Hollywood isn’t nearly as glamorous as you’d think. At least, not from the inside of a Starbucks. My current view isn’t of sunshine or beaches or shiny, expensive cars: all of those typical L.A. things are blocked by the infinite line of impatient, sulking Starbucks patrons all crowded behind a short wall, all their eyes focused intensely on me as I make drink after drink as fast as I can. From the looks of the glares and stone faces that surround me, I’m not going fast enough.
“So that’s a venti mocha frappucino, a grande dark mocha frappucino, a grande vanilla bean fappucino, a venti caramel frappucino with extra caramel drizzle, and a venti java chip frappucino?” I hear my co-worker’s voice from behind me, my heart sinking with each syllable that comes out of her mouth. I sneak a glance towards the register to see what monster is placing such a colossal order. Of course it’s a group of high schoolers. The first of the day. School must be getting out, or at least it will be soon. The first harbingers of what will be a solid few hours of despair.
I’m moving fast: grabbing stickers, reading the drink name on them along with all the custom instructions, placing the sticker on a cup, starting the drink. It’s southern California, so in the heat, many people are ordering frappucinos, a signature Starbucks drink that’s basically a coffee milkshake. Almost every single one has specific custom instructions that deviate from the standard, default recipe. No whip. Add raspberry. Five shots of espresso. Extra caramel. Almond milk but still with whipped cream. I’ve been here awhile and while I’d say I’m used to the neverending stream of people that come in and out of our store, that doesn’t quite mean I’m enjoying myself. I know by now to never get my hopes up. As soon as I’m caught up, another gaggle of patrons will wander in and start the next rush. Our only real dead period is between 10-11AM, and even then, it’s not exactly slow. I can’t fathom how much milk we go through in a day. How many recyclable milk cartons I’ve mindlessly thrown away in our trash. It still bothers me, but by now it’s just an added tinge of pain on top of the constant wave of unpleasantness that fills my days in this coffee chain. If I ever win the lottery, I swear I’m going to try and buy Starbucks and cut down the menu to two items: coffee, decaf coffee. No customization available. This is a coffee shop. Get your fucking coffee and get out.
That’s a distant dream, though. My current reality is hearing one customer say to another, “Is that the regular girl? Are they usually this slow?” I honestly don’t think he meant for me to hear, but still, trying to say something quietly to the person next to you over the sound of a whirring blender is a futile effort. Especially when the barista you’re talking about is literally not two feet away. The short wall between us isn’t blocking any soundwaves, buddy, and yes, I’m the regular girl. When you spend 50-60+ hours of your week behind the counter at Starbucks, I think you qualify as “regular”. Also, I have a name. It’s on my nametag, in the cutest cursive I could muster. ABIGAIL. Guess he prefers to identify people as “girl” or “boy”. Or maybe it’s just baristas he treats this way.
“Cinnamon almond milk macchiato for Stacie?” I call out, placing the drink on the counter, feeling the ice cubes shake in the clear cup.
“I ordered an iced cinnamon almond milk macchiato,” Stacie states, accusingly.
“That is iced,” I try to say as sweetly as possible. I didn’t realize I had to literally say “iced” for you to understand the drink with the ice cubes swirling around in the transparent cup was iced. Honestly, shame on me, though. I should know by now to just be as direct and specific as possible. Fewer hiccups that way.
I’m halfway through my next drink in the two seconds that pass, pressing hard on the vanilla syrup pump, feeling droplets of the sticky, sugary fluid splatter against my wrist, when Stacie speaks up again. I’d thrown a pitcher into the blender and initiated it, so I honestly didn’t hear whatever she’d said. Figures I hear the person complaining about me and not the customer directly addressing me. I’m pretty sure that’s how the science of sound works: whatever’s most inconvenient for me is how the waves will choose to travel.
“I’m sorry,” I say, hating to pause because everyone in the mass of people behind Stacie knows it means their drinks will be delayed by a few seconds. “I didn’t catch that.”
“Do you think this is acceptable?” Stacie demands. I look down to her drink. It looks normal to me: condensation surrounding the plastic cup, the light brown of the almond milk filling it, the darker brown of the espresso shots poured on top of the ice floating at the top of the milk, drifting downwards.
“Is there something wrong?” I ask this Stacie person. I know there is. No one with lips pressed that tightly together thinks everything is a-okay. But I try to say it nicely, to seem concerned. Like I’ll do whatever it takes to make her situation right.
