I Could Use a Gatorade
A fictional piece dedicated to the day-to-day realities of working behind the bar—and the stories that you never get to tell while on the job.
Today, l’m sharing another one of my previously published stories from Standart, a magazine about coffee culture. (See the other Standart piece that I recently shared here.) This story is a little bit different, and allowed me to flex some creative muscles: I’d describe it as autobiographical fiction that’s closely based on my own experiences behind the bar, spread over years but here compressed into a single day.
7:02 a.m. The barista walks into the café. The opener is there already, fiddling with the tip jar.
“I’m putting a hashtag on the tip jar,” the opener says. “I figured if people take pictures and notice the tip jar more, they’re more likely to tip.”
The opener seems impossibly alert. The barista is still half asleep, trying to sort the details of the morning. The barista pours a cup of coffee, and asks, “What are you going to put on the jar?”
The opener turns the jar around. It says #don’tforgettotipyourmorningbartender.
The barista stares. The opener begins to explain, “You know how people always tip bartenders…”
The barista stops them. “I get it. I just … I don’t think other people will. Also, it’s way too long. And there’s an apostrophe.”
“That’s weird. It looks weird.”
The coffee cools down, and the barista is finally able to take a sip. Then, the barista remembers something. “Hey, this actually reminds me of something I wanted to tell you. Do you remember the time we took the ferry to Staten Island?”
As the barista is about to tell their story, the first rush of people comes in.
The barista quickly switches the music from the opener’s playlist (they know each other’s phone passwords from changing the music so often) and puts on a playlist that’s shared between them. It goes from slow and soft to upbeat and fun. Both jump into position. The barista has taken one solitary sip of coffee.
This is what the staff calls “kid rush.” The café is next to a private school, and each morning, every parent seems to get off the train at the same time to drop their kids off. Some stop in to grab food for their kids’ lunches that they left on the train, or forgot to pack. Most of the parents are kind enough, but some oscillate between not understanding that a line full of their peers is not going to move quickly or becoming so engrossed in conversation that they completely forget they’re even in a line. That’s fine. The staff is used to it.
Phil Collins’ “Easy Lover” comes on, and one of the parents waiting for his espresso pops his head over the machine. He stares blankly, directly, at the barista for a moment before he says, “Is this your favorite song? Because it’s the only one I ever hear when I come into the café?” The barista is embarrassed.
With the interruptions of making drinks ☕, baristas never get to finish stories. But if you loved reading this full story, please consider becoming a paid subscriber to this newsletter!
8:36 a.m. The line slows down. In a frenzy of restocking cups and wiping down counters, the barista launches back into the story. “I don’t think anyone expected it to be both windy and…”
The barista turns to the opener but realizes the opener has run from behind the counter and snuck up behind them. The opener whispers, “Top five,” and slinks away. “Top five” is their code word for a “crushtomer,” a term a staff member came up with after they were able to name their top-five customer crushes in ascending order. This term is whispered to one another, and usually accompanied with some shuffling of positions so that the person with the crush is at the register and can talk to the customer.
The barista rushes over to the register and is slightly relieved that they didn’t start their story in front of the crushtomer. The barista and the crushtomer don’t know each other too well—just a joke or two exchanged at the café—but every interaction feels charged, and the barista is yearning to learn more about their mysterious café sweetheart. The crushtomer looks slightly flustered, and says they hustled from the train to get to the café before everyone else. As the words drop from their mouth, seven other people walk into the café, likewise hustling from the train. The barista can do no more than hand the crushtomer a coffee and continue working. The morning rush continues.
10:14 a.m. The opener and the barista are cleaning their respective stations. The pace has slowed down, and both are in recovery mode. It’s peaceful and quiet, and the café is just empty enough for the barista to finally catch a moment of the opener’s time. But as the barista calls to the opener, their co-worker comes in on their day off, completely hungover.
The co-worker orders a drink.
“I only got out of bed because my coffee headache is taking over my hangover headache.”
The co-worker relays the events of last night, leaning on the counter and only pulling their head up to take a sip of their cappuccino. The co-worker notices the tip jar—the first person all day to notice it—and it somehow stirs them out of their fog.
The co-worker bolts behind the counter, takes a piece of tape, places it over the tip jar, and scribbles a message. Over the hashtag that the opener made, the co-worker writes, #icoulduseagatorade. The co-worker leaves the café. The barista and the opener try to guess what color Gatorade the co-worker is going to drink.
10:38 a.m. The people who usually come in at this point in the day are the creative folks—the writers; the people working on design projects; the techies who don’t start their days until 10, and who dip out of the office to grab a coffee after checking their email for a few minutes.
The opener goes on break during a quiet stretch and sits at the end of the bar eating a snack. An aggressive man comes in wearing sunglasses and reeking of cigarettes. It’s impossible not to notice him, and also impossible not to hear or smell him.
He orders a cappuccino and sits down next to the opener.
He’s sort of staring at the barista and the opener, but they’re not sure what to do or why. There’s nothing overtly threatening about his presence, but it does feel uncomfortable, and there’s no ignoring the fact that he’s staring at them. Looking to break the awkward silence, the barista says to the opener, attempting to continue their story, “Then I yelled, ‘Look behind you,’ and before he could turn…” but they don’t finish the sentence because the aggressive man slaps down his cappuccino cup, yells, “You’re both cold-hearted assholes,” and leaves. People in the café notice, but no one says anything.
11:19 a.m. The café is steadily busy, but the barista finds a moment to get the opener’s attention. They continue the story.
“Ok, so then she realizes that the dog is still following us….”
Right as they begin speaking, a person walks into the café with a can of coconut milk.
“Hi, I’d like to order a latte, but will you make it with this?”
The barista stares at the can. The customer responds, “You said you’d steam an alternative milk if I brought some in.”
The barista is sure the women is right and that they probably did say that, but there’s no way they could have imagined this is what the woman would interpret.
“I can’t steam this—I know it says milk, but this isn’t really the texture of milk.”
The customer doesn’t understand and stares. The barista looks confused and is unsure of what to do next.
“Can you open it and I can show you?” the barista says.
“I thought you’d be able to open it.”
“We don’t have a can opener.” The barista believes this to be a perfectly reasonable response.
The customer takes the can and leaves in a huff. They know she’ll be back later.
12:04 p.m. The opener is restocking the fridges, and asks if the barista needs anything else. The barista looks around and says, “Everything looks good”—it’s time for the opener to clock out. The opener empties the tip jar and looks at the jar up and down.
“No one noticed the hashtag.”
Clearly, the opener is feeling a little defeated.
“You don’t know that. Maybe someone will tag it in on Instagram and we’ll see it later.”
“Well, it certainly didn’t bring more attention to the jar since there’s less money in here than usual. Whatever, I’m gonna blow it on some Bloody Marys,” the opener says, showing a picture their hungover co-worker sent them at a bar across the street. After collecting their things, the opener leaves, and the barista thinks to call them back in before they go to finish the story, the story they’ve been trying for hours to tell—but ultimately decides not to.
The door opens again, and it’s the opener.
“Did you forget something?”
“No. You just never got to tell me that story.”
The barista thinks for a moment, and is about to start recounting what happened last night. Then a customer walks in.
“I’ll just tell you at the bar.”