This last weekend, while at a men’s retreat for my church, a younger, childless guy noticed that I seemed to be drinking a good bit of coffee. I made a passing comment along the lines of, well, with two small children at home, coffee is the lifeblood of successful existence. I doubt he knew what I meant, and probably won’t until he has kids of his own, but what he certainly didn’t know is that coffee has actually saved my bacon, on more than one occasion.
When I moved to Charlotte, I thought that I would have no trouble finding a job, being that I had just graduated from a respectable university *1* and had a steady work history. This turned out to not be the case, and after weeks of searching I took the only job I was offered, making coffee at Starbucks for almost next to nothing.
I’m always torn about tipping at Starbucks. On the one hand, they aren’t actually waiting on me, they’re just making me coffee, and it’s wildly overpriced already. *2* On the other hand, the person making the coffee is likely using that tip money to eat. It’s a conundrum. I worked about 25-30 hours a week at Starbucks, and after paying my rent and bills I typically had about $60 or so to live off of for the month. And no, that’s not an exaggeration, that is pretty close to what I had left. The tips would sometimes make it a little better, but I don’t think at any time while I worked there I had more than $100 to my name. Most of the guys I worked with still lived at home, or under a bridge, or I don’t know where, but I was living in a cheap apartment with two of my buddies, and I was barely getting by. Over my professional career, I’ve dug ditches, I’ve worked a deep fryer, and I even spent one summer selling newspaper subscriptions door to door, in central Florida, for what amounted to about $1.15 an hour, and yet I can say, without a hint of irony, that Starbucks was the worst job I have ever had. *3*
Yet working at Starbucks did allow me to remain in Charlotte, though not in the way you would think. I didn’t have enough money to eat, but employees were permitted to drink all the free coffee *4* they wanted, and so there were times when I tried to get my daily calorie intake by consuming as many white chocolate mocha’s as my stomach would allow. I’ve never had this diagnosed, but I’m pretty sure I burned a hole in my stomach lining from drinking too much coffee and not eating enough food, a problem that led to my inability to drink the stuff for years. We were also allowed to take home the expired pastries, and I do remember a couple of nights when my roommates and I made a meal of scones and turnovers, but Starbucks pastries tasted stale when they came off the truck, and were usually unfit for the homeless by the time we could have them, so that wasn’t a long term solution either. No, the only reason I managed to stay in Charlotte was due to Roger. Without him, my time in the Carolina’s would have been very short lived.
Roger was the hot dog guy who worked on the sidewalk just down from my store. Roger sold the standard hotdogs and bratwursts and other meat-in-tube-form from a cart downtown during the day, and then outside of arenas and sporting events in the evenings. Because we worked at Starbucks, he would give us free hotdogs, or whatever else we wanted, whenever we wanted, sometimes more than once in the same day. Now, to be clear, this wasn’t a situation of reciprocity, giving away coffee to people was strictly forbidden *5*, I think Roger just knew we were hungry and didn’t want to see us starve to death. *7* I have no idea how many times I visited his cart over the 8 months I worked downtown, but I know that it was a lot, and that without his help, I wouldn’t have made it. I eventually had enough and quit and found a job where I could make more in a night than I was in a week brewing coffee. But still, I’ll always be thankful for the hotdogs.
I didn’t drink coffee again for a long time, really, not until Avonlea was born and diet soda became an insufficient means of caffeine delivery. I didn’t fully embrace coffee for what it was until I went on the diet and had to give up soda as a part of it, but even before that, I knew how great coffee was, because it had saved me again, while we were in France.
We visited France in the fall of 2011, to meet the team we’d be working with and to get a feel for the country and the sort of work we’d be doing. We spent our first four days doing just that, and then decided to take a couple of days to get away by ourselves and tour around Provence. Thursday morning we left Marseille, and drove up to the Chateauneuf-du-Pape, before making our way back down to Avignon to stay the night. The next morning, Donnette wanted to go to Cassis, a quaint little fishing village on the Mediterranean a couple of hours away. And, she wanted to get there before noon, so she could go to the outdoor market. So we were hustling, and even still, we didn’t get into Cassis until 11:30 or so. In France, everything, and I do mean everything, shuts down at noon for lunch. From what I could tell, capitalism is not the driving force of the French mindset, food is. So Donnette was in a hurry to get to the market with time to shop. This wouldn’t have been a problem, except that I really, really needed to pee.
