Imagine a petite, brainy, 20-year-old English major who’s long on earnest enthusiasm and short on physical grace. (That’s code for cute but clumsy.) She’s great at remembering details like arabica vs. robusta beans or the names of espresso drinks. However, she can’t always remember to put the carafe in place before brewing the coffee, which means a steady boiling stream floods the counter. Again.

Imagine, too, that she’s in the most serious romance of her life and giddy with thoughts of when he might show up for a (free) cup of joe and conversation. She’s also probably working on homework behind the counter and slightly lost in the pages of a book. Now, ask her to fix a latte with skim milk and a LIGHTLY-toasted bagel.

You’ll need to check that she didn’t just use that carton of whole milk in her hand. You’ll also need to ask if she’d mind retrieving your bagel that’s charring in the toaster. She’ll get your order right eventually, but it might take a few tries.

That young woman was me, circa 1995. Evidently, I was competing for the title of world’s worst barista. I knew this part-time gig at O’Henry’s was temporary, a break from the “let me sit down at a computer” jobs I’d been working since age 15. However, I assumed I’d at least gain a deftness at steaming milk and crisping pastries.

Instead, I learned that a) I was terrible at food service and b) I was thoroughly OK with that.

I’m still not sure what prompted me to work there. Maybe social reasons? Several of us college kids had shifts, and our friends often stopped in. Certainly the indy coffeehouse atmosphere was also a draw. That green logo-ed chain – you know the one – had yet to infiltrate, seducing us all with pumpkin spice lattes. O’Henry’s Coffee, now a Birmingham landmark, was only two years old, and the owner, Dr. Bright, roasted his own beans, offering delectable choices like Sumatra and Southern Pecan.

The place exuded a fragrant coziness. People chatted or read books over rather straightforward drinks ordered small, medium, or large. The wildest thing on the menu was a milkshake we made with a new thing called a cold-brew coffee. I think I craved that homey, caffeinated comfort.

More than why I started working there, though, what perplexes me is why they kept paying me to come back. How many times did I spill those precious, fresh-roasted beans so they scattered like marbles on the tile? I might as well have been throwing money in the dumpster. I suspect, though, that despite botched orders and dropped beans, being on time to open at 6 AM was a mark in my favor. I was also good at apologizing to customers and working hard to correct mistakes – people seemed more patient then, so I had time to make things right.

Whatever the reason, they kept me on long enough that though I let go of any hope of barista excellence, I began to embrace a different perspective on what it meant to try and fail and try again. My manager couldn’t have known this, but I entered O’Henry’s after a time when perfectionism had nearly taken me under. I had lived under perpetual, self-generated pressure to be at the top of my game as a student and a writer. No matter what grade I got on a paper, I bullied myself into thinking I should make the next one more brilliant. I thought each round of validation from my professors would be enough, but it never was. A chasm opened between the ideal in my mind and the reality on the page, until, midway through my college career, I fell in. I found myself terribly depressed and suffering moments of paralyzing anxiety.

While I don’t believe this perfectionistic mindset was the only thing that sent me into clinical depression (a few years later I would find out there were also other health factors at work), it certainly wasn’t helping me to heal. Medication calmed the panic attacks and lifted the depression, but perhaps I also needed an escape hatch away from school pressure, at least for a few shifts per week. At O’Henry’s, I could bumble through coffee orders and laugh at my imperfections. I could try something new and risk failing without feeling as though I’d let myself down or the entire world.

I confess I love all those dumb mistakes: flooding counters, dropping beans, burning bagels. I was learning to be OK with the mess, to laugh and clean it up, and to trust that I would be OK even if I never got it completely right. I am sorry, though, that I messed up your order if you were already late for work and stressed over a presentation. If you weren’t kind, that’s alright, because if anyone knows how pressure can warp our better natures, it’s me. If you were still kind, thank you. You have no idea how much it meant.

It’s probably why at 42, I try to be gracious when I order coffee. I try to thank Alyssa or Sophia by name when she hands over my drink, and then, I tip these highly competent baristas who get it right far more often than not.

And if they don’t get it right? If, like me, they prompt sighs of relief when they finally turn in their aprons and hats and move on to other things? Then, my hope is that they’ve found in their time as the world’s worst baristas something that looks a lot less like failure and a whole lot more like mercy and grace.

2 thoughts on “confessions of the world’s worst barista

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