Tag Archives: memoirs from a nineties coffee girl

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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Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Passing of the Cup II

Mi Esposa by A Leon Miler © 2012*

I’m one of the lucky ones, or blessed ones, depending on how you view the uncountable multitude of events that can occur at any moment in a seemingly random universe. I have a great relationship with both my parents–the angels must have winged overhead at my birth–and I call myself blessed. This memoir, therefore, is about my mom.

Like my dad, my mom is an intellectual, no matter how she might protest the label. And she would protest it, too, because she uses her intellectual faculties in a pragmatic manner to solve problems and accomplish day-to-day tasks that create utter confusion in less practical intellectuals–such as me, for example. While my dad found work in the tech industry, she found work in the health industry. I’m sure I’d discover, if I dared look up the stats, that the health industry is the second biggest job source in that suburban area around Portland.

My mom is perfectly at peace in a world of numbers and organization and grammar. Her skills include bookkeeping, filing, flawless sentences, and an endless store of tenacity over the phone. My dad has claimed she should be a prosecuting attorney–or was it a judge? Both would fit, to be honest. I’ve known her to wrangle with insurance companies for hours. Also, keep in mind, this is the type of woman who uses Quicken and spreadsheets for fun. I rest my case. My mom is an intellectual.

In her pragmatism, she took what was necessary from the world of medicine, and the rest of her family’s health needs she satisfied from the practicality of cupboards: food and chamomile or peppermint tea. I recall her fixing tapioca pudding for sick children, or soup with soda crackers. For everyday use, she boiled potatoes to serve alongside meat and vegetables.

From my childhood perspective, she seemed indefatigable. She stayed up late; she rose early. She drank RC cola for energy and kept on going. I don’t know how much coffee she drank in those early years–but those years are irrevocably stuck in the seventies and eighties, so I might wonder forever. I do remember, however, seeing a can of instant coffee in the cupboard. I’m not altogether certain who drank from the hot water added to the dreaded crystals in the jar. I just remember its omnipresence up there in the cupboard–a jar. A jar of coffee–add water and go. It was a jar that represented a different world to mine. It smelled funny, too, but had a lovely bittersweet taste to it. Yes, I know this because, long before I began drinking real, drip-brewed coffee made from freshly ground beans, I sneakily made myself trial cups of the instant stuff. I guess I do know one person who drank of the water-with-crystals, then. I drank it, but not often, and not until I was about fourteen.

My mom was and is the sort of person who brings relief to any tense situation. At heart, she’s a problem solver. Or, she has a heart for solving others’ problems. These two motivators are subtly different in their psychological complexities, although they might appear the same on the outside. Is she simply wired to be able to solve problems, or is she wired to give support to others, and so uses her intellect to find answers for them? I don’t know–tough call on that one. I’m going with the latter. My mom loves others and uses her intellect to help them out. It’s easy to imagine, therefore, how she thrived as a mother, as well as in the bookkeeping, filing, and receptionist areas of medical offices–how this kind of life gave her energy (or she gave her energy to it–tough call on that one, too).

I will never be as organized as my mom. Chances are, I’ll never find great enjoyment in making budgets and spreadsheets, either. In fact, I have to admit to avoiding such activities as much as possible. I wouldn’t want reality to invade too deeply into my labyrinthine daydreams and mosaic logic. It’s all pieced together so carefully, it wouldn’t make sense on a spreadsheet. Catacombs–Byzantine catacombs–that’s where my mind belongs. But that’s all right. I’m capable of making budgets and paying bills, and I’m just as able to pass such nonsense off to my husband. Despite all that, I’ve inherited my mom’s sense of logic in the area of health, and health isn’t an area of avoidance for me.

Owing to my health logic, I concur with my mom’s decision to, at some vital moment, give up drinking caffeinated soda. From my foggy childhood memories, I can’t recall how long she drank soda, or when or how often she drank coffee. In my head, I conjure up the blue RC cola can with its crown and associate it with my much younger mom. Now, though, I can only picture her drinking coffee because she currently won’t start the day without her cup or two of French press.

French press is beautiful. French press is perfect. French press is an herbal infusion, much like my mom’s peppermint or chamomile tea. It’s a health beverage that excites and awakens the mind and clarifies thought. It readies the digestive tract and produces a ready-to-go, problem-solving spirit. It’s an elixir, actually, that sounds ready made for a woman as pragmatic as my mom. And, if you want to get right down to it, I would benefit from drinking my coffee with her. Some of her skills might rub off on me.

