Friday, April 1, 2011

Barista Blues

A barista of my acquaintance recently told me an interesting story. A family stopped by for some hot chocolate on their way to the ballet. The hot chocolate was made, served, and paid for. The family left. Later, they called to complain that their three-year old daughter had burned the roof of her mouth on the hot chocolate.

What intrigues me about this story, aside from the sheer imbecility of these people, is their assumption that the heat of the hot chocolate was the fault of the barista. What do they not understand about the word ‘hot,’ first of all, and why would they blame the barista for their negligence and inattention in not warning their child that things that are hot have the capacity to burn, and recommend blowing on the chocolate first, so as to cool it a bit, the way everyone else does? What strange, inexplicable mental process acquitted them of their own fully evident ineptitude and prevented them from learning an important lesson in the raising of a child?

It is becoming increasingly evident that we live in a culture of unaccountability. George W. Bush starts an illegal war in Iraq, a war premised on lies, and nothing happens. Two passenger jets slam into the World Trade Towers, and no one is fired for gross negligence. Wall Street perpetrates the greatest heist in world history, which results in millions of lost households, not to mention a sharp rise in hunger in the U.S. (45 million, to be exact), and the only person to go to jail is a two-bit rascal named Bernie Madoff. Meanwhile, some of the figures most centrally involved in the Ponzi scheme that has helped bankrupt the United States, such as Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, and Henry Paulson are given positions in the Obama cabinet.

The mind boggles.

Whistleblowers such as Army Private First Class Bradley Manning, Karen Silkwood, Sherron Watkins, Joe Wilson, Daniel Ellsberg and FBI special agent John Roberts are humiliated, harassed, arrested, tortured and sometimes murdered. But the thugs and thieves and incompetents that find themselves in positions of power and wealth go free.

Has it always been like this? Has human history been as corrupt and vile as it is now?

My barista friend tells me that the public has changed in the last few years. They’ve become more demanding, mean-spirited, and crabby. There are people that demand that their coffee be served at an exact temperature. I am not exaggerating: an exact temperature.

There are customers that complain about too much foam in their cappuccino (or not enough), expect to get service when they’re blabbing away on a cell phone (as if the barista were required to read minds), demand that their ice tea be diluted so that the ratio of water to tea is meticulously adjusted according to whether it is Guangdong Oolong, Moroccan mint, or black Darjeeling, calibrated according to tthe temperature of the water, the ambient temperature of the room in which it is served, level of humidity, atomic weight of the spoon, and specific gravity of the mug.

When did people get this fussy? Is it because this is one of the few areas of their life in which they have some tiny measure of control? The easiest way to get attention? A way to postpone going to work? A way to fill the void of black tepid despair fuming radioactive waste at the core of their empty, toxic, neurotic lives? A way to exercise control over another set of human beings all waiting in line and growing impatient by the second?

One thing is sure: if the moron who just ordered a vanilla cappuccino drizzled with caramel syrup sits down at a table, twitters a message of stunning banality to Bono or Yoko Ono while admiring their reflection in the window and spills some of their cappuccino on their lap, they won’t blame themselves, they’ll blame the barista.


David Grove said...

You just reminded me of Tocqueville, John. In a democracy, people seem unimportant; and in our air-bagged nightmare, opportunities to move up--to distinguish yourself from all the other nullities in the interminable queue--have grown scarcer than hen's teeth. But you can be Queen for a Minute with a barista, can't you? Or a clerk, or anyone else whose job description is "Must respond to rudeness with 'Please, sir, may I have some more?'" It makes you feel important for a minute, like reading that your sun sign is the same as Lady Gaga's.

John Olson said...

Tocqueville, wow, thank you. Quite a nice complement. Albeit (I am ashamed to admit) I still haven't gotten around to reading him.

There are a number of barista rant blogs, I discovered while putting this together.

Each time I lament the death of democracy in this country, I remind myself that a democracy requires a population of self-aware (as opposed to simply narcissistic), thinking, intellectually curious people with a modicum of fellow feeling and altruistic spirit, and that the celebrity-obsessed, spectacle-driven, toxically narcissistic, selfish, materialistic, mean-spirited, illiterate, apathetic majority that compose our so-called "culture," and make a colossal fuss over their beverages, might just be better off with the kind of plutocratic, military dictatorship we have now.

David Grove said...

Man, I wish I could spew high-minded vitriol like that! What a lacerating critique of this country--a condensed Culture of Narcissism.

I find misanthropy tonic--where I intuit, as I do here, that misanthropy and philanthropy are recto and verso of the same coin.

I look at this way: the egoism, ignobility, unmagnanimousness, etc. of people are the ultimate justification for democracy. Who's trustworthy enough to have a monarchy conferred on him? (Is that cynical? I'm afraid I'm showing the ugly in me...)

I've read Tocqueville only cursorily, as is my wont.

John Olson said...

I occasionally fantasize about life under the benevelont tutelage of a philosopher king. Were such a being ever to exist. Martin Luther King is about as close as we've come so far. That kind of king.

Incidentally, if you get a chance, Clayton Eshleman turned me on to an interview with Chalmers Johnson, "Decline of Empires: The Signs of Decay," available on YouTube, that I found quite excellent. My favorite part was meeting his cat.