Coffee, Actually

Whenever I get gloomy about the state of the world, I think about my local Starbucks. General opinion is starting to make out that we live in a world full of hatred and greed. But I don’t see that. Seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends.

If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love, actually, is all around.

The life of a barista is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. Double that sentiment when you work in a internationally-renowned café chain in very high-traffic spot in London. Do not assume that I have never been berated by customers, cried in the back room, considered quitting and moving far, far away from the city, or been threatened to have corporate called on me over there supposedly not being a suitable amount of foam to constitute as ‘extra’, because all of those things have happened to me more times than I care to recall. Most of them at least within the last week. But, to the ongoing and immense disbelief of my family, friends, and the odd co-worker, I love my job.

Even, somehow, in the festive season. Most of the time.

It’s true that Starbucks cuts no corners in its celebration of Christmas. In fact, they love it so much, they’ve managed to push the official start date of the season all the way forward to the first of November. The second we’re done hauling the plastic pumpkins out back to the garbage, we’re gearing up to slap ivy-wreath stickers on the window. Personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way, even if by Christmas Eve I’m usually spending my shifts wondering how to go back in time to convince Mariah not to record that bloody song. I think even Whiskers is sick to death of me inexplicably humming it for a good hour after I come home from a shift.

Even though I’ve witnessed the very worst in people - many times - I’ve also seen the best; the kindest moments, full of pure, unadulterated love, moments of great vulnerability. For some reason, when people are experiencing any type of strong emotion, they turn to coffee.

Five weeks to Christmas

It was November 17th. About halfway through my shift, just before the lunch rush was due to begin. There had been a steady trickle of people all morning - it was a Monday - and blessedly, I was scheduled to take my break just before the trickle would likely turn into a flood. A man came in, fairly unassuming but seemingly in good spirits. He bounced on the balls of his feet a little as he ordered. A tall flat white, extra hot, and a mocha with whipped cream.

“Lunch break?”

He shook his head. “Let off early, boss went home sick. Thought I’d pick something up for my girlfriend.” You don’t have to work in customer service for very long before you learn that lots of people are more eager to share snippets of their lives than you would have thought, especially when they’re either in a very good mood, or when something is going wrong.

I learned that his name was Jamie. He thanked me, and a few minutes later I watched him collect his order and tuck the cardboard tray safely beneath his jacket before heading back out into the November chill.

It was barely a half hour later until I saw Jamie again, while I was standing outside having a cigarette (a bad habit, but I didn’t need to kick it until New Years). He recognised me, I think, and to my surprise he strode up to me as bold as anything and without a moment’s hesitation, asked if he could have one. Considering he’d been quite polite to me in the café earlier, I felt compelled to give him. Most of the time in hospitality niceness will get you most anywhere. Besides, he looked like he could use it.


He wiped his face, lit the cigarette, leaned next to me and took a long drag. The sound of cars passing hung between us for a few seconds.

“Something wrong?” I offered lamely, anticipating that he probably would have told me even if I’d not said a word.

He eyed me for a second, fighting a losing battle of whether or not to divulge in a stranger. His mouth opened, closed, and opened again, and out came more of a croak than a voice. “Brother. My brother. She was sleeping with him.” He nodded matter-of-factly. “Hm.”

There were five more weeks until Christmas when I met Jamie for the first and last time. I didn’t know him, but I knew enough. When he went on his way some minutes later, I sent good wishes with him.

Three weeks to Christmas

I’ve always thought that most people would opt to hold their weddings in the warmer months: England in the winter can be very harsh, and I imagine that brides in their gowns with bare arms and necks would prefer not to get snowed on, or at the very least be fighting off pneumonia on their special day. I suppose it would appeal to some, though; perhaps ‘winter wonderland’ is as popular a wedding theme as it is a work Christmas party. It is, after all, the general vibe we like to aim for in Starbucks, you know.

As it was finally December, Christmas preparations were really starting to ramp up, and even the people who staunchly opposed celebrations beginning in November were beginning to get into the spirit. To be fair, it’s incredibly hard to remain entirely immune to the powers of Christmas festivities; I would think so, at least. In the heart of London you can’t walk five metres without seeing a decorated pine tree, a paper cut out of a snowflake or a length of tinsel. At night, every available surface is covered from head to toe in twinkling lights in every colour imaginable. My personal preference is plain old white. Goes with everything. I’ve been trying to convince my boss that we should incorporate a lightshow of some sort into our store, with no luck. Occupational Health and Safety violation, she says, with all this liquid around. I think she just needs to get into the spirit.

Early in the afternoon, a young woman came in, her tiny frame swamped in scarves and coats galore; it happened to be a more mild day than one was used to in London, but I supposed being so small she needed the extra warmth. Her face, though, was bright and sunny, and she had intelligent brown eyes that seemed as though they were joyous enough to pull her lips into a smile even while she waited in line, surveying her options from the board above my head.

“Hello,” she greeted me as she appeared at the front of the line, pulling off her wooly hat. She had a very proper London accent, like mine; she must have been a native. Her warmth made a nice change, far too many of the posh customers that came through our doors were sad sods with upturned noses. She placed her hands on the counter while she recited her order - again, for two - and on one of her delicate fingers I noticed a thin, gold ring, accompanied by another one which held a small, traditionally-cut diamond.

