Friday, September 29, 2006

self-indulgent rambling about work/personal epiphanies

A couple weeks ago, a guy came into the store and said, "I just hate starbucks coffee. But I want to buy a pound of beans. But I hate your coffee. So what kind should I get?"

At first, I thought he was kidding. But no, despite his preference for maxwell house and the like, he wanted to buy a pound of starbucks whole beans, and he wanted me to help him pick out a roast. I thought maybe this was a gift for someone else, but nope. He wanted this for himself. I couldn't (and frankly still can't) figure out why someone who claims to hate the taste of something would insist on buying it anyway. But regardless, I was very nice and helped him find a roast just right for his taste preference, which wasn't easy since he reminded me several times throughout our conversation just how much he hates our coffee. And I wasn't being a pushy sales person, as I tried to explain that he might not like any of our roasts, since they're all a much more distinct, strong flavor than what he's used to, even our mild roasts (I didn't say this in a coffee-snob way). But he was determined to buy at least a pound. We talked about at least a dozen blends, and he wrinkled his nose at all of them. Finally, I helped him settle on a user-friendly Latin blend, which isn't too offensive to someone not used to bold coffee. He paid and was on his way. In a genuinely friendly way, I asked him to stop by again sometime to tell us how he likes the coffee. I haven't seen him since. Oh well.

After he left, I was amazed at how nice I was with this guy. He was sort of a jerk and seemed bent on pissing me off, even though he was also bent on buying coffee he planned to not like. And not once did I want to kill him. The me from many years ago, the me who once worked in a bookstore, who worked in a few museums, the me who has worked in customer service areas before and hated it desperately, would have made some shitty, snyde remark to him, causing the man to walk out on the whole thing, while I stood there and fumed about how stupid people are. But I never once had the urge to act like that during this exchange. I didn't realize this until it was over, but I was incredibly friendly, helpful, patient, and genuine with the guy. And guess what. He was ultimately sort of friendly too! (Only sort of, because he was still a little bit of a pain. But we were both trying.)

I've noticed this phenomenon at various points every day at that job. I'm actually friendly to the customers. And I'm not faking it. I really, truly want them to have good coffee and pleasant service. And I want the store to look great and to be friends with the neighboring businesses. It's weird, because this isn't like me. Well, it isn't like the me before now. If that makes any sense. Clearly it is me now, though it didn't used to be.

In my former life (I don't exactly know what era defines that. I used to refer to my life before coming out three years ago as my 'former life' but now I'm not sure that's accurate. So is it pre-florida? pre-publishing work? pre-divorce? pre-grad school? pre-marriage? Sometime in the years that led up to where I am now, I guess), though I would never have admitted it, I made a lot of personal decisions based on what I thought other people expected. Sometimes I did things I thought people wanted me to do. Sometimes, I was spiteful and did things I knew they didn't want me to do. Either way, what I believed others expected always factored into my choices somehow.

In the meantime, I had no respect for most people I didn't know and disregarded everything any customer or stranger said. I hated any work that involved the public or customer service and was miserable at any job which involved the public. That's part of why I thought publishing might be good for me; a huge part of it requires you to sit in a cubicle staring at a manuscript on the computer. Not much interaction with the public. But as I've said here before, I hated that job and really didn't like myself while I had that job.

But I don't know why exactly I thought I'd like working in a coffee shop, especially starbucks, where it's 99% about human interaction. I just thought it would be good for me during a transitional period, and as it turns out, I'm very very good at it and the job itself isn't really a transition for me anymore. It's now a choice I've made, something I'm pursuing, a place where I want to move up and on.

But some days, I am mystified at how much I've changed with regard to working with the public. I'll hear myself say friendly, happy things to customers, and I can't believe it came from my own mouth...and that I meant it. And that's nothing to how it makes me feel on the inside. How happy I become when a strike up a fun conversation with one of our regular customers and make them a drink they love. Or better yet, when I start talking to a new customer who subsequently becomes a regular customer. It's a truly warm, satisfied feeling I've never known at work before. I came close to it when I was teaching developmental college writing (a nicer way of saying remedial writing), and one of my students would work hard all semester and end up with a higher grade than they'd ever had in the past. Or when one of them would tell me they aren't afraid of English anymore. Or when I was grading a paper that was surprisingly fabulous from a student who was on the verge of failing the course. I never thought I'd feel that kind of warmth, pride, and satisfation outside of teaching, but I've somehow found it here.

Yeah, I know. Helping someone buy coffee maybe doesn't really compare to helping someone hang on to the hope that they can make it through college or at the very least pass Freshman English. But they are both ways of helping people feel a little better. And, selfishly, making people smile at work makes me feel really good about myself.

I guess I'm still just surprised that putting on that apron and steaming milk for a latte creates this kind of personal satisfaction for me. And that I truly enjoy seeing and talking to our regular customers every day and meeting new ones who are in for the first time.

And then, the other night while I was sweeping the cafe, I made a possible connection between this and my personal life. I realized that in the past several months, I've worked hard to stop letting other people influence my choices, my self-esteem, my life. In the meantime, I've grown to love the public I work with. I think it was some sort of weird trade-off. In return for owning my personal life and my self-esteem, I have let go of that categorical annoyance and anger towards the general public. The more control I feel over my own life and the less I worry about others' expectations, the more comfortable I am at work, the more I want to create a comfortable place for our customers and community.

Maybe it's simply trading the need to please others in one capacity for that need in another. But I'd rather feel this need in my professional life than in my personal life.

Who knows...

So anyway, maybe that guy who bought the pound of coffee a couple weeks ago didn't like it, and maybe he still hates starbucks. But that's ok. I know plenty of people who hate starbucks. Some of them are friends of mine. It doesn't bother me, because I love the place, the company, and the coffee, and it's where I want to be right now. And most of my customers tell us on a daily basis how happy they are that we're there. I love to hear that. In the meantime, I have more respect for myself than I've had in years, personally and professionally, and I'm learning how to live as myself, not as who I think people think I am.

Plus, even the crazy iced venti extra caramel caramel macchiato lady smiles now when she comes in. Though, she'll still pitch an ugly fit if she gets less than half a bottle of caramel in her drink.


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