Someone Else’s Ivy
For a long time, when asked what profession I was in, I would reply by saying that I was a professional milk steamer. I worked behind the counter at a small café in Harvard Square, Cambridge, in the shadow of the most prestigious university in the nation. For some reason, the morning shift was often slow, so the other employees and I would kill time telling stories. Like the one about the store being owned by the mob, which would explain how the company could afford to pay two employees seven dollars an hour to stand around all morning serving the occasional, bleary customer. Sometimes we would try to weigh our heads on the digital scales we used for bulk coffee. We came up with nicknames for our regulars; things like Captain Nervous, Super Grover, The Neck, and Aging Hipster Man. We would also design elaborate signs for the A-frame that we put out front. During the Democratic National Convention, my sign read: "Coffee is Not Republican. In Fact, Coffee Might Not Even Believe in the Two Party System." After that one had been out for a couple hours, one of our student customers came in for a large latte and informed me that "Two Party" needed to be hyphenated. I steamed the milk.
When I started there, I was just a regular employee. One of about seven, who served customers, cleaned the store, stocked the supplies and ran the register. But after about six months, people started quitting. First, a couple shift managers got new jobs. Then, some of the counter staff went back to school. The counter staff was replaced easily enough from the endless stock of young people who were constantly dropping off applications, but we were still a bit short-staffed. After that, the General Manager announced that he was leaving because he could not stand the treatment he was receiving from the Regional Manager for even one more month. On the General Manager’s last day, the Regional Manger took him into the office and confessed that he himself was quitting in order to get professional help for his pathological lying.
The General Manger stayed long enough to hire some people to work behind the counter and to train me as a Shift Manager—someone who was authorized to open and close the store. And then, without any of us noticing, I found myself the longest-employed person at the café. I was in charge of eight young professional milk steamers and one flagship store of a small franchise. For a while, there were three of us in charge, since the Regional Manager had hired two managers and introduced them to me before he quit. Their names were Erin and Erin. And Erin, Erin, and I ran the café like it was a corrupt, Communist cooperative. We refused to name a hierarchy among us, supporting each other in our work and making sure we all received raises at the same time and for the same amount. We outright told the counter staff that under our rule, and for seven dollars an hour, excellence was no longer expected. What we did expect was that they show up breathing and not do whip-its in the kitchen, and that if at all possible, the cash in the register should match the sales total at the end of the night. When the register had more cash in the drawer than it was supposed to, one of the Erin’s and I took the overage and went out drinking. We had a great time and we worked hard for that café. There was no helpful upper management, and the franchise owners seemed to us to have forgotten about the café altogether. We had no business training: we had never been to a seminar of any kind, let alone one about management, labor cost analysis, business leadership or whatever other skills it is generally assumed one should have in order to run a small business. There was no Hamburger University for us. But when we discovered that the previous manger hadn’t paid the latest invoices, we begged the vendors to keep delivering the muffins while we came up with a plan. When the register was disastrously short at closing, my cell phone would ring at midnight and I would go to the closed café and sit with whichever Erin to recount the ones until we figured out what went wrong. Like all utopian labor systems, this one was short-lived. The first Erin to leave got a job teaching blind students. The second moved to Tanzania to teach reproductive health.
Which left me. And the kids behind the counter. Surely, we served coffee. And mopped the floors, and took in orders and stocked the shelves and cleaned the equipment and did the dishes and made it through the holiday season when it seemed that everyone, everyone wanted to buy a pound of coffee or travel mug or a teapot that cost seventy-five dollars. The kids attended to the things that have to be attended to in the service industry, and I attended to the kids. They were all between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one, and only two of them had high school diplomas, so I spent a lot of time teaching them things. For example, we had a vocabulary word every week. The first week it was "Sisyphean". As they were cleaning the iced-coffee machines or running downstairs to get more paper cups, I would yell, "Use it in a sentence!" And they would chant back, classroom-style, "My job is Sisyphean!" When one of them started studying for the SAT, we broadened our scope, so that after each transaction I would ask for a different word to be defined. Customers were often startled as I hissed "abase" to my employees. "Defalcate, emancipate, truncate, ameliorate," I would whisper behind them as they rang up small coffees and blueberry muffins.
When they couldn’t keep their hands off each other, we invented Sexual Harassment Tuesdays. Every Tuesday, as long as they were out of sight of the customers, they could snap as many bras and give as many wedgies as they wanted, thus enabling us on every other day of the week, to say "save it for Tuesday." If they came back early from their OSHA-mandated paid fifteen-minute breaks, I would send them out again, saying "The eight hour day is not a benevolent gift from the owning class. People fought and died to get you breaks like these, don’t you dare disrespect their memories."
