Hope at the Mall: Courting the Sad-Faced Barista

Barbed wire (rusting after years of hard work)

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I wanted to talk about Velma today but I’ll warn you in advance: I’m a little off. Between Writing Brain and being sick, I’ve had about six hours of sleep in the last two days. The insomnia pretty much guarantees my Internal Editor will shut up and let me write (yay!), but my proofreading skillz will be dubious (boo!). All I can say is it’s a good thing for both of us I’m typing and not speaking. My trachea is inflamed, so it feels like I swallowed knots of barbed wire in lieu of noodles. If I weren’t vegetarian already, the sensation would put me off the fishing experience since I now have some idea of what it would feel like to be hooked.

But about Velma…

I’ve been writing in the local mall’s food court of late. Who knew that was where I’d find my writing mojo? You people certainly don’t share this kind of stuff with me. 😉 (Note to self: I see a coffee-table book in the future: Tartitude’s Best Places to Write, 2010.)

But about Velma… I don’t know her real name so I’m using Molly’s suggestion, because yes, my kids have heard about her.

Velma works at the food court in an independent, family owned coffee shop. She’s there every time I go by, whether it’s nine in the morning or night, whether it’s a weekend or weekday. Velma’s generally alone, running the business despite managing to avoid any eye contact with her customers. I’m not convinced she’s the owner — honestly, she doesn’t seem to possess that kind of moxie or pride — but she certainly seems as burdened as one.

Now, I don’t know what your relationship is like with people in the service industry, but I’ve been on the other end of the counter and I know how hard that job can be. Customers can be so rude and unfeeling. True, they are often motivated from worry and fear, but I’ve never understood the desire or willingness to perpetuate misery and grind another person down just because one can. In fact, it’s precisely because of that my code is to try to be an antidote. (I know. I’m sure this speaks to my own failed boundaries and subliminal desire to have people like me, but whatever. I like that quality about me.)

As I do my shopping, then, I engage with people on as friendly a level as subject and time permit. The other day, for instance, when the grocery bagger handed over my supplies and asked whether I could manage without help, I made general noises of reassurance the first time. At the second, I said, “Hey, I need the exercise. How else do you think I got this awesome physique.” Then I noticed the three or four people nearby stifling smiles and left with some spring in my step.

So, a little social lubricant, a little charm. Fun, yes? It is to me.

But how can one get to that point when the server won’t meet  your eyes? When if she accidentally does, she won’t answer a smile? When you get the sense she’s so alone and overwhelmed and hopeless she’s now erecting walls which will shut out the most meagre of comforts?

I worry about a person like that. Well, not worry worry, but you know what I mean. I feel concern. I construct a backstory that sees her in a loveless or abusive marriage. She doesn’t have the air of someone who has children, or if she does, I’ll bet they are separated by philosophy or distance. (She’s East Indian, I think speaks Urdu, based on the radio playing in the background and my very basic familiarity with its sounds from my old office partner.) I imagine her extended family to be an ocean away. I imagine her education and monetary resources to be minimal. In that context, coaxing a smile from a person — a moment of shared understanding — feels rather big.

Two weeks ago I thought we were close to something. When she passed me my change, there was a microsecond of time when her face softened in recognition. Then I missed a few days at the mall and it was as if we’d never met. In fact, call me crazy, but I thought she set my refill down with a distinct hint of disapproval. 

Then came Friday.

Friday, lo, the clouds did part and the thunder did rumble and the angelic voices did come from on high. She spoke to me. 🙂 She said — and I promise it was every bit as tender and meaningful as the words will imply — “You work here?”

That’s it, guys. I’m in like Flynn. I might have answered with a casual, “No, I’m writing,” but that’s code for, “Go ahead, ask me about what,” and we both know it. We are forming an infinitely small, probably one-sided, possibly weirdly stalkerish relationship, but I’m down with that. That’s how the social fabric is formed. That’s how people on the fringe find themselves back in the stripes and swirls of the pattern. What remains to be seen is which one of us will most benefit.

Want to bet it’ll be me?

