FESTIVAL OF THE FUTURE CITY: Double Black Americano
Ailsa on the right to the city and the intimacies baristas forge with their regulars.
This essay was commissioned as part of a series in collaboration with Festival Of The Future City. Find out more about the festival here
This is my favourite shift at the cafe: seven until three.
Seven am when the sun is risen but its light is still cold. The air is crisp as I breathe, my lips and tongue melting it a little before it’s supple enough to inhale. If I look back I can almost see the warm melt of my path through the otherwise untouched scene of Stokes Croft on a Monday morning.
I love early mornings. I love feeling like the only one awake in the world. That I’m walking through a painting which is the background to my life only, at least for now.
This is my favourite shift at the cafe: 7am-3pm.
I am always fascinated by how a space is changed by the people within it. How a room of tables, chairs and a coffee machine metamorphoses to a stage on which players laugh, cry, hug, whisper– all brought together by hot beverages and breakfast– to a candlelit restaurant where first dates are glaringly obvious to a mini party as we get through the close-down listening and singing to 90s RnB.
I am always fascinated by how a space is changed by the people within it.
This place has been a constant home to me even as I’ve moved house around Bristol over the past four years. And a job I can come back to after my various stints at internships, tutoring and studying. The people I work with are another family of sisters and brothers: complete with love and the chefs always making us portions of food far too big, worried we’re not eating enough. And then there are the customers.
The first hour of my shift is just me and one of my bosses. Occasionally we have lively discussions about the welfare state but most often I sing to myself and pootle about the place enjoying the stillness. But despite the quiet I can feel the ghosts of interactions coloured by emotion whisper throughout the room. By the time I’ve flipped the sign on the door at 8am I’ve drunk at least one double black americano and am now ready to make coffee for others.
‘Hey Ailsa A customer was asking after you: large cappuccino, bald… said he’d given you a book? Anyway, he’s moved away. He wanted us to say bye to you from him…’
At large cappuccino I know who they mean: a freelance computer programmer, maybe late thirties, with a round face framing kind eyes. When you see so many faces every day you begin to think that maybe you’ve seen them all: or at least all of the facial features. And every apparently new face is merely a new amalgamation of previously seen features, rendering everyone in warm familiarity. But I think customers would be surprised at how many of them linger in our minds long after we’ve washed their cups and wiped their tables free of any trace of them, ready for another temporary inhabitation.
…how many people actually mean how are you? when they’re hungover at 10am on a Saturday morning and you are the gatekeeper to their obscene amount of bacon and sausages.
I’ve been working in cafes since I was 16 and I’ve worked in this one on and off for almost four years now. In the past, I was always sweet and smiling. Faking it however hard I had to to put on that front that most customers don’t realise they expect to be part of their package of a coffee and emotional labour for £2.50.
The past year though, that’s changed. Now, if I’m feeling sad, I often say. Part of it’s experimental: how many people actually mean how are you? when they’re hungover at 10am on a Saturday morning and you are the gatekeeper to their obscene amount of bacon and sausages. Partly it’s because if I say sorry, I’m a bit grumpy because I’m really stressed inside and outside of work– it’s not you I can divert an interaction from a customer being pissed off that I’m not joyously happy to serve them to having them treat me like another human in their lives.
Large Cappuccino was one of those people. We’d had a few conversations previously about his job, about my being something other than a barista outside of the cafe walls. The penultimate time I’d seen him I’d just broken up with another partner. I was having a shit day and I told him so. We didn’t really linger on the breaking up part: there wasn’t much else to say. It was the right decision etc, but still hard. So instead we talked about books – safe worlds which are always reliable when reality is a little too real.
The last time I saw him, he didn’t have a large cappuccino. It was a busy Saturday and I was fenced off behind the counter, feet anchored a shoulder’s width apart, but forearms and wrists dancing in front of me, racing the queue of customers’ coffee orders with latte, latte, flat white, black americano, decaf soya latte… One of my co-workers got my attention and Neil lent over the glass wall to give me a book. It’s just on loan though. Enjoy.
