Conversations Over Coffee

A few blocks from my high school in the middle of town is store number 7271 of the Starbucks Coffee Company.

A few blocks from my high school in the middle of town is store number 7271 of the Starbucks Coffee Company. A fairly unassuming café with five small tables and a counter, the Starbucks, situated right across from a train station, caters to a mix of commuters traveling to New York, parents picking up and dropping off their children, and teenie boppers craving their daily dose of sugar and caffeine.

The manager who hired me as a barista said the goal was for the café to be like Cheers, a place where everyone knew the customers’ names, their drinks of choice, and a little bit about them. After spending time working morning shifts throughout the summer and evening and weekend shifts while school was in session, I became acquainted with the loyal regulars who sought out the Green Siren as part of their routine.

There were the fixtures of the store, like the French couple who ordered straight shots of machine-produced espresso and managed to sip it over pleasant conversation as if they were back in Europe when the coffee here was so obviously inferior. During holidays, their children and grandchildren would come in to town, and on those Saturday mornings or Sundays after church, the extended family would take up all the tables running along a wall of the store, eating madeleines and spending hours reconnecting.

Even the slightly difficult visitors left their mark. There was the customer who insisted that her coffee be brewed within 15 minutes of her order. She alleged she could taste the difference, and while I was skeptical, she was nice enough that I didn’t mind. One evening, she came in, looking dejected. The other barista and I asked her what was wrong. She had been laid off, she said. We gave her a cup of coffee for free that day, but within a month or two, she stopped being a regular.

It wouldn’t be foodservice, though, if there weren’t those customers. I’m talking about the woman who would come in decked in fur and order a Venti cappuccino with caramel sauce and an elaborate mix of complexities, judging the quality of the beverage by its final weight. (“This just doesn’t feel right,” she would say, bobbing the cup over the counter. The proper response would be to take the drink back, do absolutely nothing to it, and return it to her. She would then be pleased.) Another would enter during the middle of the morning rush and order four Venti beverages, insisting on distinct milk and syrup permutations to her friends’ pleasure, for sure, but her baristas’ ire.

And then, there was the guy with the face of a stern father and a stocky frame that filled out his blue sweatshirt. He was a customer who walked in nearly every afternoon at about 2 p.m. and didn’t need to say a word to get what he wanted. Conversation with him was difficult, and gossip among the baristas towards him was not kind. He was reticent and gruff, ordering his iced tea and retiring to the counter facing the window where he thumbed through a copy of the newspaper and appeared to ruminate on his life. He was solid, impenetrable, and rarely smiling.

The first time I was on deck to make the drink of a man whose reputation preceded him, I felt like a marionette, having every move of mine guided so I wouldn’t mess up. Not too little of the extra-strength iced tea; otherwise, it’ll taste diluted. Not the normal six pumps of simple syrup; otherwise, it’ll taste too sweet. But the product—which, in ’Bux lingo, would be an iced Venti, two-pump classic, no water, very light ice, black tea—mattered less than the person.

Despite it all, there is something to be admired in a man who knows what he wants, who is so established in life that he can adopt a calm, unfazed set of habits in a store that makes most of its revenue off of bustling commuters. I wanted to talk to him.Let’s start with his name.

No one behind the counter referred to him by his name, so I didn’t have the head start that I had with Gabriel, Elisabeth, and the others, but this wasn’t a fatal setback. If anything, it was a conversation opener, as basic as they come, really. He introduced himself, and I introduced myself. That was about it.

We didn’t really talk more than that. That was all we needed, though. The next time he came in during my shift, I addressed him by his name, and he by mine. There was a different sort of warmth as I poured the extra-strength black tea straight into a cup instead of the shaker we use with everyone else. He still wasn’t as talkative or open about his life as the other regulars, but years after I left town to attend college, I paid a visit to my hometown Starbucks and ran into him, who asked me to my surprise, “How’s Harvard?”

Really, it was familiarity with so many people in the community that made the job rewarding. There is value facilitating the entrance of a cup of coffee into the lives of people going to work, bonding with family, talking with friends, writing novels, completing resumes, and doing whatever else it is they may feel like doing. The real joy, though, came from talking to them, learning about as much of their lives as they’re willing to share—at least while you’re on the clock.

—Naveen N. Srivatsa '12, the President of The Harvard Crimson, is an economics concentrator in Leverett House. He enjoys the odd Venti caramel macchiato now and again.