I was with my friend Greg last week, waiting on line at a Starbucks to get a cup of coffee. “And can you leave like an inch or two of space for milk? Please? Thank you,” Greg asked the barista. And I saw it, I saw how everything went down, the polite request, it was almost like he was afraid to ask, like he was really trying to communicate how he didn’t want to be a pain, if he could just get a little less coffee. And then the please and thank you, all very, very timid.
“Here you go Craig,” the barista handed him the cup of coffee. I could tell by Greg’s face that something wasn’t right, and seeing as how there was only one aspect of that coffee that could’ve gotten him upset, I guessed that just by holding the cup, that he could feel the weight, he could tell that something wasn’t right.
My initial instinct told me that the cup was probably filled too high. Maybe some of the hot liquid leaked out of the top hole on the cover, a dead giveaway that the container had reached maximum capacity. But then again, it could have been almost comically under-filled. Maybe instead of one or two inches of space, there were four or five.
I think back to my customer service days. I hate to admit it, because it’s something that I can only really describe as a serious character defect, but a lot of my interactions with customers and guests were directly influenced by the fickle nature of my mood. Sometimes I wouldn’t feel like going to work and waiting tables. And I don’t know what it is, because it’s not something that I want to have happen, but every once in a while, someone would ask me a perfectly reasonable request, like, “Can I get some extra ketchup, please?” and my internal reaction would be this automatic, “Go fuck yourself. I hate you.”
And of course, I don’t want to be that guy. That’s just not a nice way to live. And if you want to be employed as a waiter or a barista or whatever, you can’t be that guy. You’ll get fired. But on an especially dark day if I just couldn’t get my better nature to wrest control of my actions, I had a choice, I could just not get them any extra ketchup. I could say, “Sure, coming right up,” and then disappear for a while. Or I could take a really long time, watch for that customer to flag down someone else, and then right as he’s in the middle of asking that person, “Hey, could I get some extra ketchup, please?” I could show up in mid-sentence, “Here you go, sir,” make it look like he’s the one being really annoying.
This is all terrible, awful behavior, and I hope that nobody thinks that I’m condoning it or trying to make it OK. And it’s not like that’s something that I did, certainly not often. But yeah, I’d be lying if these thoughts weren’t a part of my underlying consciousness, that there’s something in me, and I’m sure in a lot of service industry workers, that just don’t want to, they don’t want to do anything, even if it’s a perfectly good-natured request, it’s so easy to slide into this almost comfortable pit of bitter entitlement.
Anyway, Greg took his coffee over to that little table by the side where you put your milk and sugar in and, it was just as I’d initially suspected. That coffee cup was filled all the way to the top. By the time Greg managed to get the lid off, there was coffee splashing down everywhere. He couldn’t even lift it up without spilling even more, and the cardboard container was already stained, becoming visibly warped by having so much hot liquid poured over the outside of the cup’s lip.
His face said that he was pissed, but I didn’t expect what happened next. I thought, maybe he’d try to take a big sip, which he did, but it was too hot to really get down a good gulp. And there was still the mess to deal with. I thought maybe he’d shake his head back and forth a little bit, try to make eye contact with the barista, give him a really nasty look. Of course the barista wouldn’t be looking. You don’t want to engage too much. The key to being passive aggressive is to focus on the passivity. That way if you get called out, if some guy that you screwed over confronts you, you’re not giving him anything like eye contact or any other sort of ammunition to further provoke a fight.
And I said it already too, that Greg’s a pretty cool guy, very polite, hardly confrontational. But that same thing that’s in me as a waiter, that same voice telling me to tell random people “fuck you” for asking for ketchup, it had to have been in Greg too. And sometimes you just can’t hold it back. Sometimes you know you shouldn’t do something, but you do it anyway.
So Greg went right up to the counter and screamed, “Hey!” and the barista looked up, and Greg splashed the whole cup of coffee right on him. And I’ve got to say, it was a perfect shot. Obviously you can’t go for the face, because that’s a hot cup of coffee, and you’re looking at burns, at legal action. No, it was right in the middle of this guy’s thick, green apron, right where you just knew there were enough layers of apron and black t-shirt and undershirt to absorb a lot of that heat. But it was a big cup, a venti, and so now this guy was soaked. And maybe it wouldn’t scald him, but there was probably a burning sensation, or at the very least, a really uncomfortable feeling of being very hot and wet.
And we just walked out. Nobody said anything, no manager came running after us. Because what were they going to do about it? What would I have done if I were in that barista’s position? I have no idea. It felt really good at the time, to have been there, to have witnessed what surely felt like such a release, just taking that “fuck you” and returning it right to sender, but without actually having to have done anything, no guilt afterward, no regret.
Because there would have been regret, if that were me anyway. Even now, a week later, I can’t help but thinking, what if that guy really did just make a mistake? What if he was really busy, and meant to leave that extra inch, but for whatever reason, he forgot? What if he’s just so conditioned to filling those cups all the way up, that it’s not even a conscious decision anymore, that it’s more muscle memory than anything else? And yeah, he made a mistake, but it’s a mistake. And now he’s got to, what, ask the manager for a new apron? For a new black t-shirt? What if they didn’t have any available? Would he have to go home, leave his coworkers short-staffed? “And why did he splash you? What did you do to piss him off?” the manager might ask, suspiciously.
No, I can’t, I couldn’t, it would have been too much. And I was expecting something out of Greg, an apology, maybe just the slightest expression of remorse, but nothing. I’ve seen him like once or twice since, and it’s like it never happened. And I don’t know, man, there’s something of that in me, definitely, and I’m pretty sure Greg has a little bit of it too. What else is inside? Aren’t you just a little bit sorry? What if he got him in the face? In the eyes?