“Dancing Goats” by Kiersten Wones
Back in the 1500’s, a couple of Ethiopian shepherds were letting their goats graze on some berries one day when they noticed something very odd. The goats seemed to be dancing. I like to imagine how this conversation went:
“Hey, Kaldi, what’s ole Billy doing over there?”
“Looks like he might be trying to dougie or something . . .”
They soon figured out that the berries were the source of their herd’s apparent wild side and began to spread the news. Monks began eating the berries for a renewed source of energy during prayer. Eventually the berries traveled to Yemen and then to Turkey where someone had the idea to roast them over the fire and steep them in water: the first brewed cup of coffee.
I work in a box—a ten-by-six foot box (think over-sized elevator)—in the East Alabama Medical Center. I sit on a hard wooden stool for hours a day, greeting every face with a smile. Some might say I’m a barista. I might say I’m a therapist, guiding patients and their families, nurses and doctors and secretaries alike through the hardships of hospital life with their own personalized cups of specialty coffee.
Like I said, I greet every customer with a smile. It’s up to them, however, to determine the actual amount of happiness contained in that smile. For my regulars, I put on the smile I’d wear for my long-lost sister, if I had one. For others, though, the smile can quickly turn to plastic.
“You got anything here that don’t have coffee in it? I don’t like coffee.” She stares at the menu, perplexed by the piles of foreign words—latte, espresso, mocha.
“Then why would you come to a coffee shop?” is what I don’t say. Instead, I begin, “Let’s start with the most important question. Do you want something hot, or something cold?”
Blank stare. It’s like someone took one of those cheap pink pencil erasers and scrubbed at her eyes. “It’s about a hundred degrees outside,” I suggest. “How about something to cool you down?”
“I’ll be back,” she says, scurrying away as if I’d threatened to dump a pot of hot coffee on her if she gave the wrong answer.
Coffee is the second most-sold product in the world—behind oil, of course. It makes sense: gas for our cars, gas for our minds. That’s no exaggeration, either. Some of my regulars would function without coffee as badly as their pick-up trucks without gasoline. The next girl to rush up to the counter is one of these. She’s a familiar face; I don’t know her name, but I know her drink order, which is what counts. “16 ounce caramel frap, add chocolate. Lots of whip.” I love customers who actually know what they want; I greet her with a long-lost-sister smile.
She leaves with her frappe and Blank Stare comes creeping back around the corner. I sigh. I’d rather park my ass on a cheap wooden stool than explain coffee to one.
“What can I get for you?”
“I want what she had,” she says, pointing at caramel-frap-add-chocolate-lots-of-whip as she retreats.
“Just to warn you—it has coffee in it. You said you didn’t like coffee, right?”
The thing about coffee is, it’s always been cool. It probably didn’t matter to this girl whether she liked the drink or not; maybe it was enough just to carry it around, take a couple sips, and throw it away. It’s said that coffee is an “acquired taste.” But why suffer through the bitterness, through the hassle of six creamers and six packs of Splenda in one cup just to “acquire” the taste? Because coffee is in—and it always has been. As Gertrude Stein put it, “It’s a lot more than a drink, it’s something happening.”
In fact, in 1675, coffee was so “happening” that the British monarchy feared that those who met in coffeehouses were planning the “Defamation of His Majesty’s Government.” They issued a declaration to “suppress” them, but the law lasted all of sixteen days and was revoked due to widespread citizen protest. Alexander Pope was soon writing that coffee was the drink that “makes politicians wise,” and, several decades later, it was declared the national drink of the colonized United States in protest over the exorbitant tea tax imposed by the British.
Blank Stare probably has no idea the historical weight of the $4.31 drink she is eagerly awaiting, but she knows she wants to be a part of the movement, the “happening.” Nonetheless, I cringe with my back towards her as I blend up a frappe, imagining what her face might look like when she sips at her coffee-laden drink. I imagine she might taste it, look at me in disgust, and toss it in the trashcan. It has been done before. I decorate the frappe like it’s a Christmas tree, chocolate and caramel splashed up the sides of the cup and over the mound of snowy whipped cream. Her face brightens and she scurries away again, drink in hand.
I like to think some momentous change came over her that day. Maybe she rounded the corner and took a sip and felt the elation, that first goat’s dance surging through her veins. Maybe she tasted that coffee and her disgust taught her a lesson: not everything topped with whipped cream and caramel and chocolate is sweet on the inside.
Fortunately, not every customer wears a blank stare. There is the occasional blonde who begs to know where the menu is despite its being inches from her face, but she is balanced out by the new, first-time father who orders “two of the largest, strongest coffees” I have. There’s also Pat—the one customer whose name I actually know—who gave me a hug last year when I left for Christmas break. There’s caramel-white-chocolate-mocha, who only orders a drink when I’m working because she says I make them the best.
This is not to say sitting in a ten-by-six foot box all day does not get boring. I must confess, if J. Alfred Prufrock had had six or seven hours a day to sit on my cheap wooden stool and mull it over, even he might have had enough time to talk himself out of confessing his crush on that girl. Alas, that is not what I meant, she said to him, with eyes as emotionless as the Blank Stare, ordering frappes even though she doesn’t like coffee. She took a drink of his confession, closed her eyes in disgust and threw it in the trashcan. That is not what I meant at all.
Like Alfred, I “have measured out my life in coffee spoons,” quite literally. I am one of 20 million people worldwide employed in the coffee business. I measure out my life in spoonfuls: bitter spoonfuls of Blank Stares and cheap wooden stools; sweet spoonfuls like my most loyal, daily cookie customer who told me the other day that he and I are “practically family.” It’s the sweet tastes that usually outdo the bitter ones. When non-fat-caramel-macchiato-extra-hot-with-whip arrives at the counter looking like day-old espresso—which, once brewed, begins to lose its flavor after about thirty seconds—I get the chance to cheer her up.
You might say I’m a barista. I might say I’m a therapist; as I steam the milk her face lights up at the smell of espresso and caramel with the grin of a dancing goat. What kind of therapy works its magic in the 22 seconds it takes to pull a shot of espresso? Only the aromatherapy of holding your favorite drink in your hand, and dancing.