I wouldn’t take those odds, because you’d lose. Velma’s made me floaty all week. (And frankly, when you lost I’d be forced to make sure you could handle it, that you were all right. I’m sure you all don’t own coffee shops I can stroll into whenever I wish. 😉 )

Have you worked in a service industry? Have you reached out in what seems like common courtesy and been amply rewarded? I know the ToolMaster and my kids share my “code”, but I’m curious if there are others of you who feel the same way. Talk to me about your own Velmas.

22 thoughts on “Hope at the Mall: Courting the Sad-Faced Barista

  1. Jan, you’re a sweetheart. I’ve spent the past decade and a half in retail, and there are times when it feels like there is no hope for humanity’s future. Then there are the others, like yourself, who go out of their way to be nice, that truly make your day.

    I have had several customers who wanted to chat more than I had time for (there’s so much to do in the background beyond what the customer can see), but I tried to give them that time, because it was great to have that pleasant moment with them.

    I have no doubt your interactions mean a lot to her. She just may not be able to demonstrate it. 🙂

  2. Jan, customers like you are pure gold, I swear. You’re the ones that keep us going through the bad, rude, distant, and outright hostile customers.
    There are definitely more like you out there. At my last retail job, in a coffee-house ironically enough, some of those wonderful customers actually became friends who I’ve kept in touch with, despite moving to another city.

    Anyway. Huge thanks from someone still stuck in the retail business for showing a little kindness. <3

    ~Lia

  3. I worked as a waitress for 6 long years. I swear there are people out there that go for dinner for the sole purpose of taking their bad day out on a perfect stranger. I was the opposite of Velma, and liked to gauge my jokes for my audience. Such as when truckers get homesick they like it when you tease them by nagging them like a wife. But while the tips were great, having rude people who make a point of trying to hurt your feelings, eventually wears on you.
    People have the tendency to think that people in the service industry are there because they aren’t smart enough to do anything else. Wrong. Work like that requires efficiency, a good memory, a thick skin, good motor skills and often strong leadership skills.
    Thanks for just being nice and trying to bring a little light to people’s day. 🙂

  4. I used to work as a waitress, and of course, in a library, I have contact with the public everyday, so I really appreciate what the folks in the service industries have to endure to get through the day. I always try to be nice and kid with people if I can, something to brighten up a otherwise dreary workday. My husband is the same way, and since my daughter works in a pharmacy, she really is kind to other people!

    Good for you in getting a sentence out of Velma, eventually it will become a smile. 😉

  5. lol! Persistence pays off. You’re wearing her down. 😉

    I worked for years as a cashier and I probably wasn’t always friendly because I was usually miserable. But I really appreciated the friendly customers. They made my crappy job much more bearable.

  6. For decades, I was in the retail (D-I-A= make it, bake it & take it) business. Needless to say, the customers who came in my shop took to my *hope-like* attitude in spades, and I spent (wasted precious) fifteen+ minutes, chewing-the-fat/ mostly listening to the day-week-life story of said customer. THIS is how I got the meat for most of my fiction…by listening, nodding, commenting and SMILING..all the while, aware my workday would be way longer since I was *getting behind*.
    I called it, doing PR. work. People remembered my shop.
    The Velmas in the world may be: 1/ SHY 2/ OVERWORKED & ULTRA-BUSY 3/ UNHAPPY
    Whatever the reason, a switch to *HAPPY* , though it might take practice, rubs off on everyone!!

  7. Oh, you guys all rock! Sorry, I’ve been busy elsewhere, doing more things than a one-armed wallpaper hanger.

    To clarify, it’s not that I wish to add to Velma or any other service person’s burden by forcing them to chat. I know time is precious and that can constitute another form of invasion when they already give so much. It was rather than her ongoing attitude on multiple occasions made me think of ominous scenarios, and the unwillingness to engage on the most trivial of levels raised red flags.

    I know depressed people who were on the verge of commiting suicide and report that it was a simple moment of caring from a stranger that made a difference. While not wanting to be an egomaniac who’s convinced her every action drips gold, nor someone who’d then feel crushing responsibility, who can really know what makes a difference? I know I feel bigger for the effort.

