For a time in 2007, I lived in Hawaii and I worked at Starbucks. I had just quit my relatively well paying job in Hollywood and moved to the Big Island to open a coffee shop with some friends. I didn’t know a thing about running a coffee shop. Though we were living in Kona, there weren’t a lot of shops serving espresso. Most businesses sold trinkets and bags of local coffee beans to tourists, while the espresso machine gathered dust in a corner. The busiest actual coffee shop on the island was Starbucks.
Going back to a service job was sort of a relief, after working in offices for ten years. There were no giant spreadsheets, no middling tasks dumped on my desk because no one else wanted to do them, no roiling office politics. However. Now I was cleaning the public bathroom, taking out the trash, washing the windows, sweeping the floor, and of course, learning how to make triple grande half caf dry cappuccinos. And sometimes I got the early shift, which started at 4:15 am. And it was a 45 minute drive for me to get to work. So I woke up at 3 am to get to my shift. It paid $10 an hour, plus tips.
None of that sounds good, right? But it wasn’t a big deal. The waking up and the work wasn’t so hard. I was sort of on a mission to learn all I could. My flabby butt got used to the physicality of moving around all day instead of sitting. My fallen arches ached and all my bones creaked, and I’d be spattered with various liquids. But then I’d go home, put on a bathing suit and soak in the ocean for a while.
I went in thinking it was a low-investment job. I had higher designs for my future. My coworkers were mostly 15 to 20 years younger than I was, with a few crusty older people (my age and above). Kids were talking about going to college, getting off the island, and all the exotic cities on the mainland. Some were as vacant or bored as any other teenagers, complaining there was nothing to do on the island. Some already had drinking or drug problems.
I was mistaken to think that this low-investment job offered shelter from politics or jostling for position in the coffee shop hierarchy. Tensions run high when the stakes are so low. It was fairly easy for me to weave and dodge, but sometimes it was impossible. A squeaky high school graduate with a “little girl” voice shared endless stories of her adulterous affairs to anyone who would listen. She would burst through the doors, ascertain who was working, and pounce on them with a story. “Last night, I almost got caught!”
I didn’t listen. She was a frequent shift manager and she liked to throw her weight around. She cornered me once and demanded in her little girl voice, “Um, I need you to spit out your gum.” She glared at me but couldn’t hold my gaze. I was advised that she made phone calls to the manager trying to get me in trouble. She was absolutely devoid of finesse, but I admired her chutzpah. She was going to make a mighty fine psycho boss one day.
Another employee came to our shop from a different store. She was one of the crusty ones, older than me, and a longtimer at Starbucks. I didn’t know her story, but the rumor was that she had been demoted from assistant manager at a different store, and was sent to our store as just a regular “partner.” She had no authority, but immediately made herself comfortable and resumed her former assistant manager role.
I could see why the other store got rid of her. She lumbered to her location for the shift, strapped herself to a cash register and stayed there, barking orders at any other employees in the store. She never made coffee, she never cleaned the store, and she never did anything else that required movement. If there was a moment of stillness, she would find something we ought to be doing. She even came in once on her day off, and somehow spotted a dying cockroach on the floor. She said to me, “Someone really ought to get that.” While it was certainly true, she drove 50 miles on her day off to come in and boss people around?
Working with these types was the difference between a good shift or 5 to 7 hours of swatting and deflecting personalities. My tactic through my three months of working at Starbucks was to smile and nod. Smile and nod. Smile and nod. It works in all circumstances. $10 an hour doesn’t pay well enough for me to engage my brain.
The actual work was sort of pleasant. I got good at making coffee and being slammed on the bar. I made friends there, and it was easy to work and have fun at the same time. Eventually, I knew management was angling to make me a shift lead, but I ended up leaving the island before I could start climbing that ladder.
At least for me, if I spend any amount of time at a job, it’s going to mean something, whether I want it to or not. No matter how low-investment it may be. The time is an investment. My time is valuable. I can try to say that I am aloof and impervious and I’m good at keeping perspective, especially when I have a goal I am trying to attain.
But I know me. If I spend hours and hours at a job, surrounded by pain in the ass people, my job is going to become a pain in my ass. And because I had ample brain power while working service jobs, I would silently attempt psychological evaluations on pain in the ass people. “WHY do you have to be a pain in the ass? How did you get that way? Why is it important for you to be a pain in my ass?” Etc.
I think these are legitimate questions that need to be answered. Someone needs to discover the “Pain in the ass” gene. Surely someone is working on this. I can send them names of specimens.