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Sweetbitter(7)
Stephanie Danler

“SO I HEARD you’re a barista,” drawled Guy-with-Long-Hair-and-Bun. “That makes my training day real easy.”

It was like arriving to a coffee station on another planet. Everything silver, futuristic, elegant. More intelligent than me.

“Ever worked on a Marzocco before?”

“I’m sorry?”

“The machine, the Marzocco. It’s the Cadillac of espresso machines.”

All right, all right, I thought. I know how to make fucking coffee. Even a Cadillac was still a car. I picked out the portafilters, saw the grinder, the tamper.

“You know the four Ms? What kind of espresso were you guys using?”

“The kind that got dropped off in big bags,” I said. “It wasn’t exactly a gourmet place.”

“Oh shit, okay, I heard you were a barista. No big deal, I’ll train you and we’ll check in with Howard after—”

“No. No.” I twisted the portafilter out and discharged the spent espresso into the trash can. “Where are your bar mops?” He handed me one and I wiped the basket. “You guys use timers or what?”

“We use our eyes.”

I exhaled. “Okay.” I turned on the grinder, wiped the steamer wand, flushed out the group head. Twenty-five seconds was a perfect shot of espresso. I would count it myself. “One cappuccino, coming right up.”

I STUDIED the menu, I studied the manual. At the end of every service a manager asked me questions. I found that even if I didn’t know what on earth a Lobster Shepherd’s Pie was, even if I couldn’t imagine it, if I knew it was the Monday night special I was going to pass my trails. Even if I didn’t know what the fuck our tenets meant, I repeated back to Zoe perfectly, “The first tenet is to take care of each other.”

“And do you know what makes a fifty-one percenter?”

Zoe was eating the hanger steak at her desk in the office. She swirled a piece of it through mashed potatoes and frizzled leeks. I was so hungry I could have slapped her.

“Um.”

I forgot that the Owner had said to me: “You were hired because you are a fifty-one percenter. That’s not something we can train for—you have to be born with it.”

I had no idea what that meant. I looked at the choking sign on the wall. The man asphyxiating in the sign looked calm and I envied him.

FORTY-NINE PERCENT of the job was the mechanics. Anyone can do this job—that’s what I was always told about waitressing. I’m sorry, serving.

You know, just memorize the table numbers and positions, stack plates up along your arm, know all the menu items and their ingredients, never let the water levels drop, never spill a drop of wine, bus the tables cleanly, mise-en-place, fire orders, know the basic characteristics of the basic grape varieties and basic regions of the entire wine world, know the origins of the tuna, pair a wine with the foie gras, know the type of animal the cheeses come from, know what is pasteurized, what contains gluten, what contains nuts, where the extra straws are, how to count. Know how to show up on time.

“And what’s the rest of it?” I asked my trailer, out of breath, dabbing paper towels into my armpits.

“Oh, the fifty-one percent. That’s the tricky stuff.”

I FLUNG OFF my sweated-through work jeans, twisted the top off a Pacifico because they were out of Corona, and sat on my mattress with the manual. I am a fifty-one percenter, I said to myself. This is Me:

• Unfailingly optimistic: doesn’t let the world get him or her down.

• Insatiably curious: and humble enough to ask questions.

• Precise: there are no shortcuts.

• Compassionate: has a core of emotional intelligence.

• Honest: not just with others, but most essentially with oneself.

I lay back on the bed and laughed. Rarely, but sometimes, I thought about my old coworkers back in nowhere—where our training consisted of learning how to switch on the coffeepot—watching me sweat and run and parrot back this manual, unable to see five feet in front of me. They watched me spend every clocked-in moment blind and terrified, and then we laughed about it.

The corner of South Second and Roebling was crowded with Puerto Rican families in their lawn chairs with adjacent coolers. They played dominoes. Kids screamed through the stream from a detonated hydrant. I watched them and thought back to that coffee shop on Bedford from the first day. I could probably walk in there now. I would say, Yeah I’ve worked on a Marzocco—oh, you don’t know it?

But it wouldn’t be enough. Whatever it was, just being a backwaiter, a server, a barista—at this restaurant I wasn’t just anything. And I wouldn’t call it being a fifty-one percenter because that sounded like a robot. But I felt marked. I felt noticed, not just by my coworkers who scorned me, but by the city. And every time a complaint, a moan, or an eye roll rose to the surface, I smiled instead.

III

AND ONE DAY I ran up the stairs into the locker room and a woman from the office followed me. She carried three hangers hung with stiff, striped Brooks Brothers button-downs. They were the androgynous kind of shirt that straddles the line between the boardroom and a circus.

“Congratulations,” she said in monotone, like her clothes. “These are your stripes.”

I put them in my locker and stared at them. I wasn’t training anymore. I had a job. At the most popular restaurant in New York City. I fingered the shirts and it happened: The escape was complete. I put on navy stripes. I thought I felt a breeze. It was as if I were coming out of anesthesia. I saw, I recognized, a person.

SHE STOPPED ME on my first steps into the dining room, holding a glass of wine in her hand. I had the fleeting impression that she had been waiting for me a long time.

“Open your mouth,” Simone said, her head raised, imperious. Both of us looked at each other. She painted her lips before each service with an unyielding shade of red. She had dark-blond hair, untamable, frizzy, wisped out from her face like a seventies rock goddess. But her face was strict, classical. She held the glass of wine out to me and waited.

I threw it back like a tequila shot, an accident, a habit.

“Open your mouth now,” she commanded me. “The air has to interact with the wine. They flower together.”

I opened my mouth but I had already swallowed.

“Tasting is a farce,” she said with her eyes closed, nose deep in the bowl of the glass. “The only way to get to know a wine is to take a few hours with it. Let it change and then let it change you. That’s the only way to learn anything—you have to live with it.”

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