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Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: The Passing of the Cup

Morning Light by A Leon Miler © 2012

When I was in high school, my family lived in Hillsboro, which is part of what is known as the Silicon Forest for its concentration of tech jobs. The largest Intel plant is, in fact, located in Hillsboro. That being true, it’s no leap of faith to believe my dad would, at some point, work his way to a career in electrical engineering. In his own words, he’s comfortable with crunching numbers, while many people aren’t. And why shouldn’t he be? Some people innately understand relationships and are comfortable coping with a diverse group of acquaintances in the same way he’s comfortable with numbers. Bully for them, but numbers are a hell of a lot easier to understand than people.

Why do I trust numbers after years of intensely fearing math? For the record, I’ve spent the same years also intensely disliking most people. These fears and dislikes used to be parallel paths for me, yet they’ve diverged along the way. I have no idea how, except to say that people have squirmed out from under my little pins, while numbers have stayed put. As I’ve indicated in other posts, I’m studying math on my own time at home. After completing my latest lesson via pencil scratchings on paper, I loathed having to click over to my blog and type sentences for people to read. This math-over-writing is such a complete reversal for me that I’m left swooning from the roller coaster, switchback effect. But legacies arrive when they will, and there may be no way to predict the hairpin turns brought on by them.

Despite Hillsboro’s glowing prominence in the techie forest (dripping with rain and silicon), my dad worked for a company in Beaverton, which is a suburb that much closer than Hillsboro to the tunnel shooting into the greater tech forests of Portland. Because of that, he usually dropped me, on his way to work, at the Beaverton bus depot to cut out fifteen minutes or so from my long commute to Portland Christian High School. My commute, however, still involved changing over to the train in downtown, and then one last changeover to a bus that dropped me near the school drive–still tiresome, in other words.

I spent a lot of my commute thinking, but I’ve already discussed this in a previous memoir. With my briefcase in hand, and my raggedy school clothes, I juxtaposed myself over an urban, workaday world, insulated coffee mug in hand, and I scrutinized all these places I didn’t belong. But, again, I’m passing myself by, as it were–passing by the scenes I mean to focus on. The briefcase was one my dad no longer used, and the coffee mug was an old AM/PM travel cup with a faded logo. My dad gave me the mug, too, and that’s the image I’m trying to capture. I still remember the morning he handed me the coffee-filled cup with cap, understanding that I was seventeen–practically an adult–and that I would be trapped out in the frosty morning waiting for buses, and I would need a hot beverage to sustain me. It was one of those passing-of-the-torch moments that adults have with their almost-grown children.

My dad and I have never fit in anywhere. Would I sound childish if I claimed nobody understands us? It’s true. During our commute together, we discussed thought processes and poetry, and we listened to current music, such as U2’s Joshua Tree or Rattle and Hum. My dad talked about the connections his mind makes from one matter to another, and he sometimes spontaneously composed poetry. And then he would ask: does your mind work this way? And I would murmur a consent, even though I quailed inside and wondered if I would ever reach–do–write–understand as much as I needed to. Because of that, those pale morning hang in my head with crazy images of clouds that appear as shattered glass, of starkly bitter trees hanging over fields of orange. The dawn darkness always gave way to light, but I had yet to experience it. I sensed its presence in the distance and couldn’t quite touch it.

My dad is a kaleidoscope. He has a center, and from that, radiates images. He’s a poet, a gardener, and engineer. Most of all, he’s an artist, and if you have time, you should check out his online galleries here and here. In my opinion, he’s an artist whose work will find its way out of obscurity, so I highly suggest you invest in some originals.

Although my dad didn’t pass on his cup of artistry to me in the same way he casually handed me an AM/PM cup one morning years ago, he passed on a legacy of poetry. I wouldn’t presume to call myself a poet, and still I can’t leave poetry behind because poetry is where words and numbers and cadence meet. I’ve always loved counting the world. I’ve always loved counting words. And someday, maybe I will call myself an engineer and I’ll write about it by word count, while simultaneously loathing and loving every minute of it. Oh, did I mention I applied for an engineering program? The silicon forest where I grew up has caught up to me, its dense growth rooted deeply inside my head.

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Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: The Fluidity of Dreams

Sallie: the Original Coffee Girl

This is the profile of two coffee girls, an original named Sallie–and me. Sallie, according to her own bio, has worked at “nearly every cafe in nearly every town [she’s] ever lived in.” By contrast, I spent a few years of my early adulthood working in espresso shops and have spent the last seventeen on the customer side of the counter. At heart, I was a drop-in, a drive-by, an observer of the culture and a confidante to those involved in it–a Nick Carraway, although, admittedly, coffee brewers haven’t yet gone underground. Those selling it aren’t yet gaining the world through riches and, consequently, falling into deep depravity. My friends from Oregon, however, still call me and feed my soul with shocking stories before asking me what’s happening with my life. The ensuing silence over the waves speaks for itself. Nothing is happening with my life because I block out drama by living a small, hermit-like existence in the desert.