“Could I grab a, um, a grande - is that what you call it? - a grande caramel macchiato and a…” She gnawed on her lip, staring intently at the register as though it would offer her the answer. “Oh, what would Mark like? A cappuccino, I suppose, everyone likes those,” she decided. “Oh, and could I get two chocolate croissants, please? For Juliet, that’s my name.”

“Is Mark your husband?” I asked tentatively, nodding to her rings.

Juliet laughed a musical laugh. “Oh, no. He’s my husband’s best friend, I’m just going to see him about some video footage he took at our wedding,” she said as she fished her credit card out from her bag. “You see, our wedding video just turned up and it’s all wrong, there’s something wrong with the colours and it’s all wavy. I thought he might have caught something a bit better. I just want to see what I looked like in my gown.” I handed her card back to her. “He doesn’t like me very much, I guess I’m trying to butter him up with food.”

I wondered how it was possible that Mark didn’t like Juliet; I’d only been speaking to her for a minute at the most but I struggled to see how he could find something to take issue with. Later, she took her pastries and her coffees and bundled herself up once again, turning to offer me a quick wave before bouncing out the door. Something of a hush fell over the store, subtle but noticeably there, like Juliet had plucked a piece of joy from the air and taken it with her.

Whoever Mark was, I hoped he changed his mind.

One week to Christmas

Be it known that I do have a favourite story that has come from my time working at Starbucks. It originates from an unlikely place: a late close.

Truth be told, I was completely exhausted; the week leading up to Christmas is, if you can believe it, even more hectic than usual with all the last-minute shoppers bursting through the doors at all hours of the day to escape the weather and refuel to continue their dash to make sure they have a gift for every name on the list of who will be at the family Christmas lunch. Luckily for me, I only needed to worry about my sister, her kids and our parents. Her husband had recently been cut out of the picture - entirely due to his own unfaithfulness, I might add.

It was getting very close to the end of opening hours, and for some reason which I am still unaware of to this day, almost everyone had cleared off for the night. Usually we had a decent sized group of stragglers who hung around until we effectively kicked them out.

The café was empty but for two figures, huddled close over their mugs in the very corner of the store, one very large with thinning grey hair and one so small his feet dangled above the floor from his chair. He had bright orange hair that stood out like a beacon in the dimly-lit room. It seemed that they were discussing something very serious; the boy had a notebook opened in front of them covered with handwriting and arrows forming a sort of flow chart, or so I deduced when I was mopping that corner of the floor, and they spoke in hushed tones so that I doubted I’d be able to hear them even if the sound of jingly Christmas music hadn’t been drowning them out anyway.

“Hey, guys,” I said, sidling over. Two faces turned up to look at me, one resigned and potentially somewhat relieved, and one struck with fear. “The time has come, I gotta close up for the night.”

Almost before I had finished speaking, the orange-haired boy piped up. “Please let us stay just a little while longer! We’re almost finished.”

“Hey, come on, Sam, maybe it’s time to pack it in for the night, hey?” the older man said gently. He, clearly, was ready for bed, as was I.

“But,” Sam clutched what was left of his hot chocolate tightly, “the recital is next week!”

“I know, but-”

“I still don’t know what I’m going to say to Joanna,” Sam said, a tone of despair in his voice. “Nothing sounds right.”

“Who’s Joanna? Is she your girlfriend?” I said, hoping to put a smile back on the boy’s face and instead achieving the exact opposite reaction.

He hung his head. “No. She never will be at this rate.”

“Joanna is a girl he likes at his school,” the older man, whose cup read ‘Daniel’.

“It’s love, actually,” Sam corrected him. “I love her.“Yes, sorry, you’re right. It’s love.” He gave me a meaningful look. “She’s leaving for America in a week’s time and Sam is doing his best to figure out how to proclaim his never-ending love for her. We haven’t reached a decision yet.”

I eyed the two of them; Sam was giving me his best puppy dog eyes. I supposed they must have been father and son, though they looked nothing alike - blue eyes and brown, mousey hair and bright orange. They made an odd picture, certainly, but I couldn’t help the warmth that crept through my chest at the sight. It did usually take me a little while to balance the till and lock up.

“Well, since it’s love, I’m sure I could let you stick around a little while longer. I wouldn’t want to stand in the way of your big plan.” Sam’s face lit up, and while Daniel looked more worn out than ever, he was unable to repress the small smile that Sam’s excitement afforded him. I returned five minutes later with a coffee on the house. He definitely looked like he could use it.

Whenever I get gloomy about the state of the world, I think about my local Starbucks. My work. Some days it really did feel like work - when machines break, when customers yell - but sometimes, like that night, I felt like everything was worthwhile. It probably doesn’t seem like the place of a simple barista; on the surface it’s true, we are only serving coffee and following orders. It’s more than that, though. On my more positive days, around Christmas time when one gets swept up into the spirit of love and giving and gratefulness, I like to think of my job as being one that helps to bring people together. You’ll find that love comes in innumerable forms. I hoped that I was able to facilitate some of it, in my own way.

Grace Collison is a second-year Communications (Creative Writing) student. She's passionate about three things: the weather, bubble tea and terrace houses. Oh, and writing, when she can get past staring at a blank document.