Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Change

This is a story of numbers. This is the story of a girl who couldn’t understand story problems to save her life, who melted to the floor in a fit of tears and frustration at the conundrum, the cryptic-bestiary, dark-world of language. This is the story of a girl who couldn’t understand the language of math to save her life.

Soy yo. I am she. But I’m also a person who has harbored a secret obsession with numbers for as long as I can remember. During my school days, I counted things. I counted them until the numbers drowned out every other thought in my head. When people spoke, I counted their words rather than listening to them, and I made numerical calculations on the value of words based off the number of lines and whorls that formed them. I counted ceiling spots, and made elaborate attempts at removing the square footage of light fixtures from my totals. I counted squares on the floor and lines on the furniture and walls.

Now that I’ve admitted this, it should come as no surprise that I was a walloping failure in school. I never listened, not ever. Fast forward to my first job, and imagine for a moment an ancient cash register. Imagine the ching-ching, the whoop-whoosh of the credit card machine over carbon paper. And you can bet that the idea of counting prices in my head mesmerized me, especially to the symphony of ancient technology. Yes, I had to punch the prices into the register. However, it was gratifying to find that my calculations agreed with the machine. Furthermore, management forced the cashiers to count back change to customers so that the till would ring out exactness, down to the penny, at the end of each shift. Oh, what joy beyond measure!

By the time I took my first job at a coffee shop, tills did the work for the cashiers, although management still encouraged the counting back of change for precision’s sake. Now, this is a lost art, and it’s more usual for cashiers to give customers a blank look before shoving a fistful of money their way [Cash, what’s that? Only terrorists use that stuff].

Needless to say, I continued to count prices in my head and count back change without checking the digital readout on the register face. Numbers are beautiful. Numbers won’t steer you wrong. Prices are fixed quantities that only have so many variations. And I began new counting habits, too. I counted ounces. I understood the ounce variation of every cup we used, from paper to ceramic. I made cappuccinos to precise measurements of espresso to milk to foam. Torani shots–those had to be exact, or the customers would pucker from the sweetness.

I counted money, ounces, seconds, minutes, hours. I counted the number of words I had or hadn’t written on my days off. I counted out my syllabics, as well as the feet in my metrics. I counted customers, the in-and-outs, and those who stayed for hours. One famous customer–I’ll call him Michael because that’s his name–could drink twelve double shots of espresso over the course of an eight-hour shift.

I counted the books and words of the intellectual customers, who rarely allowed me to be one of them. In fact, one old academic coot regularly teased me with his avant-garde ways and his shocking literature. He would bring me books and chuckle at me, smirk at my lingering stoicism after having studied the sentiments of time-travelers who carried on incestuous relationships with their great-great grandparents.

This being Southern Oregon, many of the intellectuals were libertarian males who studied history and knew more about the constitution than any constitutional lawyer. Among them [albeit a minority] were the stereotypical survivalists who preferred women to keep quiet and birth children but–woe to those who gave suck in those days! I frequently caught that lamentation, especially after I was pregnant with my first child. And, yes, these survivalists were intensely academic and not of the Hollywood stupid-ass redneck variety, although I rarely tuned in to their words to find out. Rather, I counted the men, their cups of coffee, their books, their multitude of words, and just how many minutes past closing they lingered.

One time, a free-thinker among them assumed I was heeding their debate with rapt attention and asked me for my opinion. I told him I didn’t have one, since I was a woman [which was a lie, though not the part about being a woman. I didn’t have an opinion because I wasn’t listening].

And later, much later, the old coot intellectual of the incestuous literature shocked me when he handed me a sheet of numbers and asked me if I would make sense of his bank account and budget for him. He said he could tell I counted things. Wide-eyed, I agreed to do as he asked. But how did he know? How could he have known?

The title of this memoir is change because I did. I changed. After spending years calculating the ounce measurements of every cup in my kitchen and falling apart if somebody mistakenly drank from my cup of water–how am I to count ounces with undetermined swallows?–I stopped. Occasionally, I still catch myself counting things, but I’m firm with myself these days.

The world can’t be quantified this way. Behind the numbers, I hear no ching-ching, no symphony of order and harmony. And most of all, I can’t quantify myself this way. Jill is a simple name that isn’t worth much in the cosmos. It means girl. That sounds countable, but it isn’t. I’m one in several billion, a being so disordered that you might as well stop attempting to count the hairs on my head right now.



    1. What a relief. Finally somebody who didn’t send me a private facebook message telling me they didn’t know until now that I was insane.

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