Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: (Mis)Typing the World

Human beings have a natural propensity for categorizing the world around them. Their categorizations might be based off scientific observation: All creatures with three body parts and six legs we’ll call insects. Further classification informs us that insects lack backbones and, instead, wear an outer armour, or exoskeleton (as we’ll call it). They are, therefore, a part of a larger group of creatures without backbones, which we’ll thus label invertebrates. Categorizations might also have spiritual implications. In Christian circles, scholars discuss types of Christ. A stranger to Christian culture might find it peculiar when they identify men or even systems of ideas (e.g. animal sacrifice) as “types of Christ”, owing to their dedicated worship of the one and only person they consider to be the Christ. But spiritual typing systems are no more peculiar than any other kind; they simply add weight to the evidence that humans possess a distinct skill for discovering patterns in a world of minutiae.

We begin our classification systems at birth, when we determine the difference between Mama and Everything Else. Perhaps this distinction is understood by infants, pre-birth, while still gliding about the womb — who knows? Perhaps the Fetus who was not yet named Carl Linnaeus had the most basic of typing system all worked out before he entered the world. If only he’d had pen and paper, he could have written it down for our enlightenment. In any case, we know as just-born infants that Mama has the mammary glands to feed us milk and, somehow, we know instinctively, or through the use of consistent language patterns, that Mama=mammary. She is defined by her mammary glands, and, hence, we love her. As we grow older, we categorize other family members or pets: brother vs sister; dog vs kitty. We categorize in broader circles as our world expands to the backyard and the neighbor’s house and then the schoolyard. We’re veritable geniuses at this categorization game, and we’ll continue in like kind — inspecting, defining, and classifying on our own terms or the unexamined terms the world gives us, until life, itself, disturbs our neat headers and rows. And life will, eventually. Not that any disturbance could prevent us from our favored game. More likely, we’ll suffer from unease for a while, before casting off the dissonant sound of ideas that don’t harmoniously fit together. When two ideas don’t match, one must be expelled.

While working at Coffee People, I learned to pinpoint people. This was as easy as thumbing insects to a board. Did you ever do that in school? Did you create an insect collection? I have vague memories of collecting insects in a shoebox for display. For a child, this may have been similar to the African big game hunters, the white hunters, such as Theodore Roosevelt. They were a class of people, white hunters, who killed large game for display or, possibly, educational purposes, but ultimately to own species by means of classifications. Hunting insects, for a powerless person, is a small, yet decided declaration of strength. I can almost hear myself saying, I can own you, my Painted Lady; I can seize you and examine your frail wings, your matching tapestries that flutter in the breeze. Oh, yes, I was a powerless child who wrote poetry.

As I’ve already claimed, people are apt at classification. In Portland, a heightened sense of this same tendency for typology infected the population, such that everybody had to belong to a tribe. And it was no use blurring the lines, as some did–you either were of this tribe or you were of that one. Drifting between the Goths and the hippies, for example, was unacceptable practice. At times — in high schools, particularly — the freakish sorts would band together in the hallways, but would have nothing to do with each other outside the falsified social scene prevalent in schools. You might well imagine the difficulty of mixing Melanie and marijuana with ecstasy and a rave.

While a barista, I found new and ingenuous ways to pin the world under my thumb. Ladies with big hair and Tammy Fay make-up could have been called Painted Ladies, but they certainly weren’t butterflies by any definition of the term given to nectar-feeding insects with two pairs of wings. Without fail, I could guess what drinks the big-haired ladies would order, however. They actually did appreciate the nectar of sugar, and they were wont to purchase tall, nonfat, decaffeinated lattes with a sweet syrup added, vanilla being the most popular choice. In our coding system, we wrote the order on the slip as a vanilla why bother or a vanilla pointless. Often, these ladies preferred a cup of liquid rather than foam, and then the order would be vanilla decaf flat and skinny — no tittering allowed, even if the woman fit the bill.

Should I go on? My contempt for others is distasteful, even to me. But if I’m able to jerk a laugh out of you, why shouldn’t I continue? What did the earthy types prefer? Oh, yes, you already know: mochas made with soy milk, but decorated with real whipped cream. Some earthy men and women alike ordered their espressos with hot cups of half-n-half, and they were so earthy that they smelled of fresh butter and shone outward with glowing, buttery countenances. The lesbians ate banana-nut bread, and the homosexual men loved their fruit smoothies with added soy protein powder. Men in suits took their coffee black, or specified that their cappuccinos must be made dry because those men were real men, and real men prefer the stout and the bitter.

But what happens when you have your pen poised above the order sheet as a male couple saunters in, and you know they’re a couple because they’re holding hands, and you’re ready to scribble “fruit smoothie, protein powder”, and then one orders his coffee black and the other an iced coffee with milk? What happens when the earthy, buttery redhead steps up to the counter and orders a plain double espresso? What happens when people don’t fit the prescribed paradigm, the one you’ve concocted from life experience and haven’t stopped to analyze at all?

You’re the barista, and you will have to decide. Must genders and races fit into your ordered lists? Must they meet your definitions, or will you allow them to define themselves? As somebody who is powerless, who’s spent years attempting to understand the world of humanity by categorization, I would suggest that this skill isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. People aren’t what I think they are. Just as I learned that my mama was more than her mammaries — she had many other occupations that didn’t involve nursing young, and an actual name to boot! — I’ve learned that people are more than their flat-skinny-dry-cream-soy fixations. Today they want their milk, and tomorrow they will have graduated to a new ideal of life.

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