It was Tuesday, and I happened upon the sixth inner circle of hell. I was running late for work, but I made the rather keen decision to press on toward Starbucks, because without espresso I’m liable to become something out of a Wes Craven film.
I stumbled absent-mindedly through the doors before I had time to notice that the queue had reached its maximum length and had started to branch out sideways toward the bathrooms. Had I peered through the window and noticed the extent of the under-caffeinated and over-worked line, I would have made an abrupt turn and headed straight back to my vehicle. It was too late for that, though, because bodies had started to pile up in the line behind me.
After a decades-long wait, I finally saw the register and a cheery barista filling up a paper cup with decaf. Before too long, it was time for the gentleman in front of me to order. He was a stout man with sandy blonde hair and builder hands. He sauntered up to the counter, and before he opened his mouth I knew the peppy coffee slinger up front and I were in for a wild ride.
Why? For one, I’ve been a barista and I know coffee people like I know the inside of my eyelids. This guy had brought his own mug with drink instructions typed and laminated on the outside of the cup. That meant he wasn’t going to be settling for a good old-fashioned cup of brew. Two, I knew we were in for a ride because I had yet to have any coffee and the familiar pang of righteousness and solidarity for the barista in front of me had begun to rise up in the total absence of caffeine. I knew I was going to have to bite down on something to keep from telling the guy what I really thought about his attitude and his eco-mug.
With each word he spoke, he confirmed every one of my suspicions. A slew of complex and detailed requests fell from his mouth, and eventually the simple latte he began with had been mangled beyond recognition. Seven pumps of vanilla, light foam, no whip, half-caf, add a shot and two sweeteners—the list went on forever.
At first I was impressed by how evolution had fine-tuned this man’s palate to the point that his taste buds could tell the difference between six and seven pumps of vanilla, given that I still haven’t perfected bipedal walking before 8 a.m.
But sure enough, the displeasure surfaced once again when I saw the barista struggle with one particular part of his order. When she politely asked him to repeat himself, the request was met with an indignant finger jab toward the instructions printed on the cup and a heavy eye-roll.
To her credit, the barista shot him a look that can only be taken one way: “I make minimum wage, it’s 6 a.m., and you’re obviously on a mission from the dark underlord himself to destroy me. You will not win.”
This chick at least had some balls, even if they were just the cake balls in the pastry case. When she finished his order and rang him up, the man paid in exact change, left no tip, and had the barista on bar remake his drink twice before it finally reached his level of expectation.
I wish this man were an outlier, an Americano-addled troll who waits under the Starbucks Bridge to pounce—but he’s not. We have become a Burger King culture. By that I mean we have become a culture that champions the cause of having it your way, at the expense of everyone else’s way. The food service industry has become a microcosm of the gluttony that has forced this country to the edge of financial ruin. The way eco-mug guy so casually and devastatingly ignored the fixed menu hanging directly above his head is a glowing example of the theme this country has been running with the last decade: The rules don’t apply to me, someone else can saddle this responsibility.
Of course, I also see such displays of food territorialism for what they really are: thinly veiled attempts at asserting individuality, passive-aggressive revenge tactics for a shitty day at the office, or tragic bids to quell some sort of Freudian dissatisfaction by saddling the barista with your non-fat, extra whip frappucino.
But the truth is when you order something so complicated at an establishment that was built for speed of service and uniformity, you are forcing a minimum wage lackey to abandon the world temporarily for your needs and desires. In any other place or time, this behavior is called narcissism and is generally not received well. So why do we tolerate it within the confines of our favorite chain restaurants and cafés?
The argument could be made that baristas and servers have made their career bed, and now must lie in it. They get paid to serve paying customers what they want and pay for. This is true to an extent. No one ever takes a job without a base understanding of the expectations. But for $8 an hour, the expectations have to be lowered.
In our current economical climate, it is far from absurd to assume that the barista behind the counter has a college degree, maybe even two. A college education shouldn’t and doesn’t ever determine the level of respect and dignity someone deserves. But when you’re about to berate that tired-looking server for giving you decaf instead of regular coffee, imagine the pile of student loans, the 3 a.m. drive to work, and those four years of planning and dreams that have been (hopefully only temporarily) dimmed by an economy full of people who insisted on having it their way and piling the consequences onto everyone else. Maybe you’ll find yourself thinking a day without caffeine or that extra pump of peppermint in your mocha is a better fate than being an apron-clad punching bag for anyone willing to pay $4.99 for a cup of coffee.
Intern Maeva Considine can be reached through Managing Editor Ashley Schwellenbach at firstname.lastname@example.org.