"OSHA, what?" They asked, reaching around to try to snap my bra straps, "Is that some kind of whale?"
"Look it up," I would respond. "There are students your age leading revolutions is other countries."
The trick to being a manager, I found, is never asking an employee to do something while it appears that you yourself are not busy. So that before I said things like, "polish all the copper table-tops, please. Now, please," I would pick up a stack of cups and wander toward the kitchen until the kid started polishing. Or, bellowing from the office, "Run down the street and pick me up some lunch from that Chinese place," I would make sure to have a spread-sheet open on the computer screen in front of me.
But they worked hard. I tracked the sales every night in a rudimentary way, and they never went disastrously down over those months. And the young people in my employ worked hard at becoming little human beings. James studied for the SAT and Deion for the GED. Clarissa had her first art opening; James took his girlfriend for an abortion. Deion read Joyce’s Ulysses behind the counter. Andrew attended AA every week and took a class at the Harvard Extension School, and Amanda went to her first high-school party where everyone was drunk. Kat decided she wanted to attend the University of Colorado for photography and asked me to help her with her application essay. Amanda had gotten into college early decision, but then, through a combination of teenage angst and experimentations, started failing all her high school classes. I started tutoring her in an attempt to get her graduated and off to college before they rescinded their offer. And I had a great time.
In January, I took two weeks unpaid vacation to visit my mother, who was living overseas. While I was away, Susan, the General Manager of the other nearby franchise, had to come in to our café to cover some of my shifts. She had, I think, become the de facto Regional Manager in the same way that I had ended up the acting General Manager at the Harvard Square café. As it turned out, Susan had a slightly more formal approach to management than I did. The first thing she did after I left, was to rip down all the post cards and newspaper clippings and little coffee-cup artwork that we had hung in the kitchen. She told my kids that instead of the work of local artists, frames with prints of coffee and coffee beans would be going up on the walls of the café. And then, she started in about the music.
Someone once told me that all chain stores are required to play music constantly. And this is the reason: in case of a hold up, when the gunman says on the floor or stick em up, or whatever gunmen say, and the whole crowd including the manager or the night clerk goes silent, there will be music playing to sort of ease the tension. So that really, the music must be considered a safety measure, like the sign on the door that says less than fifty dollars in register.At our café, we were accustomed to rotating the CD selection according to the musical tastes of the employee who was in my good graces that particular day. The rule was that he or she could play whatever she wanted at a reasonable volume and providing there were no coherent obscenities, and as long as it were understood that anyone playing The Eagles, The Doors or Kelly Clarkson would be fired on the spot. But Susan introduced five corporation-approved CDs, and told the kids that they would be the only music played in the café. Ever.
It would have inspired a minor revolt among them anyway, but it was more like the bean that broke the barista’s back, since she had already caused some anxiety among the staff by changing the schedule around and using a white glove to test whether the merchandise shelves had been dusted properly. When I got back from my vacation, I found this taped to the wall:
As a staff we understand the need to change our café in order to better serve the customers and keep business up, but there is one recent change we don’t agree with. Several weeks ago, we were informed that from now on we will play only soft jazz at the Harvard Square location. For several reasons, we oppose this.
We believe this music choice is not targeting the right audience. Harvard Square is frequented by young people, primarily college students. While at your store, most customers are of an older demographic perhaps looking for a sophisticated café, the customers we get are looking for somewhere funky to go with their cool friends. The staff here is made up of people in their twenties and teens; our taste in music is diverse but likely to be in line with that of our target customers. Different styles of music give the Harvard location character. With all the other competitors nearby we need something to distinguish ourselves from them and make people choose us.
We also believe that listening to a variety of music will allow employees to have better interaction with the customers. In the past, when we played music from our own collections, customers happily sang along as they ordered and excitedly asked us what was playing. Music from the ‘80s and ‘90s had some customers saying "this takes me back to when I was sixteen," and other customers told us how hearing albums while drinking their coffee inspired them to give artists another chance because they had enjoyed the music so much. Listening to music we know and like puts employees in a better mood. We pull into a faster and friendlier rhythm that helps keep the store a happy and interesting place. Though none of us plan on quitting any time, this new policy changes the atmosphere so much that we may leave prematurely at some point with this being a major factor in that decision. The staff here gets along well; we like each other, we like coffee, we like music and we like the café. We want the link that unites us with each other and with customers back. The employees at Harvard Square request that we return to our old music policy.
Thank you for hearing us out.
