At a tender nineteen, I was working at a coffee shop. Yeah, that coffeshop. The coffeeshop that will not be named – you know the one. I feel it important to mention, my nicknames included smiley and ms. happy and god knows what else but the idea is, I was one of those bubbly, effervescent, sweet little things that apparently annoy the alcoholics on the job enough to leave extra work for me out of spite and tell people about it, so it gets back to me. As in ” ‘Ms. Happy’ is coming in later. Let her take care of that.” Yeah, that’ll show me. Me and my happiness. Goddamn us to hell…
There were two registers at this location, one at the far end of the shop. The far one opened only when the line snaked out the door, opened only for straight up plain ol’ coffee, so that people with normal coffee needs didn’t have to wait in line for the endless parade of “I’ll take a half-caf skinny no foam one pump sugar-free vanilla latte with splenda”.
Then there was the guy. The Honey Guy. Let’s say it right up front, the guy was cute. Handsome even.
He ordered a tea. I may not have been paying as much attention to his actual words as I should have been. I only had coffee over at my register. He clearly interpreted “coffee only” as “also tea”, and that’s fine. It’s not too complicated. I had to go back to the other section of the store to get a tea bag, but jogging, as I did, it took maybe thirty seconds, one minute tops, there and back.
As I said, I may have been having trouble with his actual words. I got him the wrong tea.
“Well, I’ll take it. It’s fine.”
“It’s on the house then.”
“No. I’ll pay for it.”
“No, really, it’s on the house.”
“I can pay for it.”
“I’m sure you can. But I would just throw it out anyway. It was my mistake. Please, it’s on me.”
“Ok.” he said.
I was on to the next couple of customers when he came back.
“Do you have honey?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said. I ran all the way back to other register. Grabbed as many honey packets as my hand would hold. Ran back. Showered them happily on the counter, “Go nuts!” I said.
He took two packets and went back to the condiment bar. I continued waiting on customers.
“Do you have scissors?”
Those packets have a very clearly marked little ‘tear here’ section on them. They’re designed to be convenient. On the go. My enthusiasm was starting to flag just the barest little bit.
“Sure,” I said. I ran all the way back to the other end of the store. Grabbed the scissors. Ran back. Don’t worry, Mom, I was holding them down at my side like you taught me.
“Here you go!” I said. He wandered back to the condiment bar. I continued waiting on other customers. I had probably served at least five others at this point, without event.
He stomped back. “This honey is sticky!”
I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t.
I said, “That’s the nature of honey, sir.”
He gaped like a trout. Said nothing. Turned sharply. Returned to the condiment bar. I went on with my day. I thought.
Did you suppose he wouldn’t return? Oh, but he did.
“I just want to say one thing,” He held his finger up in the air, “without wisdom, there is no civilization.”
Really? Really? I couldn’t help it.
“That’s very profound, sir.”
He marched over to the bar, where my friend Kate was working. It was the very tail end of my shift.
“I would like to complain about…” he turned to where I was standing, “her!” he pointed.
“Her?” Kate asked.
“Yes!” the man hissed.
Kate wanted to be sure she understood. “You want to complain… about her?”
“Um, ok… You can talk to the manager on duty. He’s over there.”
It was Tom. Who also knew me.
The honey guy marched indignantly over. High dudgeon. Declared to Tom, “I would like to complain about … her!”
Again, with the pointing.
“About her?,” Tom repeated. “Her? Over there?”
I had clocked out before Tom had finished talking to him. I snuck up behind Honey Guy. He was recounting his version of the story. Honey Guy was terribly aggrieved. I made the crazy symbol, finger to temple, behind him. Tom started laughing. Honey Guy turned around. Caught me.
“I matriculated from University of Chicago!” he shouted. I’m not kidding you, he used the word “matriculated”.
“That doesn’t mean you’re sane, sir.” Tom said.
I lost it. I doubled over in laughter. Honey Guy stormed out, never to be seen or heard from again.
1. You catch more flies with, ahem, honey – did this guy deserve good service? Absolutely. I tried to give it to him. But after I’ve bent over backwards for you, and you’re still unpleasable, I will give up. And mock you.
2. You get what you pay for. This whole 10 minute interaction, start to finish, I maybe got $0.50, take home. I want to give you good service. I want to do my job and do it well. I did at nineteen, and I still do. Dear obnoxious dude, how much do you think I can care for two quarters? If you want exceptional service, slip a dollar in my bucket. I will suddenly become a whole lot of amazing. I know. You’re saying, “But I pay a pretty penny for this tea (not in his case, but whatever).” I get that. Which is why I try to give people good service. It’s not your fault that I get maybe a few pennies of your overcharged $2, except for maybe making the choice to shop at a corporate juggernaut. However, if you want exceptional service, pay the person, not the company.
3. Everyone should have to work in the service industry. You would not throw your clothes on the floor in dressing rooms. You would not come in 10 minutes before closing with complicated demands. You would notice people cleaning around you and realize, they are trying, wordlessly, to ask you to leave. You have paid for their services. If they have done them well, please recognize, they have lives, families, puppies with impossibly small bladders. We all use the service industry. Some people think, “Well, I’m paying for this, so I should get exactly what I want.” or “If this person had worked hard enough, they would be somewhere better.” This is not only not an ok way to treat people, it’s completely unfounded. I have a bachelor’s degree. I have a master’s degree. I have a culinary degree. I have graduated with honors in every program I have pursued. If this helps you, I have a genius I.Q. I am bussing your tables, getting you coffee, making you food because I want you to have a good experience, and I like making people happy, not because this is all I am capable of. Food is my passion. Don’t jump to conclusions. Which brings me to my next point –
4. Be kind if you can. Be firm when you have to. I really tried to make Honey Guy happy. I tried to give him a good experience. He didn’t want to have it. Honey Guy, if by some miracle you read this, go forth and find joy in your life. So much is wrong. It will always be wrong. Find your joy. Yes, the honey was sticky, but the tea was free! I will always try to be kind, but I will not let you step on me because you think it is my job to be stepped on.
5. We are all a giant community. Whether or not this is fair, I have recounted the Honey Guy story countless times, to the amusement of many. We have all been on either side of this divide. We have all judged people based on our own moods and not their merits. (I am speaking of both myself and Honey Guy at this point.) We are now a world community and kindness is not a commodity to be traded, but a principle to be upheld. Sixteen years later, I still hold this story up as an example. He should have been more understanding. I should have been kinder. We all live together. The chance to show people you respect their humanity comes up again and again. Let’s take it. All of us.