Steamed: Notes From A Barista

You know us. We’re here on the walk to your morning’s single-transfer commute to a creative career job in Manhattan, probably Midtown, potentially Chelsea, rarely SoHo, never Wall Street. We remember you and your usual drink and can anticipate that you switch from hot to iced coffee somewhere in early-to-mid June. We look you in your tired eyes, bleary from catching up on Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad, Bolaño, whatever, too late into the night, and we ask you—because you’re usually such a staunch small-coffee consumer—”a large today?” You see, we’ve noticed. Or we have your order ready on the counter by the time the line snakes you into first position. We have staved off an incursionist front of urban anonymity. You’re flattered that we remembered. You’re very impressed.

You shouldn’t be. We probably went to your alma mater. In select cases, we might even keep this fact to ourselves so that you won’t feel bashful when required to discuss professors with the person who’s buttering your scooped-out sesame bagel. In our minds, we’re saying “I tried to hang my diploma in the fridge back here, but it didn’t leave enough room for the soy milk and chai mix.”

Things do get real rather fast. Admit too much about what we’re “doing in New York when not at this place” and the mindset required to maintain the java-centric jig is up. Make a peep about a piece almost published, and every regular from the neighborhood will mention a magazine editing local who “might be a good person for you to talk to sometime.” Sure, so you’re saying you’d be happy to make that introduction. When will that be, exactly? We’ve got our calendars ready in our lockers downstairs. Any time is fine for us.

You’re tired, but we’ve been up since five and probably before because we have to commute into this neighborhood we obviously can’t afford, and we assuredly have another job. You’re tired, but when you order by saying “I need a…” we want to put our fingers into the grinder’s teeth. When you ask “Can I just get…?” and then rat-tat-tat a round of demands, you have violated the meaning of the word “just” in both, or possibly all, senses. You’re tired because you were up late tipping bartenders a buck per drink or more, possibly doing so at this very same establishment that’s now doubling as your cafe, and you need a pick-me-up before you can begin banging out that promo copy for the client whose halitosic breath on your neck gives you the heebie-jeebie hangover heaves.

We get it. Our empathy interprets your leaden eyelids: you are spent. New York’s so expensive and coffee’s so extravagant these days! Three dollars, 4 dollars, 5 dollars for a drink? It’s mostly just milk and water, for heaven’s sake! America’s gone off the deep-end, caffeine-wise. Your endless lament: Starbucks, free trade, Europeans drink only one espresso each. Remember cart-coffee for a dollar and that burnt-from-the-bodega business?

Oh, brother, you just ordered a Grande by accident, and I forgive. I am a beneficent barista. I will smile and make you feel like the belle of the coffee bar and hit this weighty portafilter handle against the garbage can at such a precise velocity that it will rubber-bounce into my other, waiting palm, emptied and ready to be wiped then dosed. I will steam this milk to perfection and pull this shot within a millisecond of its fractious and mercurial life: you will taste the motherloving gospel in all three layers of its tan flavorbolt without even knowing they exist as separate entities. I will bang the steamer on the wooden counter to do things to that aeration you couldn’t possibly understand without at least a rudimentary background in crema and microfoam theory. I will make this mammary expulsion at its exacted temperature do a ghostly blooming dance in a ceramic cup and curl it into a leaf in your cappuccino, or a rosetta in your latte, and although you will not know what the latter is called, you will say that it’s beautiful because it is. I will barb back that it captures a movement, ever enshrined in shift, as an early Monet, and you will say, “Only in Brooklyn” with strange pride, and I will bite my tongue until the bitter buds in the back are all that are left.

And you will leave your change. Maybe. Maybe it will be fifty cents. It will depend on the pricing set by an owner who only perhaps understands that this is how this works, that cafes don’t have a tip jar but rather a change repository. If you’ve served or serviced before, in college or otherwise, you will recognize what it’s like to be good, even great, at any hand-skill-based job, and you may leave a full dollar. But most customers will demurely, innocently, innocuously tip the nickel or dime they get back for a drink costing $2.15, $2.95, $4.45, $(x-.1), $(y-.05); they’ll let gravity slide the coin into the glass jar off of the wallet-bound bills we’ve just gently counted into their hand. Or, equally likely, they won’t. Either way, it represents maybe .0001% of our monthly rent, so if you’re all set then sugar is do-it-yourself over in that corner. It’s been our pleasure, cheers. No, really: you’re great and all, but there’s someone waiting behind you. We’re locked in; the shift is long, as is the line. It is steamy and smallish behind the bar, and we have, really quite literally, nowhere else to turn. TC mark


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  • Michael Koh

    I think we all know from previous articles that baristas are indeed, “steamed.” 

    Can I get mine without whipped cream? Thanks.

  • Guest


    You fucked up and got a useless degree, go cry about it over your piles of student loan debt and plaid shirts

    • Michael Koh

      What is a “useless degree”?

      • Aja

         My question exactly.  Why do university’s offer “useless degrees” if they’re useless?

    • Anonymous

      pro trolling

    • Chrmnty

      Even more disrespect, you were clearly born with a silver spoon in your mouth. Never had to work a day in your life did you?

      Try it someday, you might even learn more than you ever have from your already-paid-for education.

      If you have nothing better to say, keep it to yourself.

      This is an excellent article. Very witty, kudos to you my fellow barista. (i get it)

    • NoSexCity

      The US had 9.1% unemployment and close to 20% “underemployment”.  You’re blaming the wrong people, sweetheart.

