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Baristas are not Neutral

Updated: Oct 25, 2020

Long, long ago, in the before-times, when people went out and did things together, my partner Meg and I decided it was smart to compete in an Ironman Triathlon nine months after having a baby. That baby is now nearly 13. We finished that Ironman. This anecdote, from our time training, seemed like it might bring some joy & inspiration to our global timeout.

Have I mentioned that I totally *heart* baristas? Of course living in Seattle if I didn’t love them, I’d be reducing my community-love options by about 60%, so it is rather a necessity of life here. That said, I choose to love baristas. It is not about the coffee…though coffee does rock. My love is deeper than the bean….my love is about the art of barista-ness.

On the surface one might think that being a coffee barista is simply about the taking of orders and the delivering of the coffee service. Wrong! Being a barista is much more complex and sophisticated than all that. A barista must not only take the order and serve the coffee, but in doing so, said barista is interacting with people in need. I’m again, not talking about the coffee. Sure, we all WANT the coffee….who doesn’t want the coffee? The needs brought into a coffee-house by the masses of mocha drinkers are plentiful and unspoken. The barista must intuit these needs…and the barista as artiste and humanitarian does just that.

The needs brought into a coffee-house by the masses of mocha drinkers are plentiful and unspoken. The barista must intuit these needs...and the barista as artiste and humanitarian does just that.

This morning, for instance, I went into Cafe on the Ave..because I dig their coffee, but I love one particular barista who talks with me every time I get my 16 oz. iced americano with room. I didn’t walk up to the cashier and say, “I’d love a 16 oz. iced americano, some compassion, and a little inspiration.” No, I just ordered the coffee….and a cookie. Anyway, this particular barista asked about my weekend. You know how people ask about your weekend in the elevator or other moments when we feel awkward and don’t know what to say? Well, this wasn’t what she was doing. Now maybe she didn’t really care what I did this weekend, but in true barista artiste form she really seemed like she cared. So, I actually answered.

I am not a big fan of small talk and even a smaller fan of big talk about myself, so usually, I just mumble something about being busy or not remembering what I did and move along. Today, I was in need of connection, to myself, to her, to the world, to something greater than myself. And my barista friend in her truly most soothing and therapeutic tone asked me about my weekend. So, I shared that my partner and I were training for an Ironman and that we biked super far and ran 19 miles. She did the low whistle that people do when you tell them you are doing an Ironman and said, “wow, that’s great.” I heard this as “hey Jen, you are O.K. And, it was just the message I needed from the world this morning, simply that I'm ok, you know, that I'm right with the world, loved and loving, and just, ok.

But, the interaction didn’t end there. 16 oz. iced americano already in hand, she could have just turned her attention to the next coffee order, but she asked “when is it?” I heard, “you look like you are having a tough time. you are ok. when is it?” Projection? Transference? I don’t care what you call it…my barista friend was meeting this unspoken need.

“September 7th,” I replied. She said, “Oh, that gives me goosebumps. How exciting!” I heard, “oh, that gives me goosebumps. how exciting!” She reminded me of my own excitement about the event and how events like the ironman are inspiring for others. In that moment I remembered how I watched the ironman on television when I was a tweenager and how I thought it was impossible for me to do such a thing…even as I longed to be one of those athletes. I remembered Julie Moss running, walking, stumbling, and finally crawling across the finish line. I remembered how I cried then and how I cried two nights ago when I watched that finish again on Youtube. One of my training partners wrote about this today, saying, it is not the ability of a human to swim, bike, and run that makes me cry, rather it is the love, spirit, and connection to life that is made visible in these moments.

I mean really, what does it matter if I can swim, bike, and run? That really isn’t the point. The point is about connecting to something within myself and others that is not simply physical or mental, but is a demonstration of what can be felt and done, not by the individual alone. In fact, naming ironman an individual endeavor completely obscures its collective nature and the privilege surrounding most of the athletes participating. First and foremost, no one competes in or finishes an Ironman without the support of many, including every other competitor and person watching the race. For instance, Meg and I are privileged with family who love and watch our little girl while we train. We are privileged with enough economic resource to join a gym, buy nice bikes, get solid running shoes, go to physical therapy, eat healthy organic foods, purchase entrance into the race, and the list goes on.

Let's face it, there are significant economic and social barriers to participating in events such as triathlons.

I sometimes feel self-conscious (bordering on ashamed) about the bougie-ness of this kind of event, the excessive privilege surrounding it, and my access to resources that allow me to do this rather inane thing. But, on this morning my barista friend and my daily minute-to-minute reckoning with White and economic privilege have all reminded me that I can inspire myself and others to connect to a deeper grit, love, spirit, and connectedness ~ all things our country needs desperately right now and there is no shame in that game.

This brings me back to the thesis, baristas are not neutral. None of us really are. And, no one of us is truly disconnected from any other one of us. Every person in my life is in some way contributing to my ability to do this triathlon…have a baby, get a PhD, think, feel, live. And hopefully in doing this little, big race I will connect more deeply with innate humanity, love, spirit, grit, and sent it back out. Afterall, I am connected to all of my people's lives too. What kind of force do I want to be in their lives?

Thank you baristas everywhere for delivering me with life’s blood ~ coffee, connection, and love, all of which is transformational. As my friend Ramona says….Love is Revolution!

While the race hasn’t yet happened (update: we finished in 15 hours 30 minutes)….thank you to all of the folks in my life and beyond my immediate world who have made this possible: meg, lucy, zia, otter, jen, trina, mom, dad, robert, aline, pig and petey, the entire extended Reichenbach fam, bob, lois, meghan, gita, ramona, peris, morna, mary, charlie, doug, michelle, sam, everett, number 3, uma, jenn, jeannette, brook, baristas everywhere, the roadrunner, cookie monster, grover, ducky, jamie, kelsey, erica, the women of raising in the rain and first weeks, abba (yes, that abba), john denver (yes, that john denver), the Q Center students, the dixie chicks, regina, bell hooks, patricia hill collins, all women and gender queer athletes, judith butler, carla….and the list continues…more later.

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