by a family of storytellers, raised in our Appalachian tradition of tall tales, and found the desire to share his stories with any who would listen. Martin’s essay “Coffee” won third place in The Vandalia’s 2022 Art & Literature contest.