It was type-written and every one of my employees had signed the letter. When they asked me if I wanted to sign, I said they had done a wonderful job of expressing their concerns, and I didn’t feel comfortable signing anything since I had been away when the policy change took effect. I stood back, steamed some milk, and waited to see what would happen. Two days later we found this hand-written note taped over the kids’ letter:
To Address Concerns in Order:
Your info about my café’s demographic is wrong. The music we play is not geared for you specifically. We are not trying to be "funky." If that is your impression you are WAY off track. We are QUITE different in our concept compared to our competitors. I’m not worried. Your interaction with customers BETTER BE 100% friendly and professional no matter what the music is. This is below you. Of course anyone can quit for any reason whether I agree or not. Go ahead. Two weeks notice is customary. I did not intend to make this a big deal and am surprised by the big, dramatic, juvenile response. The policy stays.
The day after that, I had to pick the pieces of Susan’s note up off the ground and tape them back together. James had torn it up. My kids looked like they were going to cry from rage and frustration. And if I heard Kenny G or whoever hit that high note one more time I was going to put my head through our plate-glass window. I called a staff meeting next to the dishwasher. "Why," I asked, "are you all so mopey? Why hasn’t anyone made new iced coffee or made me a paper-cup crown lately?"
"Because we are pissed off and this sucks and you know it. Fuck this. I think Starbucks pays eight dollars an hour," was the general consensus among my staff.
"But why?" I asked, "Why are you so pissed off?"
"Because Susan is a fucking bitch."
"Okay, sure. What makes you think that?"
"Because she’s an ugly bull dyke who is so uptight, I bet she hasn’t been laid in years."
"Okay, seriously guys. We need to be the better people in this situation. You’re right and she’s wrong, right? So act like it."
"Because you told us if we acted like people with worth and dignity and expressed our concerns in a mature, well-thought-out way, we could change things we don’t like. You told us if we worked together we could do anything. You told us it was like collective bargaining, and that our lives and our jobs mattered. And it didn’t work."
"Oh my god."
"Susan makes us feel like nothing. Why can she talk to us like that? We make money for this company and we can’t talk to her like that."
"What," I asked, "are we going to do about this?"
"Fuck-all," said James.
"We could ask for a meeting to express our concerns," I suggested. "Would you be interested in doing that? You would have to dress up and come in on your day off and practice beforehand what you were going to say. You would have to make a list of all the stuff—not just the music thing—that is bothering you."? They thought about it for a while and decided that they wanted to do it. I had created a beautiful, angry, young six-headed monster. I had created a labor movement. I had created a brotherhood of baristas. Oh, fuck that, who was I kidding? I had a valuable, fun group of young people working for me who had created their own way of doing things and sorting out their problems, and they were going to keep doing it no matter what I said. They had created a café in that specific permutation in that unique moment in time.
So I called Susan and told her the kids weren’t happy. I told her we wanted to talk, to express some of our concerns and "keep the avenues of communication open, so that we all fully understand the plan for the future so we can find a way to maximize the potential of our cafe." She said, "No dice." When I told my employees about the phone conversation, they were bewildered and angry. Clarissa drew a large line drawing of dice inside a circle with a line through it, and taped it to the ice machine.
"Look," I told them, hating myself, "I think you guys are great employees because you’re great people. But Susan doesn’t care who you are, and that’s going to be her loss in the end. Well, and it’s going to suck for you too. What do you want to do?"
And a consensus was reached: the kids wanted no part of this, they wanted out.
"If you all just walk away, one at a time, you will be replaced in about a second. Have you seen the stack of applications on my desk? No one will ever know why you are angry, and Susan will not have to think about the actions she took that created this outcome. You have to do this like you did everything else so far. You have to do this together, and with style."
So we sat down to write another letter together. When we were done, we faxed it to Susan and the CEO of the company. We wrote:
We, the employees of the café in Harvard Square, regret to inform you that we must resign from our positions. For the most part, and most of the time, we have enjoyed working at the café. We have worked hard here and were glad to do so. We hope you appreciate this as much as we do. Together, as a staff, we have decided to pursue other opportunities that better suit our needs.
In our time here we have learned many things. We have greatly improved our knowledge of coffee, customer service, the people of Harvard Square and the machinations of a small business. We have learned that it is important to try hard at everything we do, no matter how mundane or inconsequential, that it is beneficial for everyone involved to make our concerns heard in an intelligent and mature manner, and that it is better to work together with people we respect and enjoy than to stand alone. We have also learned that sometimes, when we act on this knowledge with the best intentions, it still does not matter.