    • Phil Major

      I have like three of these, ‘useless degrees’, and I’m not serving coffee. Then again, I live in a place where jobs are plentiful. I’ve added nothing to this discussion. You’re welcome.

    • Neil Kurtz

      Let me guess, your degree is in douchebaggery?

  • Anonymous

    Wicked well written. Solid work. 

  • Peter Tiso

    Well-written, I was able to really get into this.  Thanks!

  • ame-onna

    I love you

  • Guest

    This makes me not want to tip at all – a coffee costs mothereffing 5 dollars, and maybe you didnt make that pricing, and maybe youre not paid well, but neither am i! am i supposed to be sad that my (apparently) angsty barista has to make me a coffee when im tired because theyre tired too?

    also, any normal person will NOT be weirded out if they found out that you went to school with them; thats just your own baggage about being a barista because only a jerk off would ever be skeeved by that.

    • star

      I think he meant that customers sometimes assume you are completely unqualified for any other job above a barista and treat you like you’re below them when really you are just as educated — or more — than them.

  • Anonymous

    • Phil Major

      “Love to shopping.” Seems like a trustworthy link.

  • NoSexCity

    Been the barista, been the intern in midtown, been the entry-level in midtown. Thanks for this; good to remember that there’s nothing different except the outfit we’re told to wear and the amount of milk that winds spilled on our shoes over the course of any given day.

    • Alison

      I find not being required to wear a hat to be a definite perk of leaving the world of barista-ing.

  • honestly

    It is your choice to be a barista at a Starbucks.  Certainly the economy can be to blame as well, we get it, getting a job nowadays is tough.  However, if your job is to make coffee, then you should doit and not bitch about it.  And if you do bitch about it to the point where you need to write articles about how awful your life is because you have to commute into an expensive neighborhood you cannot afford to make a living, then maybe you need to rethink your priorities.

    • star

      Honestly? So you’ve never complained about something that you should be “grateful” for? Have you ever worked serving people or in customer service? People can be terrible. It’s like they assume you are completely unqualified for any position outside of a coffee shop, and that there’s no excuse for making the tiniest mistake since you obviously CHOSE to work there. Yes, there are obviously other jobs besides being a barista, but in this economy it doesn’t mean they are any better.

    •!/danacutts Dana

      The real choice, in this instance, is between having a job and not having a job, not between working at Starbucks and working somewhere else. Did the writer get a degree in shilling corporate lattes? Or is he or she one of many degree-clutching individuals hemmed into a food service job by lack of professional options? For any reader with an ounce of perspective, the origin of the piece’s hostility is pretty clear, honestly.

  • pesto

    Well-written, but seriously? try being a waiter and actually depending on tips to hit minimum wage.

  • Alex Thayer

    coffee is fun, this piece is incredible.

  • Alex Thayer

    coffee is fun, this piece is incredible.

  • Aja

    I always try to be as nice to my barista’s as humanly possible.   For I too have held a myriad of crappy jobs and in this terrible economy, I ponder going back to every last one of them.  

  • Leigh

    i have never been a barista and it still drives me crazy when anyone says ‘i need a…’ while ordering something


  • Mgreen185

    My boyfriend is a Barista at a small shop in Alabama. He also has an unmarketable degree- Oil painting. I made him read this article and he absolutely LOVED it. Spot on.

  • Nicole

    I don’t tip when people are simply performing the job duties that their employer is already compensating them for because as your customer that is not my responsibility. A tip is a way to show appreciation when someone goes above and beyond or provides an excellent product or service. If/when that happens then I am more than happy to leave a tip. Enough with this entitlement bullshit because you wake up early and can pull a shot of espresso.

  • ariel

    As someone who works in the service industry, even though I’ve got my degree, all I can say is that there’s a special place in hell for bad tippers. 

  • ariel

    As someone who works in the service industry, even though I’ve got my degree, all I can say is that there’s a special place in hell for bad tippers. 

  • ariel

    As someone who works in the service industry, even though I’ve got my degree, all I can say is that there’s a special place in hell for bad tippers. 

  • Camille

    So fucking sick of barista bitching. Especially when it’s done by a white, Western, male. Recognize your privilege and shut the fuck up.

  • EarlyBirdChirp

    I wish that my minimum wage job was as cool as being a barista, or that it was the sort of job where there is even the posibility of getting a tip.

  • J. Ky Marsh

    I’m tired of these articles. We’ve all had shitty jobs. If you want a better job, expend some effort, learn a useful skill, and get a better fucking job.

    I don’t ever recall writing an article complaining about my plight in life during the 5 years in which I worked in retail. You do the best you can until it’s time to move up in the world, and that moment doesn’t just come by MAGIC. Make something happen or shut the fuck up.

    • MonkeyHouse

      Dear friend,
      I believe you missed the point. Your whining comment by far exceeds that of this entire article, bravo! Also, if you worked retail for five years, you must have learned that it is a sense of humor and pride in the small but critical details of the job (which most customers take for granted) to make it through the day. I hope you take a break from your bitterness and enjoy an an artisan cup o’ joe. Good luck!

  • Anonymous

    this is stupid

    • Reallydude2k11

      lol, you’re a jerkoff.

  • Youramericanlover

    This is why #FIRSTWORLDPROBLEMS was created

  • someguy

    We read so many goddamn barista articles because so many of the creatives work as baristas to pay the bills. It’s like why every fucking article is about NYC, because that’s where the creators of content live, and people write about what they know.

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