    As for Velma, for all I know, she might well go home and tell her eight kids and doting husband about the honky in the food court with the do-gooder attitude. I hope she does. 🙂 I hope she laughs and laughs at me. 😀 Goodness knows other people do and I’ve survived.

    And many thanks to all of you who are out there putting it on the line, especially when you do it with good cheer. My hat goes off to you.

  8. Yep, I worked in a service industry for many years. I have to admit, I generally sucked at it. I like to engage with people but on my terms, and too many people in too short of time I found exhausting.

    So I do tend to be really nice to salespeople, wait staff, etc.

    The only exception to that I’ve found is when I deal with people on the phone who don’t do what they say they are going to do or who can’t help solve a problem that they’ve helped to create. My BP just rises.

    In person I am always nice.

  9. I used to manage a footwear store. One very retired gentleman came in with a grimace on his face. I measured his feet and found him the most suitable pair of shoes we had in stock. They were higher end but had the cushioning and support he needed. A few days later he came back with the same grimace on his face. I braced myself for the expected return but instead he told me it was the most comfortable pair of shoes he’d ever had and he wanted to say ‘thank you.’ And his expression never changed.

    I saw him in the mall a few months later and his usual facial expression had begun to relax. It made me wonder how long the poor guy had put up with sore feet. (Feeling bad? Check your shoes, first.)

  10. Yes but… yes but… if you didn’t say “No, I’m writing” to her, what DID you say?

    I’m probably not as outgoing as I could be with salespeople and wait staff… I fret that I am imposing myself on a stranger who’d rather just be left alone to do their job. But I always try to make eye contact and smile and say, “Thank you.”

  11. Elizabeth, no, I did say, “I’m writing.” I didn’t volunteer what. It’s both a invitation for her to ask — and in my experience people generally do — and a recognition of the boundaries she’s set. I don’t want to pounce on her, much as it may appear to the contrary. 🙂

  12. Yes! Hubs and I both have worked service industry jobs and goodness, the way people treat others is abysmal. We always try to tip at least 20%, and I always say thank you. I don’t usually have the time or energy for more – I truly am an introvert who gets worn out from too much social stimulation – but I always make the effort.

  13. Jess, I would have predicted that of you, and @toadymac by association. 🙂

    Elizabeth, I’m not going to chide you, especially since I just discovered I’d written Internet when I meant Internal and didn’t see until just now. Doh!

  14. I used to work at a coffee shop. There was one regular customer that would come in- always on his cell phone. He would point to the menu on the counter to order. I made it my MISSION to get him to talk to me.

    It turned out to be mission impossible.

    It was crazy sad.

  15. I’ve waitressed for several years (6+) and I totally hear you and I LOVE this fabulous project you are on. I think your concern is probably merited, and as small as your connection may be, it helps. Frankly, I think everyone should be FORCED to work in the service industry for at least two years (supporting themselves on the meager pittance) in order to be declared a grown up. Those workers work their BUTTS OFF and people can be so rude. So HURRAY for your efforts!

  16. You’re speaking my language. I don’t always succeed in drawing someone out, but I usually always try. On the other hand, my mother wrote the book on engaging anyone anywhere in her sphere. It used to embarrass us (ok, sometimes it still does) but she will end up getting a dour older woman to unburden herself about her children or a stiff young Sikh man conduct a lesson on proper turban wrapping and it will all end in laughter. It doesn’t matter to my mother whether this is a local cafe she will visit repeatedly, or a taxi ride she will never take again. Each individual is accorded the same level of intense interest, concern and caring.

    We may not always have that much time, but I agree that everyone should treat people in the service industry with simple human respect. Not everyone is recptive, but there’s no excuse not to try. It’s a small investment for what can be a ripple effect throughout someone’s day.

    1. Your mom sounds like someone I’d like to meet. 🙂 And knowing you as I do, the apple does not fall far from the three.

      You know, I hadn’t considered this as family legacy, but my mom would act much the same way, now I think of it. Maybe not at quite such a conscious level, but I’d say it was her code. How interesting. Thanks for your comment. 🙂

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