Stacie picks up her cup and thrusts it close to my face. I flinch. I don’t have time for this. I have an audition right after my shift that I’ll probably be late for anyway, because getting out of this packed storefront and finding a Lyft and working our way through the traffic to the casting studio will take forever. I have to hope that lots of girls are before me. I’m usually waiting at least 45 minutes from my scheduled audition time before I’m actually called in, but still, I like to be on time. I’ve never missed a Starbucks shift, never been late once, and miraculously never been late to an audition, either. Not that things have worked out on that front, my currently being in a Starbucks and all. But picking up a shift for a “sick” coworker has thrown my schedule a little out of whack. I needed the money, and if school is getting out, then my shift should be over soon. I try to tell myself I can handle all this. I almost believe it. I think of the audition. I think of what it would mean if I get this role. A nice paycheck. That would more than make up for the specifically patterned white blouse the casting directions stated I must wear to the audition. It was money I really couldn’t justify spending unless I got the part, and I know I was tempting fate by wearing it to work, but I just knew I wouldn’t have the time to change. I just think of going to a real set. Being in a movie. Having lines in a movie! Having lines in an Ava DuVernay movie! This audition. I can feel it. This stupid shift will be worth it.
“Do you do this with all your drinks?” Stacie asks.
“I’m sorry, I can remake that for you if something’s wrong,” I say as I hear another group of teenagers order another six frappucinos. It’s like I can feel each straw landing individually on the camel’s back, these six particular straws ordering “extra, extra, like, a lot,” of caramel drizzle. Our stickiest, most unpleasant ingredient.
Stacie huffs and rolls her eyes. She thrusts the drink again in my face, and drops of the brown liquid that had condensed near the straw hole splatter on the collar of my new white blouse. My $65 white blouse with purple flower patterns that I couldn’t afford but hoped might just maybe get me this part. Dealing with Stacie will be worth it, I try to tell myself. Even if she’s holding her drink right up to my eyes. I literally have no idea what she’s so upset about. Her drink looks normal to me. She’s even holding the sticker facing me. I can re-read it and confirm, yeah, I made it right. STACIE: CIN ALM MAC. I remember making it. Was it even a minute ago?
“When I pay $6 for a coffee,” Stacie says, very much frustrated that I’m just not getting her issue, “I want my money’s worth. You really think this is acceptable?”
“What seems to be the problem?” I ask. I think I felt another straw land.
“This is ridiculous!” Stacie says. “Look!”
I look at the drink. Again. I feel like I know it intimately now. At this point I feel bad for this cinnamon almond milk macchiato, that it has to be consumed by a person like Stacie. That it’s fueling whatever her miserable day will entail. I also feel like an idiot, because this entire hoard of 50 people all have their eyes on me and Stacie, and half of them are waiting on drinks that we are holding up, all because I can’t see whatever I did to offend Stacie so gravely.
“Look at all this room!” She says, voice rising. Ah. So that’s what this is. There’s maybe, maybe a quarter-inch of space between the liquid at the top of her drink and the plastic lid. That’s what this is. I’ve gotten this complaint before. Rarely. There’s nothing you can really do about it; I know the recipes so well that I’m basically on autopilot whenever I’m back here, filling each pitcher exactly to where Starbucks specifies it go to. Putting in exactly the right amount of syrup flavoring or espresso or ice or whatever else. I’ve noticed that sometimes it leaves drinks just a teensy bit short. As a barista, it’s helpful because lots of drinks have whipped cream and I need a bit of lee-way for adding it on top. I’m told that it’s good for customers because, particularly with hot drinks, an over-filled beverage could burn their mouth because they might take a particularly large initial swig. Apparently it’s happened before. I don’t know. But, yes, Stacie. I’ll admit. There is maybe an eighth of an inch of air in your cup. Ya got me. I don’t say that though.
“I’m so sorry,” I say, trying to use my actress talents to convey that really, I am sorry. I understand, I’ll make this right. “Would you like me to add more almond milk? Or I can re-make it for you.”
But Stacie isn’t having it. “I have a busy day! A tight schedule! I work hard, and I don’t have time for this! It’s your job, I expect someone to do their job right!” She exclaims. Of course she has a busy day. That’s why she’s adding minutes to her Starbucks run by arguing with her barista. It would take two seconds to just add some almond milk to it.