When Sallie calls, the conversation differs from the preceding model because Sallie is different to the rest. She embodies the mirror aspect of my soul. She shakes with vibrancy, creativity, exuberance. She loves deeply and enthusiastically. She dances tango and appreciates fine foodstuffs arranged artfully on plates. By contrast, as an observer, I’m impatient by any part of life that jerks me from my sideline stance and throws me into an actual, living scene. Here’s an example of what I mean: One night, after I had worked the closing shift at the Medford Coffee Company, Sallie and I and a few others jetted to a midnight party at a house belonging to strangers. Sallie was house-sitting, and so we dropped into an atmosphere of hominess that didn’t belong to any of us. We were aliens in a foreign land of refrigerator magnets and all the sights and smells of young children and pets. For Sallie, this meant space to create a feast. For me, at that late hour, this meant intense irritation. I hated the hominess. I was hungry. It was late. I wanted to eat, watch a movie, go home and fall into bed. But to Sallie, food could never be simply food, especially when its creation brought her closer to her friends. We argued about whether we should bother chopping fresh garlic and onions for whatever pasta dish we were making. I didn’t want to bother with gourmet; she refused to compromise on quality. She won. She made the food from fresh, whole ingredients and it took longer to cook and, somehow, I survived by watching her from the sidelines. More important, I lived to tell of it and was, undoubtedly, nurtured by her food.

When Sallie calls, we discuss our late-in-life plunges into academia. Ten years ago, I took the plunge to finish my college degree. I finished what I’d started–an education in English/Creative Writing and Spanish. More recently, Sallie has done the same. She’s currently in a creative writing program at the University of Oregon and, from what I understand, she’s also taking business classes. Her status updates on Facebook also tell me she’s studying Italian. Sallie knows what she wants. She may have subverted it for a number of years while she gave birth to her children, but she’s allowed herself to resurface. Through it all, she works at one cafe or another–and some of these places are tired, soulless delivery centers for caffeine. And others are the real deal, the beating hearts of coffee-land–the kind of place Sallie will own for herself one day.

When Sallie calls, we both speak, heart-to-heart, about the soul aspect of the universe. Words take a cosmic turn when the conversation is between the two of us, no one else around to turn it into banality. Sallie possesses what I lack, and, I suspect, the vice versa is true as well. She emotes outwardly–I shrink inwardly. She captures a full spectrum of emotions, while I know only of the domino effect caused by my inability to cope with frustration–>irritation–>anger. Over the phone, both of us with our coffee, but hundreds of miles distant, we fill each other’s cups. In Sallie’s eyes, I’m the opposite of myself, the impossible ideal–an artist and poet. In my eyes, Sallie is not just an artist, but a business woman who is creative enough to bring all her ideas to fruition.

Despite my forays in the academic world, and despite my too infrequent conversations with Sallie, I have a decided lack of knowing what I want. This is, ultimately, the biggest contrast between me and Sallie. After having children, the essence of who I was remained hidden, buried under fears. I was a fiction writer! That was who I was. I could shout it from the Cascades, hear my own voice delivering the dictate, and I couldn’t make it true. Anybody might have confused my intensity of focus on one object–fiction–as an instance of she doth declare herself with too much force. And anybody might have concluded that I spoke lies from the deepest, most sincere part of my being. But nobody did until recently. And, now, when I think about Sallie, as she struggles forward through the river–nay, ocean–of fiction writing, I envision her success. I consider the turning of my own dreams and how close I am to the age of forty, and I understand this to be part of the portrait of coffee girls. We grow up, we have children, and, yet, we never stop thriving. We have coffee to brace our backbones, to keep us young and fit and full of dreams.

Coffee is the fluid of dreams, just as dreams are as fluid as night. And do you want to know what I dream of these days? I dream of being a science writer, or of not being a writer at all, but a person who researches for a living, or a person who creates tangible things. I don’t know how any of these dreams will come to pass, and still I imagine them, and I imagine taking a break from life at Sallie’s future coffeehouse and reading her published novels that I’ve just bought at the imaginary bookshop next door.

I raise my mug to her: Here’s to life not imagined, but lived!

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Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Counting Crows and Raindrops

image by A Leon Miler © 2012

I’ve never counted crows, at least not that I can remember, not even as a youth when everything counted. A while back, I wrote this memoir called Change, in which I admitted to obsessively counting things. I also claimed to have changed over the years, to have eradicated the counting habit from my mind. But the posting of that piece woke me to reality: I never stopped. All these years, I’ve unconsciously counted. And now that I’ve risen from my dream without numbers, I count things consciously again. Because of the background activity in the unconscious mind, I’m not certain if I’ve counted crows or not. However, the file in my mind marked crows is of the cryptic variety, and bears little importance to my life, unless, of course, I begin dreaming of crows. At that point, I might have to reckon with the numbers. Meanwhile, reaching back to my nineties world, Counting Crows simply refers to a melancholic Berkeley band.

