In search of a job with no stress, I try a coffee bar

April 14, 2002|By Susan Reimer

Even my daydreams seem to irritate people.

Recently, I wrote that I shared actress Jodie Foster's fantasy about landing a job at a Starbucks coffee shop, where our worries would end with our shifts.

I said that I understood her wish not to be in charge of anything important, save the amount of foam on top of a cappuccino, and I added that the unyielding responsibilities of raising children made it that much more exhausting to be in charge of stuff at work, too.

A couple of women wrote to say they knew exactly what I meant. Bless them.

But several others wrote bitterly that I should try to make ends meet on the minimum wage jobs like that pay if I wanted to know what real stress felt like.

One gentleman wrote to criticize the fact that I had the time and money to stand in line for a $3.50 coffee at a fancy coffee shop while he was busting his butt managing five kids as a stay-at-home dad.

And another self-described blue-collar male wrote to blast me for my professional status - as if I didn't understand that owning your own gas station or deli or dress shop would be 24-7 pressure, too.

But after sorting through the (mostly) angry mail, I found an e-mail from Larry Horwitz that surely comes under the heading of "Be careful what you wish for."

Larry was offering me a job at his coffee shop.

By training, Larry is a psychological social worker, and he worked with disturbed kids before being swallowed up by an enormous mental health care provider.

Like me, he is looking for a way out of that kind of work/life, and last fall he purchased the soon-to-be-renamed Daily Grind on Cold Spring Lane near Loyola College.

"I am not out yet," he says. "But I am working toward getting out."

Larry was looking for a promotion that would get people into his shop - not that it isn't plenty busy - when he called me. And I was looking to see if dreams really can come true. So, on a recent Tuesday morning I showed up at the Daily Grind to work a two-hour shift.

Truth be told, I showed up the afternoon before for a couple of hours of practice drawing coffee and pulling shots on the espresso machine.

Larry advised that learning to be a barista came much more quickly to his twentysomething employees than it did to "older" workers, but I let the remark pass without comment. So much for the whole "no pressure" aspect of this job.

Chris McGarvey - yes, 22 - spent the afternoon teaching me how to make lattes, mochas and chai tea, and I was able to help serve the trickle of late-afternoon customers without scalding them or myself.

By the next morning, however, I had forgotten everything Chris had taught me, except how to cut the bagels without slicing my hand open, and fears about my short-term memory loss confused me further.

I began my shift in the kind of dither that competent people find so annoying, and I started to worry that Chris didn't like me.

That's the first lesson of jobs that end with your shift: Getting along with co-workers can be difficult, and, if you are like me, you will take that home with you after your shift is over and worry endlessly about how you were perceived.

The good news is that Jill Edmondson - yes, 26 - worked the morning shift at my side, and, in true girl fashion, we bonded immediately. (Jill kept forgetting she had bagels in the toaster, which made me feel much better about the short-term memory thing.)

"I worked as a bookkeeper for five years in New Hampshire, and I was constantly thinking, `What did I forget to do? What do I need to do?' Here? It is just like socializing," she says.

"I don't necessarily forget about it the minute I walk out the door, but it doesn't consume me."

Jill has only been working for Larry since October, when she relocated to Baltimore on a lark, but she draws the best shifts because she is so steady. That's another pressure of the no-pressure job: Demonstrate your dependability, and then demonstrate it again if you want any breaks or considerations.

"Good help is hard to find," Jill says with a shrug.

Chris works six days a week, but he loves the money and the human contact. "I used to work for a phone company, and I sat in a van all day by myself.

"But as soon as I'm outta here, this place is the furthest thing from my mind. Except for practical jokes. I spend a lot of time thinking about those."

Also behind the counter with us were twentysomething managers Shand MacDougall and Mike Janczewski. Both work seven days a week, and Shand arrives at 4 a.m. to begin creating muffins, scones and fancy soups. It made me tired just to look at him.

The biggest challenge both face is motivating their peer-employees to work diligently at jobs that are part-time and temporary.

"Most of them are college kids, and their No. 1 job is school. This job isn't a career. It isn't even part of their future," Shand said. "The big thing is, are they responsible enough to show up and call in for their schedules?"

Showing up for my shift? I thought. That's exactly the level of responsibility I'd been looking for.

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