Inside The Barista Class. It’s about power,
After a while, the process of dealing with the clientele itself can conform to a similar—albeit slightly more nuanced—math. Somewhere around the hundredth order, the expectations underneath each inflection become easier to decode, like you’ve developed a sixth sense. Often it was simply detecting how much overt power a customer wished to exercise. By far the simplest to please are, unfortunately, the most cliche: the older, better-dressed, and very likely monied ones. They want substitutions and customized drinks, and from their servers, only hyper-polite deference. For a woman, men over a certain age are easy, most of the time—there is but only one marginally flirtatious smile, and all it requires is a twist of the mouth.
And don’t forget the alienation:
I once had a friend who quit his job as a bike messenger because, as he told it, people on the street started to resemble nothing more than obstacles in the way of his next commission. If delivery work makes all humans into roadblocks, front-of-the-house service professions render them as a collection of preferences and tastes and, as both Pierre Bourdieu and latte orders have taught me, taste is almost never singular. Luckily there really aren’t that many kinds of people buying $5 coffees in Brooklyn, and thus there are a limited number of ways in which it becomes necessary to communicate, particularly once you figure out which parts of yourself are most in demand.
My kind of service work is not the kind of service work that puts you in the back room washing dishes for 12-hour shifts for dollars because you are considered completely expendable. But my kind of service work is part of the same logic that indiscriminately razes neighborhoods. It outsources the emotional and practical needs of the oft-fetishized, urban-renewing “creative” workforce to a downwardly mobile middle class, reducing workers’ personality traits and educations to a series of plot points intended to telegraph a zombified bohemianism for the benefit of the rich.
Always lurking is the reserve army of the un- and under-employed,
The national unemployment rate was hovering close to ten percent while I was in school, and if I ever doubted how lucky I was, I had only to look around my own place of employment. The shop was perpetually full of people glaring at their laptops. Some endlessly scrolled through the universal yet private hell of Craigslist job postings. Others hammered away manically, picking away at their corner of the gig economy, that handily shortened name for what had once been termed the Industrial Revolution of our time. It had been estimated, around 2010, that there were a million freelancers in New York. I only knew one or two who were making it work—for everyone else, working for yourself just meant begging for projects while you looked for a job. I was lucky.
As of 2012, one in ten employed Americans worked in food service. Two-thirds of them are under 35. The average hourly wage for a food service worker, according to the Department of Labor, is around $12, with a work week less than 25 hours long. It comes out to a little more than $14,000 a year. These are jobs without benefits or much potential for upward mobility, jobs where the idea of a sick day is laughable. Almost 60% of new jobs are of the low-wage, high-turnover variety; food service ranks in the top five of industries with job growth; the others are mostly in healthcare.
There is a small amount of class solidarity,
For all of North Brooklyn’s book groups and websites and meet-ups dedicated to alternative monetary systems, the solidarity economy is, for the time being, at its best in the service sector. I can barely remember paying full price for anything. Checks for Negronis, artisanal spicy pickles, hand-roasted coffee beans, and sometimes entire locally sourced meals disappeared with a wink and a nudge reminiscent of Fight Club’s ominous waiter scene. At the very least, it allowed us to participate in a culture we couldn’t really afford. At its vilest it felt like a neighborhood of people working for slightly more than minimum wage in exchange for a chance to play-act at brunching in a nice neighborhood.
Rarely spoken aloud, the tendency of Greenpoint’s service class to take care of its own was one of the only outright gestures of solidarity I witnessed, the only place where a distinction was made between the server and the served. I suspect the rarity of that admission has something to do with the fact that, for most intents and purposes, our jobs relied on completely erasing that distinction from public view.
But if you’re not one of them, you better be a good customer, or you will get it:
If a customer was particularly bad we exercised one of the only powers we possessed and “decafed” them. To covertly rob a caffeine-addicted asshole of their morning jolt was truly one of the sweetest pleasures of baristahood, and one that my subsequent professions haven’t come close to replicating.