I love lattes. I know I’ve mentioned it here more than a few times (more like all of the time). But a deliciously smooth coffee drink for me is much more than the satisfaction of sipping down warm creamy caffeine. I enjoy the entire experience of getting a coffee, and that’s probably why I don’t like to make many drinks at home. From anticipating a trip to the coffee shop (which feels like Christmas every time) to the welcome greeting from the staff recognizing regulars, for me, it’s an essential social engagement that gets me out of the house, just like an afternoon walk or a run of errands.
However, the best part of any coffee run is always the barista. Essentially a daytime bartender, every barista I’ve know has been everything from a friend, to a therapist, a philosopher or entertainer. They talk to you while they make your drinks. They see you every day. They know about your life, when you’re having a bad day, when you’re traveling, when you’re in a mood, and they always have the elixir to make it better. From hot chocolates to chai, to homemade vanilla syrup snuck into your drink on the house, baristas have soothed and nurtured me with warm concoctions for the last couple of years. And I have loved it. From the tiniest cafe in San Francisco to a local hot spot in my hometown, I’ve come to look forward to the coffeemakers at my favorite places. Even when we were in Japan, I enjoyed chatting with every barista we encountered (there were many) and hearing their stories, local recommendations, and philosophies while they steam milk and meticulously caress the creamy liquid into the dark, bitter shot. I guess it’s not surprising that the Japanese coffee shops become bars at night – they serve nearly the same purpose sans hangover. The result is a happy encounter and a comforting drink, essentially the cheapest form of love and therapy.
The problem is, however, that this barista relationship is a bit of an illusion. They are not your friend, confidant, therapist or philosopher. They are an employee (baristas seem to be rarely self-employed) and therefore as transient as anyone else working a service job. Which means they leave. Sometimes unexpectedly, and without a word. Other times you leave, a neighborhood or a city, to find that on a return visit, all your coffee shop friends are gone, having moved away, shuffling their life to a new dive or having gone back to school.
One of my favorite baristas was a California girl named Jamie, a vibrant blonde, robust and exciting who was experiencing school and the freedom of San Francisco for the first time. For three years, while we toiled away on our iPhone game Patchmania, she greeted us on the ground floor retail space of our office with warm drinks and funny stories of her weekend adventures. She shared her new tattoos, her love of horses, personal struggles, and regularly made us laugh. Jamie was magnetic, bright, and I know we were not the only customers that frequented the cafe sometimes just to see her. When I talked to her, I felt like I was reliving my college years, and I always saw her as more capable and deserving than she saw herself.
After we moved away, we returned a few months later for a visit to find her gone. She had moved to Texas to live with her sister and train horses. It was bittersweet. I was happy that she had unchained herself from the espresso machine, knowing she was in a better place doing better work, but I was sad that we hadn’t kept in touch and had no way of knowing how she was doing. But instead of dwelling on it for too long, I smiled at the new employee who took my order. She began the process of grinding beans and pressing them into the espresso portafilter, and I recognized that there was a new barista friend to be made.
Over the years I think back on all the people I’ve met on the other side of the coffee bar and I quietly wish them well, hoping that knowing me was just as fun as knowing them for the brief period of time that a latte brought us together.
Have you ever developed a friendship with a barista or someone in a local cafe? Share your thoughts with me in the comments below!