The day I found out he’d moved I went back to my house to see if he’d inscribed the book with his name. Or anything I could use to just send him a note to thank him for being kind when I had needed kindness. But there’s nothing in it relating to his world, just fiction.
Latte has been coming to the cafe about as long as I’ve worked there. She has one coffee a day, minimum. Her work as a translator means she often spends hours in our garden, smoking, chatting to other regulars, with friends, on the phone, working, and drinking coffee. A few months ago she changed to coconut lattes as part of a detox. She’s back on cows’ milk now. When I left the cafe to work at Rife Magazine for six months, she read everything I wrote. When I returned to my second family, she told me she’d loved all of it. We talk about a range of topics: most recently her trip to Malaysia, my connections there and upcoming trip back to Kuala Lumpur, the charity she volunteers for and how they’re looking for a runner to do the half marathon for them. I almost volunteer but then mention the race is the day after my birthday and she talks me out of it. Don’t be ridiculous: you don’t want to be running 13 miles the day after your birthday. And she’s right of course.
I’ve talked to her about feeling down before. But one day she comes in and her eyes are brighter than I’ve seen them before, with water washing over the surface of her irises. Are you okay? Yes. Yes. Would you like a hug? Nod. Yes please. As I wrap my arms around this woman I’ve known through lattes for the past four years she begins to sob, and as her chest shakes I hold her tighter. When she leaves that day she gives me a smaller but more meaningful smile of thanks than usual. I’m glad I could be there in some small way that Tuesday morning. And that addition to the interactions available in our relationship makes me reflect on how human connection is often far more at the centre of what we, as people in the service industry do, than coffee.
Double Espresso has only been coming in once a day for the past few months. He used to drink two to four of our coffees a day previously. His routine in the cafe is known by all of us who work there: often his coffee will be made before he makes it to the counter to ask for it. He’ll pull up in his car, climb out in work clothes splattered with white paint and plaster and order his coffee with just the words double espresso, please before handing you the correct change. Then head to the shelves to get one small glass of water and sit outside at a small table with a cigarette. He only ever stays for as long as it takes to drink the coffee and the water and then he’ll come in, place both cups on the counter for us, and leave. I’ve never seen him talk to anyone else. And none of us who work here have ever made much headway in conversation. He’s Italian, with little English and his expression is rendered difficult to read by the burns on his face. Sometimes I worry about him, before checking myself, because he knows what he’s doing. He’s far older than me and probably much wiser. Does he worry about me? Does he think She’s been working here for years. Is she not bored? I wonder what he thinks of us; what percentage of his daily interactions with other people is comprised of that exchange of double espresso, please, nod, smile thank you. Thank you.
Second Double Black Americano
I often think that growing up in the countryside of Scotland, with the ground beneath my feet and the vast skies everywhere else, ruined me for city living. And I do think it’s true that I couldn’t survive just in a city for more than four months without needing to escape to somewhere where the buildings don’t have the audacity to cut into the sunset, and the night sky isn’t lit from underneath by lights far inferior to stars but which still diminish their light.
But whenever I contemplate moving back to the countryside, I think of how quickly the easy solitude would slip into loneliness. Not even because of being apart from friends but because of how being a face and a voice in so many people’s daily routines makes me feel part of something bigger than me. One of my favourite things about being beneath vast skies –standing at the edge of the grey sea which touches oceans, in the shadows of mountains – is feeling small. But being in the city makes me feel big and small at once. I often feel lonely. But more often I feel connected. In a smaller, more delicate way than is often romanticised when we talk about human connection.
Knowing that I exist in so many people’s worlds in so many ways which I’ll never know the full extent of is comforting. It makes me feel more real on days where reality is far below me. I hope the people in my world feel the same sometimes too.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on young people’s right to the city. Tweet us @rifemag and use the hashtag #futurecity17 or let us know in the comments.