Every day, the Chemex on my counter collects more dust.
We've had varying degrees of freedom over the last year or so here in Brooklyn. What started as full lockdown then entered a brief, hopeful era of outdoor leisure before returning to the strictest shuttering of all. We now live in a sustained limbo.
When at last restrictions on non-essential errands lifted, my local coffee shop's Instagram call for help felt like the event of the year. Once the pre-eminent home of curated music, brilliant coffee, and some of the friendliest baristas I'd ever met, it sounded like they'd soon risk joining the graveyard of Permanently Closed on Google.
The owner’s post read:
“Dear friends – Times have been tough. Unfortunately, the stimulus we qualified for has expired. We're taking extreme measures to keep costs low, but what we need is your support. Stop by.”
This cafe was just three blocks away from my apartment, just past an oddly placed meat processing plant. A few months ago, visiting the shop meant waiting in line with roughly a dozen other denim-coated locals, before being greeted by a cohort of chatty staff. The music was always cool and eclectic, sometimes retro and dancey, or if you were lucky, something unexpected.
But these days it feels like I'm the only one who ever goes here, and the music has changed too. The record player is gone, and the rotation of music has been replaced by some heartless millennial elevator music, droning airport spa tones from a tinny speaker freshly drilled into the wall behind the register.
Something else has changed too: he's always there, the same barista, working in silence. Before all this, he was a little shy, but warm, and without fail—up to chat. But now? Between his silence and the sound bath soundtrack, the scene was downright grim. This must be what the owner meant by “extreme measures”—they've had to cut staff down significantly.
Presumably, working alone here around the clock has hit him particularly hard. Before, I always noticed his curls bouncing around as he’d make attempts to dance to the records playing while cranking out lattes. The awkward dance moves always emphasized how lanky he is, but now his features seem sullen and faded. From the edge of his beanie I can see he’s traded in the bouncy locks for a buzzcut.
When I walk in, there’s no friendly greeting. He continues wiping down the counter or filling the pastry case, almost like he doesn’t notice I’m there. He hardly blinks, and when I look at him, his eyes are dull and give nothing back. I tried for a while to see if staring long enough could prompt a response, but I grew tired of losing this contest. So, we’ve made an unspoken agreement that when he looks up, I place my order. And I stand by in silence.
It looks like they’ve sold off most of the tables and paintings, so there isn’t much to look at while I wait. Sometimes, I watch a short bald man working in the back of the cafe. I recognize him as the owner from his support plea. I watch him lovingly take inventory, and move with a slight jingle from the overpacked key ring on his hip.
Day after day, I hope to crack the riddle of the stone-silent barista. We’ve all lost a lot this year, and even though I have come here for a while, I don’t have it in me to pry. The closest I came was a few weeks after the shop re-opened, when I asked him how he was for five days straight. And five times, he stared back at me until I ordered. I also tried complimenting his glasses, once, and the look in his eyes was like I’d tased him.
Other experiments failed similarly, so most of my efforts of forced camaraderie have paused.
Today felt different. I don’t usually go out for coffee on Saturdays, but I woke up feeling a glimmer of hope. It occurred to me that on a weekend I might cross paths with someone else—another barista who could help me solve the riddle. There had to be at least one other person on staff.
I couldn’t help but wonder if this was stupid, the need to riddle it out. I considered the possibility many times that he was sick of his job, or just didn’t like me very much. And yet, I knew I hadn’t made anything up. It didn’t make sense that someone so truly miserable or cold would always serve their lattes topped with exclusively small, foamy hearts. He never did that before.
When I arrived, as usual, he was engaged with a chore, with the usual white beanie pulled tight over the top of his head. The owner was there too, sitting at the only table in the back corner. He rose to greet me, but the barista stopped what he was doing and stepped quickly to the register to take my order. I was shocked by the swift acknowledgement, and fumbled through my order.
I stepped to the end of the countertop to wait. The screen on my phone was black—dead battery. I shook it off and looked around, making eye contact with the owner.
“Hello there,” the owner utters, “thanks for stopping in to visit.” He sets his cup on the counter, and walks towards the back with the cheerful jingle of his cluttered keyring.
Then it happened. The music skipped—and so did the barista.
I watched with horror as the barista froze, his motions blipping with every glitch of the tone poem soundtrack, milk shrieking and frothing everywhere in his trembling hands as it hit the steamer. I was frozen in terror but the owner came running from the back, yelling “hold on, hold on!” as he ran over, keys jangling, towards the panel controlling the stereo system.
The barista kept glitching. I felt a scream welling up inside of me but nothing escaped. The owner fiddled with the dials until at last… at last… the soothing spa sounds returned. The barista disengaged the steam wand, then composed himself and walked towards me with a cup of burnt foam.
There he was, handing my drink, with a look of panic on his face. I wasn't sure if I should run, scream or if I was even awake. Instead, out of force of habit, I reached out to take the cup, and felt his hands around mine. The press of his palm felt sticky and cold, like paper mache, and that's when I noticed the blood, two round pools of it, seeping out from either side of his white beanie.
I thought again of the owner's Instagram post. “Unfortunately, the stimulus we qualified for has expired. We're taking extreme measures to keep costs low…”
Then I heard the jangle of keys getting closer.
Olivia Laskowski is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. This is Olivia Laskowski's first feature for Sprudge.