This piece was written for a publication called Constellations (featured in accompanying photos), put together by Abbey Geverdt.
My city is small. Just big enough that it has its own, growing culture (mostly consisting of food), but in a compact enough area that community is our hallmark and traffic is our nightmare. Faces are familiar, if not friendly, and the same collaboration of people shifts from coffee shop to coffee shop.
I worked in one of these shops for a while in the heart of downtown; one with cement countertops and imperfect wooden tables and windows that stretched to the high ceiling. Sunlight would drift in at golden hour, blinding the baristas and overheating shop patrons. But these moments held a kind of magic - light consumed the shop and the dull hum of conversation and clicking keyboards before disappearing altogether, giving way to fleeting, sparkling headlights.
By this fourth barista job, I had perfected my art of talking to strangers, and the downtown location had the most interesting strangers to offer. There was a mid-20’s businessman who came in every morning and got an iced vanilla latte - an order that did not cave to colder weather. An older man with a quirky name, bearded and always with a hat and cane, got a pour over and requested steamed milk; he was exceptionally friendly and a mystery to us all. A real-life Elle Woods, loud and funny and perpetually wearing something brightly colored, told us about her latest drunken escapade while we made her an iced coconut latte - a syrup we made out of season for her specifically. A film score composer drank cappuccinos. A sweet couple got cold brews and walked their Blue Heeler. A quiet, well-dressed older gentleman sat in the corner and drank his black coffee with a newspaper and a refill.
Each of these individuals, the population of our coffee shop colony, revealed themselves over tired eyes and “good morning”s and days the weather was unworthy of conversation - too worn, too insignificant. I heard about families and vacations and jobs and past lives; as their caffeine supplier, they were a little at the mercy of my morning-person-ness until I passed off their paper cup.
There is a certain discomfort that comes with being forced to converse with a stranger - your barista, the Uber driver, that chatty girl next to you on the plane (probably also me; I promise to do better at respecting introvert space) - that I thrive in. This, my bursting extroversion hopes, is the perfect opportunity to make a new friend. I firmly subscribe to the belief that we all carry beauty, however aching or messy it may be. Given enough space, enough welcoming, to be themselves, everyone has something uniquely stunning to offer. Everyone has a story, and I’ve found that we will be affected or unaffected by these stories as much as we allow.
Not every day possesses such a willingness. Some days I am exhausted, heart bleeding out in a checkout line, numbing weariness with Instagrams of prettier days and more glamorous lives. But in those moments more than others, as if God is chuckling at my passivity, is when the elderly woman behind me likes my hair or tells me about her granddaughter. The cashier wants to talk about her day, or extends a particularly generous compliment. We collectively bond over a malfunctioning chip reader. Our humanity finds us, collided for a moment, whether we recognize its beauty or not.
So this is our choice: to overlook or to engage. To breeze through to-do lists or to slow our walk, wide-eyed and available to the inherent magic in the hearts around us. We were made for connection, and it asks more of us - more of our time, our vulnerability - to hear and be heard; to turn our eyes and attentions outward to ask the world what it needs, and what it has to offer. We are more aware, more grateful, more complete, when we can offer ourselves to a stranger who has nothing but their humanity to give us in return.
I walked away from the barista job almost a year ago now, with little reservation. There was a clear day when I walked in the door and sat down, fingers wrapped around a coffee cup, and said with resolution and peace, “I don’t think I want to make people coffee anymore.” But really I had never wanted to make coffee. I wanted the people; the reluctant, sleepy-eyed smiles and and the stories that made them.