Supposedly, there were public bathrooms somewhere. Cassis is a tourist town, one of the prettiest I’ve ever visited, and like all tourist spots, restrooms are provided. At least, that was the story. My problem was, they weren’t clearly labeled, and I couldn’t find them anywhere. I searched around the downtown, nothing. I walked out to the pier. Again nada. I found one or two folks who spoke English, but they just pointed in the direction I’d just come from and said I couldn’t miss them. Which I had, and continued to do. Now, before she’d sprinted off for the market, Donnette had taught me the necessary words to ask for the restrooms, but by the time we actually split all I could remember was the singular word for restroom, the accompanying verbs and participles absent from memory.
It’s one thing to walk up to someone and say, “Please sir, can you please direct me to the public restrooms? Thank you so much for your help.” and another thing entirely to wander the streets of a foreign city shouting the word “bathroom” like a crazed lunatic. I started going into any building that looked like it might have a restroom, only to be continually disappointed. When we tell people we’re going to France, one of the common responses is that of, “France, aren’t the people there rude and mean to Americans?” Our answer is always no, because the people we met were almost universally kind and generous to us during our time in France. In truth, only one woman was rude to me the entire time we were there, which is a pretty good statistic, overall. That woman was in charge of a little art museum, that to me, looked remarkably similar to the sort of place I would put a public bathroom. I walked in, asked, in English, if they had a public restroom, to which she responded “no, and if you’re not here for the art, you need to leave, now!” Which, to be fair, I probably had coming. I tried going into a bank, with equally poor results, a drug store, a clothing shop, nothing. I was getting pretty desperate, so slipping down an alley crossed my mind, but “due process” doesn’t mean the same thing in France that it means here, and I didn’t see any that were deserted anyways.
I ran around for several more minutes before it finally occurred to me, that there might not be any public restrooms available, but if I were a paying customer, I’d be home free. I ran back to the coffee shop down by the water, quickly ordered a cafe american at the counter, and then made my way to the back. *8* Relieved, I found a table, sat down and enjoyed my coffee while waiting for Donnette to finish her shopping. I can say that should you find yourself fortunate enough to drink a good cup of coffee while overlooking the Mediterranean then you are quite fortunate. And if you’re doing so with an empty bladder, well, all the better.
I don’t really have a moral to all of this, there’s probably a theme of providence running throughout if you’re looking for it. Probably also something to be said for the importance of learning French. Anyways, we’re going to be in and out a bunch over the next few weeks. Thank you all for your prayers!
*1* Granted, my degree was in history, but still, at the time, I thought this would be enough.
*2* And, if we’re being fair, not great coffee, since all Starbucks beans taste as if they’ve come straight out of a blast furnace.
*3* There were a lot of factors that went into this, and sadly, the pay actually factored very little into what caused it to be such a nightmare, though it did make it pretty easy to walk away.
*4* Understand that when I use the word coffee to refer to my time there, I’m using it pretty liberally. In an average 20oz cup, the smallest percentage of present liquid would qualify as coffee.
*5* If you’ve ever wondered what all those video camera’s are for at your local store, there’s your clue. They’re to prevent theft, but not from customers… *6*
*6* In writing that, I fear it may come across like I think this is a bad idea for them to do. I’m a capitalist, and it’s there store and they can do what they want. I just felt like it was worth pointing out.
*7* I’ve always suspected, though never confirmed, that the hot dog business was a front for another, less legal form of distribution, a thought only strengthened by shows like Weeds and Breaking Bad. Still, I was thankful for the food.
*8* If you’re thinking to yourself, “why didn’t he come up with that sooner?” all I can say is that’s a valid point. To be fair though, if I had been in the right state of mind, I wouldn’t have had such trouble coming up with a simple phrase like “Excusez moi monsieur, pouvez-vous m’indiquer le chemin pour aller aux toilettes?”