Oh, the humanity

Yesterday, after five days in the area of New York City among many of the people responsible for who I am, I was ready to return to Boston. Of course, after a more than two cups of tea at breakfast, I wasn't going to make it through the walk from Lucy's apartment in SoHo to West 33rd Street between 11th and 12th without having to find a bathroom, so I walked into the first decent-looking cafe I could find. It happened to be New York's downtown outpost of Stumptown Coffee Roasters.

Remembering some less-than-pleasant experiences with Stumptown from my time in Portland, I was really only there for the bathroom. But feeling guilty for being "that customer" who just comes in to use the toilet, I decided to order a drink. I joined the line of three and breathed in the smell of fresh coffee as I admired the scene, far more welcoming than the one I recalled from the storefront I visited Portland. It resembled a British study with its wooden shelves filled with old books, the titles of which I glanced over while making the steady approach to the cash counter. After minutes of vacillating among drink options--A Mast Brothers hot chocolate? An iced coffee with almond milk?--I opted for a cappuccino. "To go," I added, betraying my wishes to linger and read a while but knowing I had a bus to catch back to Boston.

I paid and stood in place with a heavy bag on my back and two more at my feet. I allowed myself to get lost in my head. This was the end of my last big trip before graduate school. No more vagabondery. No more spontaneous traveling to new cities. No more exploring from sunrise to sunset. For now, this was it. It was time to go home and settle down before embarking on a very different type of trip--back into the classroom.

Breaking my thoughts, the barista told me to step down. There was a touch of exasperation in her voice. Natural hair, creamy, dark skin, medium-rimmed glasses, and a tastefully-weathered flannel shirt, she was Portland and downtown New York City on the other side of the bar: the House Blend of hipsterdom and efficiency.

For a moment, I took her tone personally, indulging the self-defeating voice in my head that said something like, "She must thing you're an idiot. You can't even stand in a coffee line without screwing up."

Then I had another thought: "What if her tone had nothing to do with you? You've served up salads to hundreds of hungry, disgruntled Bostonians in the middle of a lunch rush--imagine how rough it is catering to under-slept, under-caffeinated New Yorkers on their way to getting overworked in the morning. What if you were a little more compassionate?"

So I moved down toward the pickup area and tried making eye contact with the barista as she pulled a new shot of espresso for the customer ahead of me. I asked her how she was doing, making sure I said it slowly enough to let her know that I meant the question for her--and genuinely meant it--but quickly enough that she wouldn't have to stop her work. There's nothing worse when you're working under pressure--especially during a rush period in food service--and people interrupt you with series of questions.

Disrupting her muscle memory of keeping her head down and just making the next drink, she looked up. It must have been the first time anyone had considered how she felt that morning, or even that week. Her focused expression softened into a smile. "Thank you for asking," she said, appearing a little moved as she started to steam the milk for my cappuccino. "I'm doing okay."

I knew that look. I've had it and seen it often, espsecially when I worked at sweetgreen. It's the look you get when you feel when someone among the thousands you see regards you as a real person with a life and experience of your own.

When working the line, I witnessed so much happiness at the simple action of remembering customers' names, and I felt even more when they remembered mine. When just one person made some gesture of acknowledging that I was human, too--remembering my name, asking about my weekend, or simply making real eye contact when saying hello--the effect was powerful. Even on my worst days, I felt valued, respected, and loved.

There were these miraculous moments of mutual recognition and understanding.The customers weren't ornery, hungry devils and I wasn't a food-bearing slave. We were equals. We were both human beings, alive and "in it together," however you might describe "it."

Back in the present in New York, the barista and I conversed a little more before she produced my drink, perfectly warm in the trademark stamped paper cup, heart design peeking up at me from the foam. I smiled and thanked her before she put her head down and returned to work--a macchiato and two iced lattes for the following customer.

I made my way to the bus back to Boston with one of the best cappuccinos I have ever had. The drink was worth all of four dollars. The experience that came with it was priceless.