Recently, many of us came to you with the intention of creating an open dialogue about a change in policy. The response we received was less than respectful. The tone and language of your note was dismissive of our needs and hostile to communication in general. The music that we listen to eight hours a day, the art on the walls, and the personal items we place out of the view of the public are important to us, even if these things are not important to you. It matters to us because when we had some control over these small things, we were proud of the café and wanted it to be successful because we saw it as a representation of our hard work and the way we choose to spend our time. We were willing to work for less money than we thought was fair because we worked in a place whose values, we thought, coincided with our own. What you have said to us and the way in which you have said it has shown us our mistake.
Your response to our concerns, in combination with the attitude of this company as evidenced by our compensation, opportunity for advancement, and ability to contribute to decisions regarding our working conditions has prompted us to leave before we would have liked. We understand now that our labor is more valuable to you because it is inexpensive and replaceable than because it is skilled and enthusiastic. We think we are worth more.
James, Deion, Kat, Amanda, Clarissa, Andrew and Amy
An hour after I faxed it over I received an outraged phone call from Susan. Presumably, she was calling to see if there were any staff members working at the Harvard Square café. I told her it had been my idea for all of us to just walk out, but the kids had vetoed me, saying something about "being the better person," and "two-week notice," and "doing things right." I didn’t listen very closely to what Susan said, because she was incoherent with fury, but I do remember this. She said, "The fact that you sent this to the CEO is just laughable. He is going to see this and laugh, and then he is going to throw it out."
It turned out that the CEO did not think the entire staff of one of his three cafés quitting en masse, and not attempting to train anyone new, was a laughing matter. He called me that afternoon, and not a chuckle escaped down the phone line. He offered to meet with us the next time he was in town. When I told the kids about this offer, they unanimously agreed that they were still going to quit, but that they would come back after that to talk with the CEO in the interest of improving an organization they once cared about and the conditions of future workers at our café and everywhere. The CEO did not, in the end, take them up on their offer. I told them he was running scared. I told them that without doing anything rash or dramatic, without screaming or throwing a punch, they, a group of ill-educated, under-appreciated, minimum-wage teenagers, had scared the shit out of a CEO. And, I told them, Susan was never going to forget us. We worked out our two weeks and then left.
Somewhere in those two weeks, I received the best thing the service industry ever gave to me. I received my favorite letter written to someone (me) who is in the habit of writing angry letters.
While we’re writing all these letters about the café, I thought I would write one to you.
When I came to work here I was too intimidated by everything to appreciate the people here. I was too jumpy and stressed to work well. Just this week I’ve finally figured out how to close the store and actually get out on time (even early!). Now that we’re leaving I’m going to miss this place. And I’m going to miss you.
We’ve both watched me go from a nervous wreck that over-achieved to a toned-down, underachieving but much more confident, fun and happy mess of a senior in high school. A lot has changed for me this year. You and the café have been a part of my growth. In some ways, this stuff happening at the store feels like one more piece of my life totally turning upside down. As much as I was failing school before, it was really this past week that I realized if things don’t change pace soon I may not graduate with my class.
I don’t even know much about you but I know you’ve meant a lot to me this year. I liked working with you even when we were both pretty grumpy. You made me laugh and you made me feel better about the world and you gave me good advice about my life. I’m really scared right now, more scared than I’ve been in a long time. It was nice to talk to you tonight and it has been nice to always have you care, and to have you be there.
So thanks for being a cool manager and for giving good advice. But most of all, thanks for believing in me.
On our very last day, Susan called the store and told me that it was okay for me to leave, because I could get a different job. But, she said, it was irresponsible of me to encourage those kids to walk off because they didn’t have any skills and this had been a good position for them, and they probably couldn’t hope for better. She told me I was ruining their lives.
The other day, I was in my neighborhood bar, and James dropped a spoon. I yelled out, "You’re fired!" He has worked there for a long time, and he is good at his job, and it seems to me that the regulars and the bosses all love him. He is now a bartender. I heard that Deion received his GED and spent time traveling in Ireland; Kat got into University of Colorado for photography; Clarissa got a job working in an art gallery; Andrew moved to New York City to become a bike messenger and take classes at NYU. And I know for a fact that Amanda graduated high school on time and now attends college at my alma mater. As for me, I keep in touch with a few of them. After the coffee shop gig, I was a terrible secretary for a year and a half at a non-profit where I met my husband, and then I moved on to the job I didn’t know I was training for at the coffee shop: I became an assistant professor of English composition at a small liberal arts college, where I still occasionally hiss vocabulary words at young people.
-Amy Clark (from Fringe Magazine)
This is a work of creative non-fiction. All of the events described happened, and I have recreated them as well as my memory allows. The letters are reproduced verbatim from the originals. I have changed the names of most people to protect their privacy, and the name and identifying details of the establishment at which we worked to avoid potential legal complications.