Is there oat milk? I said, and then I said: I’m sorry, I know it’s so pretentious, and the barista shrugged and said, Sure, it isn’t really. And then I realized that he has grown up in a world where it’s never been in question that plants are milked! Could this be the true divide between millennials and members of Generation Z, between people like me who were raised to feel ashamed of their lactose intolerance, and people like him, who have never believed that the default way to cream your coffee requires a touch of animal cruelty? Because let me be clear: I love yogurt and cheese, I’m a fiend for ice cream, but ever since I learned to hook myself up to an electric breast pump I’ve stopped feeling relaxed about the dairy industry.
I think of myself as a barista at heart, always have since, you know, I was a barista. I worked at Starbucks in Wolf Road in Albany in the summer of 2001, which at the time was just a summer, but which just weeks later became the last summer, or at least a last summer. I worked there even though I made less in my hourly wage than I’d made the previous summer, as the receptionist at a dying healthcare company where I read books all day, answered the phone three times a week. Every now and then I was called upon to fix the photocopier because I was young. That job made me feel like I was dying inside, even though it gave me the opportunity to read a hundred novels, and so I guess I thought that working at Starbucks would be more fun, more active, an opportunity to make friends with my fellow baristas.
I guess I did, though I don’t remember any of their names. I remember things about them like: one of them had a little soul patch on his chin that he called a ‘pinch’. One of them was in a seminary to become a Catholic priest and was also so extremely mean to the customers that he got fired after two shifts. One of them was a conventionally attractive woman who served people Frappucinos and then turned to me and said, The calories in that would choke you! I remember that one of them was also Jewish, because one time he told someone that he was Jewish and then the guy he had said that to frowned and looked at me and said, Ya got Jew blood? and I said Yes and laughed thinly, the way I laugh when I feel under threat. One of the things about working at Starbucks at that particular time is that we could not become Facebook friends or exchange cellphone numbers, and that’s very refreshing, that they’re lost to me, as I’m sure I am to them. A prelapsarian time.
Two women came in every day of the week several times to get five-shot Americanos and one of my fellow baristas whose names I’ve forgotten said, They’re in a cult! and I said, Really? and they said, Yes! and in fact it was true, they were very bad people and I believe that they’re now in prison. But I was less concerned about the cult at the time — after all, I couldn’t google it — than the fact that I hated the part in the day when we pulled up the foam mats from the floor and mopped the lake of spilled coffee and the grit of the grounds off the floor. Working at Starbucks wasn’t any better for me than working in the office. Maybe it was worse. I had to start my morning shift at 5:30 am and I hated that, profoundly. I even hated the time that I saw a man running down the street in boxer shorts and a satin bathrobe during my 5 am drive, clearly interrupted in the midst of an affair. I couldn’t appreciate it! Whereas now in retrospect I recall that scene and think How interesting.
Ever since those three months of my life I’ve identified as an ex-barista, and that means I’ve been a generous tipper when it comes to coffee. Sometimes I even say something tragic like: I used to be a barista! before I lovingly place a dollar bill in the tip jar. But today when the guy just accepted my oat milk order like it was nothing at all I realized: I’m wrong. I cannot relate, I do not know this young man’s life, I am old, I am old.
I tipped him a dollar, yes. But I think it won’t ever feel the same.