I repeat myself. “Would you like me to add more almond milk?”
“I don’t like my drinks too milky!” She seems flabbergasted that I’d even suggest such a thing. I guess she doesn’t like her drinks too milky. That’s why she ordered the drink that’s 85% almond milk. I feel a few more straws. But I can handle this, I tell myself again. No, I’m not quite sure what to say to her, but I’ve dealt with shitty customers before. Just be patient. Do what you can to make them happy. Or at least content enough to leave the store.
“Okay,” I say. “I can remake it for you and try to make it less milky and fill it up to the very top,” but I’m barely finished saying that when Stacie rolls her eyes and exhales in a throaty guffaw.
“I told, you, I don’t have time for this!” She says again. So why is she prattling on and on and on if she doesn’t have time for me to fix her drink? Does she just want me to be aware of what I did? To feel bad? Forget it. She’ll leave soon.
I’m about to say again how sorry I am when she yanks her arm away and thrusts the cup toward me again. It looks like she’s going to slam the drink on the counter, but the lid comes off mid-swing. It doesn’t even happen in slow motion. I just feel the cold liquid drench me. From the top of my left cheek down over my neck and chest. Maybe some got on my apron. But I feel most of it seeping through my white, patterned, $65 blouse. I don’t even think about that, or the audition, or even Stacie, though. My immediate thought is “Man, my bra is gonna be sticky.”
But then I look down at myself. The top half of the front of my blouse is brown now, not white. Stacie’s drink is in her fist on the counter, considerably less full than when she made her initial complaint. I look to her. She’s looking at me, but she’s not surprised, or shocked, or sorry. She’s wearing the same expression she’s worn our entire exchange. She’s expectant. She’s waiting for me to cater to her.
“I’m sorry, Stacie,” I say, slowly, measuring every word. “That your drink was not up to your standards.” I feel out of body, like I’m not controlling the words coming out of my mouth, or how I’m saying them, which isn’t in the usual faux-sweet retail voice I normally use with customers, but sounds more like I’m seething. Like the magma in a volcano is bubbling and rising.
“I’m sorry,” I say, slightly louder. “That you felt that an extra millimeter of liquid in the cup you paid $5.25 for, was worth standing up an entire business, halting an entire retail process, and calling attention to.” It’s like someone is slowly turning up the volume knob on my throat. But again, I don’t even feel like I’m controlling it. Stacie finally doesn’t look entitled or angry. More confused than anything.
“I’m sorry,” I say, feeling almond milk fly off my lips, “that even though you have a self-proclaimed busy schedule, and you don’t have time for this, that you still felt the need to disrupt the day of me and all your fellow patrons by pointing out that you were so egregiously oppressed. I am so sorry,” I say, words starting to speed up as my volume reaches its apex, “that all the moments in your life and mine led to the both of us having to experience each other in this instant, where I was made to commit such a horrific injustice upon you, that you had to go through such tragedy and hardship here in a fucking Starbucks, where your cinnamon almond milk macchiato wasn’t filled right fucking up to the goddamn brim of your cup so you could get your whole entire fucking five dollars and twenty-five cents worth!”
I wouldn’t say I was screaming. But the rest of the store was now silent. My manager was behind the register, mouth agape. The high schoolers had cameras out, hands over their mouths, stifling laughter and gasps. Stacie’s expression was hard to read, but I felt like I could sense absolute fury about to overtake it. Because if she had been that incensed about a quarter of an inch of room in her drink, I’m sure her reaction to a retail employee making minimum wage just unloading on her in a verbal onslaught complete with “fuck”s and “goddamn”s was not exactly going to be peachy. I feel like I might be starting to regain control of my voice, because my next words are spoken at regular volume, in my sing-song retail “for customers” voice.
“If you feel you didn’t receive your full $5.25 worth, would you like me to refund you the space I left you? I can give you back your eight cents at the register.”
Stacie’s mouth contorted, eyebrows spasming. I could sense my manager behind me, walking up to us. Being fired might not be so bad, I thought to myself. Yeah, Stacie will probably call corporate and get a $50 gift card or something, but then she’ll have to see her shitty barista on the big screen: taunting her from billboards all over L.A. I won’t have time for Starbucks when I’m on the set of an Ava DuVernay movie.