Rain is gloomy. Perhaps rain is the cause of, or is at least correlated with, counting things. Adam Duritz of Counting Crows understands the gloomy nature of rain, and uses it to his advantage on the quintessential nineties album, August and Everything After. His songs literally drip with rain. I might assume, from my own experiences, that Duritz counts crows in the rain–hence the band name–but I don’t think this is true. According to a quick search on the ever useful Wikipedia, the members derived their name from a divination rhyme, in which the number of crows answers man’s uneasy questions about the future. I’m not sure I would want my future foretold by the number of crows roosting in winter trees–or wherever they happen to be–but that may be owing to my unacknowledged crow file.

On the other hand, I know what it’s like to count rain in days, nights, and hours. I know this because my childhood world dripped with rain. Even now in my desert world, I can’t separate myself from the form of it. Rain changes people at a core level, in the genetic landscape of their souls, and this information is then passed down from generation to generation. Growing up in Portland, I lived with a constant drizzle for nine months of the year. To be exact, the average yearly rain count in Portland is thirty-eight inches. How many barrels would thirty-eight inches fill? That depends on the size of the barrels. All barrels being equal, other cities in the U.S. would fill more. New York City, for example, has a higher average rainfall. Nonetheless, Portland’s rain overshadows the citizens because of the lingering crust of gray clouds, and its capacity to drip like a leaky faucet for months on end.

August and Everything After, Counting Crow’s rainiest album, released soon after my husband and I married in 1993, and just after we fled from Portland’s rain to Southern Oregon, where the rainfall average is cut in half (38 to 18–yes, I know, this isn’t exactly half, but even less!). Ironically, Adam Duritz hails from a place with a similar low level of precipitation (San Francisco); however, he was born in Baltimore, Maryland, which explains his wet head. His early life in a rainy place changed the genetic landscape of his poetry, such that rain and melancholy ooze from his lyrics in the way that damp oozes from the walls of old dwellings near the water.

Rain is like a drug to those who have soaked it up in their youth. It’s bad for us–we sense this deeply, but we can’t stop wanting it. When my world snapped from the dryness of the scrubby Southern Oregon hills, with the deep skies of summer and the white air of winter, I heard ghost rain in rattling pot lids and steam vents. I watched for the white air to pour forth, and my brain cracked from the melancholy that no longer had a cushion of rain to fall back on. From the Medford Coffee Company, where I served up life-giving trays of coffee, I stared out into a blank parking lot, swept by scattered leaves and traffic. At night, I studied the dry, black window glass that barricaded me against the traffic. Those in the espresso shop were on an island. In a mall parking lot, we provided a refuge amid the paved, dry seas.

But rain cut in half is still rain. The hollow where the city of Medford rests isn’t a desert. Eighteen inches of rain, on average, must fill its barrels for the sake of maintenance because averages are guiding strictures in a world where true understanding is unknowable. So when the rain began to fall, I counted it. I counted drop after drop until I lost count altogether and lost myself in the sound of it, in the resting place of my childhood pensiveness. Somehow, deep thoughts require at least a modicum of rain to work themselves out. This kind of brilliancy, requiring a lack of light along with barrels of rainwater, is one of the grand contradictions of a mysterious universe.

Since moving to New Mexico, my rain has halved itself yet again, leaving me with that much less of a cushion for my thoughts. The span of the desert breaks me. The span of time without rain doesn’t empty out my thought channels, but rather, it dries them as it dries the arroyos in my backyard that snake from West to East and fill with dead mesquite branches and decaying cholla arms. In the same way, my thoughts back up and cover themselves over with dust.

And the only way out is, oddly, the same out I had for the inevitable depression caused by growing up in a rain-soggy world: coffee and espresso made strong and black, short or tall. In addition, to make a pun of it, I count things. I count my coffee, my ounces, and the raindrops that fall during the monsoon season. I count how many days pass without rain. Back in Oregon, caffeine was a corrective drug to counteract the rain drug. Here, in the desert, it’s a replacement. And I never count crows because when crows flock together in the desert, they are too many to take into the hidden parts of my mind.

20,18,38,64,9 (a list of cryptic numbers indicating the rounded rainfall averages, in inches, of various places I’ve lived, except the 20, which represents San Francisco).

The image is actually of a blackbird, not specifically crow. See A Leon Miler’s website. A Leon Miler is my dad, and he also spent far too many years in a rainy climate.

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