At 6 a.m., I slide the window open and greet my first customer. “Good morning! What can I get for you today?” I ask. I punch the order into the register and tap the button to start an espresso shot. As they search their wallet for cash, I steam the milk. Three pumps of vanilla. Espresso. Frothy milk on top. I secure the lid, place the coffee in their hand, give them their change, and wave as they pull away. Three more cars have now piled behind. It's 6:02 a.m.
It’s the fall of 2020, and I’m a barista at Joe Bean’s Express Espresso—a drive–thru coffee shack situated in a Dollar General parking lot. A fading menu is bolted to the side of the bright red exterior and illuminated in fluorescent lights. It’s the local favorite for coffee and smoothies in Lynchburg, Virginia, the hometown I thought I’d left for good just a year before. This is the last place I’m supposed to be.
I had dreamed of nothing but escaping my hometown, but when Penn announced that campus would remain closed in the fall of 2020, I found myself choosing to stay for my sophomore fall. Joe Bean’s, my go–to for cheap coffee in high school, was hiring for minimum wage, plus tips. I needed something in my life other than Zoom classes, something to help me make some extra money, something to get me out of my house. I took the job.
My days were predictable: Wake up at dawn, drive to the shack, start brewing coffee, chat with my co–worker as they do inventory and prep the register. 6 a.m., flip the OPEN sign and start taking orders and making drinks. When the morning rush hits, we work in pairs, one taking orders and counting change, calling out the intricacies of triple oat milk lattes and iced coffees with extra cream while the other prepares the drinks. Between cars, duck away from the register to slip a croissant in the toaster oven, or replace the coffee filter, or empty the grounds from the espresso machine, or rinse the growing pile of blenders and milk pitchers in the sink. 10 a.m., shift ends, restock for the afternoon rush. Get out the door to be on time for my 11 a.m. class, and slip into the world of virtual Penn: lectures, studying, seminars, and then a series of club meetings in the evening. Study until I’m sleepy. The next day, get up, do it all again.
But within the monotony of that routine was a mosaic of the faces of my community, some tired, some bright, some familiar, others strange, but all waiting for their morning coffee. I saw my former teachers getting a latte to start the day, nurses grabbing a hot chocolate as they returned home from the night shift, and an endless stream of faces through rolled–down windows en route to their nine–to–fives. I learned their orders: skim cappuccinos and large half–cafs with extra sugar, all served with the hint of a smile through my mask.
An ER physician, a regular I'd gotten to know, told me that her morning coffee was the only thing she could count on. She sighed as I held her cup out the window and returned her change with my other hand. “This is the only thing I’m sure about in my life," she said. "Every morning I can come here, and someone will hand me coffee.” She slipped her change into the tip jar and drove away.
I fell in love with making coffee for people, trying to get to know them through their drink orders. I adopted "barista" as my identity. I chose stickers to put on the lids of their cups. If there were a few slow minutes, I grabbed a sharpie and doodled on the sleeves. I counted tips from the jar and split them evenly among myself and my co–workers. We made bets about how many espresso shots we could down in a row. We developed a rhythmic bounce to the sound of steaming milk and the clink of metal pitchers, the clatter of stirring spoons and the hum of blenders. I became immune to caffeine. While most of the time, my life was an endless drone of Zoom classes and my computer screen, when I stepped into the shack, I slipped into the choreography of coffee–making.
Of course, there were lots of bad days: people who yelled at me for getting their orders wrong, lines of impatient faces when we hit the morning rush, hot lattes splashed down the front of my shirt, strawberry smoothie splattered on the walls when the blender malfunctioned. Our espresso machine would get jammed. Our weekly stock shipment would get delayed, and we’d run completely out of milk. Once, our cash register broke and we began doing every transaction by hand. I’d count more people wearing MAGA hats than masks. Don’t Tread on Me decals sat on back bumpers. By October, my election angst simmered under every interaction.
My co–workers were mostly students at local colleges. Several of them went to the ultra–conservative, evangelical Liberty University, known for its infamous founders, the Falwell family, who are notorious Trump supporters. There was one unspoken rule: We didn’t talk politics in the shack, which was particularly hard in the midst of the controversy of the 2020 election. When I was a barista, I took on a different sort of persona. I was still myself, positive and upbeat, but I left all of the intense, intellectual, and studious parts, the things that felt like my “Penn self,” at home. I remained impersonal, keeping the conversation to small talk and what we were watching on Netflix. As far as my co–workers knew, I was taking online classes at an out–of–state school. I was split between two worlds. The people I served every day had no idea I was attending classes at an Ivy League school; fellow Penn students on the other side of my Zoom screen would have never guessed I had just returned from the morning shift at a coffee shop.
The barista staff was a revolving door—someone seemed to quit every other week. People wouldn’t show up for shifts, and we couldn’t keep up with the growing line of cars. The line would spill out of the parking lot and into the road, creating a cacophony of nearby honking against the symphony of blender whirs and steaming milk. I would leave my shift, shoes dusted with coffee grounds, shirt stained with syrup and whipped cream, my hair smelling of stale espresso. Occasionally, on Fridays or weekends, I’d pick up hours in the afternoons and evenings. Sometimes I’d have what I called “cl–opening” shifts: I’d close the shack at 9 p.m., lock up, and return at 5:30 a.m. for opening the next day.
By the end of November, I was exhausted. I was frustrated by the low pay, difficult working conditions, and last–minute calls to pick up shifts. One of my co–workers had been exposed to COVID–19 but continued coming to work without telling the rest of the staff. Most of the other baristas I had started to consider my friends had already quit. Penn announced its plans for reopening in the spring; I put in my two weeks notice. On my last day, I served drinks knowing it’d be the last time I’d see some of my regulars’ faces. I clocked out uneventfully, said a brief goodbye to my co–workers, and didn’t look back.
Sometimes, I miss it: the sounds of the coffee shack, the meditative practice of steaming milk and pouring lattes, the sweetness of being the first face people saw in the morning. I like to think that in the trauma of the pandemic, serving people coffee was a source of comfort in their lives, that maybe my “Good morning!” anthem was a momentary bright spot in their day. It wasn’t what my college life was supposed to be, but it was an honor to spend that semester as a passing face in people’s morning routines. When my world felt like it was collapsing, when life was defined by uncertainty, serving coffee was one sweet and consistent joy.