Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Lipstick

Most people have a sense of what kind of jobs they’re cut out for, and from my first full-time job at age eighteen, I understood that customer service wasn’t my specialty. Still, in and around cleaning and yard work, I worked customer service positions in espresso shops because they were apropos to an uneducated nineties girl. But let me clarify: I much preferred hiding in the kitchen, scrubbing the lipstick stains off the mugs before stacking them in the industrial dishwasher.

Lipstick colors define the temporal culture of women. In those days, they were earthy reds, often tinged with sunset orange or leafy browns. And they were meant to withstand hot and wet situations, as the mugs with lipstick rings emerged from the dishwasher with their kisses intact on the rims. The women who created them, if they knew, could add this to their roster of success–I’ve kissed the coffee, and my kiss has permeated this world, if no other.

But I’ve always been one to wipe away the absurdities of others. I cleaned the lipstick free from the mugs when hiding in the kitchen, as though I were a fiendish scientist foiling the plots of upstart female dictators who were ready to control the lives of the men they loved, if not the lowly coffeehouse workers they didn’t. Fiendish scientists may not wear capes, but they play integral roles in the world of vice and venom [read women].

I worked together with a pure, nineties coffee girl, whom I’ll call Sallie. And yes, that’s her real name. Sallie was the real deal–still is. She wore a beautiful shade of red lipstick that gave me the swoons. How did she do it? Nineties slacker that she was, she would wake five minutes before opening, throw her gorgeous blonde hair into a funky up-do, slap on the lipstick, tie on the apron, and be ready only seven minutes late to serve espressos topped with perfect carnations of cream [she would add, in her defense, that management tended to write employee schedules so that the midnight shift backed the crack-of-dawn shift. The non-slacker, pretend coffee girls such as myself suffered insomnia and never slept anyway, so the erratic schedule didn’t make one iota of difference.]

I wanted to be Sallie. I wanted to fling my hair up, slap on the lipstick, tie on the apron, and transform myself from backroom fiend to dictatress of grunge boys who rode motor bikes. I wanted to rule the world, any world, the one of coffee, vice, and venom [read women], which included those who talked on cells, drove shiny SUVs, and ordered skinny lattes.

Instead, I was at their mercy. One slow afternoon, a lady wearing brilliant lipstick whipped out her catalog and passed it to Sallie with a perfect sales pitch: you look like a girl who’s searching for a new shade of lipstick. I raised my hand slightly, as though I knew the correct, albeit philosophical answer. I’m looking for a new shade of lipstick, I said. The woman turned sideways to push me out of the conversation.

But I’d like to order. . . I began again. The woman raised her voice, then the back of her hand, and she laughed to make certain I caught her meaning: You aren’t the type of girl who’s searching for a new shade. You’re a plot foiler, and I can see right through you.

. . .a handgun, a few hand grenades, and a combat rifle, which means I’d actually like to order books on the history of weaponry. Do you have any of those in your catalog? Because I’d never order a stupid $15 tube of lipstick, I muttered in my pithy way. Yes, I understood perfectly.

The lipstick seller was among a group of women who visited the coffee shop on weekday afternoons, when the dining area was otherwise empty, and I was the only victim in sight. Sallie and I rarely worked together, due to the scheduling conflicts of coffee girls, and I was left alone to cope with these women’s wiles. At around five o’clock, I could spy their large, white SUVs circling the parking lot to find their perches in the branches of our yellow parking stripes.

They descended on me in unison with their peculiar demands: skim, flat, shot and a half of regular with half shot of decaf and half a shot of vanilla sweetener with a dollop of almond. Oh, and may I have a glass of ice water, please? Water, no ice. Water, half ice, half water, with a touch of boiled tea water for essence. I nodded politely and fell to their bidding, carried their orders out on trays as though the cafe were a four-star restaurant. I nodded, and I didn’t ask about lipstick, about ordering from their special catalogs, or how they managed that shade of tan in an Oregon winter, or where they had their hair done. I gave them everything they wanted, and then I left them to their conversations.

I returned to whatever I had been doing–reading about the history of coffee or writing complex syllabics and metrics on napkins, verses that might have been construed as rude or insane or terror-producing if you were an idiot who mistrusted love songs [or actually believed I was a plot-foiling fiend].

And on a day when one woman entered without the others, and I asked her if she’d had a bad day because she looked so sad, she choked a little and her voice broke as she spilled her story. And I comforted her the best I could, with my own broken words.

Later, they all complained about me to Sallie, about my lack of enthusiasm, my lack of emotion. Or maybe they didn’t like my shade of lip-colored lipstick, sans wax. I don’t know. But I’ve spent my years since buying cheap lip gloss that melts from cup rims and disappears down the drain just as my image of being a coffee girl disappeared long ago.

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11 comments

  1. Yes, Jenny, I remember the paper cups. At coffee people, we didn’t have any commercial dishwashers, either, except for us!

    Jessica, yes, this one is autobiographical. Actually, everything I write is autobiographical. Really, I swear. 😉

    1. Jill, This is hero worship at it’s best. Funny how I pegged you as the confident one. Sallie as the outgoing friendly one. I loved both of the complex personalities, even tho it seems you feel people liked you less………I would love to read another.
      <3 Rain

      1. Confident, eh? That’s funny. I’m still working on a lack of that. Thanks for reading, Rainie. I’ve got a whole bunch of these if you click on the tab at top. And I’m always writing more. For some reason, this era of life gives me great fodder for writing. I could write about you in one, but I wouldn’t do it w/out your permission.

  2. Rainie,
    I’m with you. I always saw Ms. Jill as the truly confident one. When she was behind the counter it she might as well have been holding court with all of her intellect and class. If she had decided to, with one breath of poetry she would have blown over the army of paper dolls that paraded into that shop. Plus, nobody does Audry Hepburn and The Sound of Music all at once like Jill. No one.

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