Choice Of A Generation -- Be Young. Have Fun. Make Lattes. -- Coffee Break -- Seattle's Baristas Pull Straight Shots On And Off The Job
THE T-SHIRT WITH THE double-pierced ear is banging soggy coffee grounds into a hole in the counter and trying to hear over the bean grinder and the milk steamer and Sarah McLachlan's new CD what it is this baby boomer with tweezed eyebrows and berry lipstick really wants.
A latte. Right. Got that. But wait, there's more, a couple of sentences dangling like pearlized earrings off the end of the order. What? Could you speak up, please?
The boomer taps her berry nails on the counter. A double tall nonfat decaf with a shot of hazelnut. No foam. Did I say nonfat? And not too hot. To go. Gotta go. Gotta drop off the dry cleaning, get to work. Already need another vacation.
You wanted nonfat, right? Palm Springs? How was the weather?
T-shirt ducks under the counter, grabs a milk carton and a rush of cool air from the refrigerator. Flavored coffees are so annoying. Especially with nonfat milk, like, can I have it both ways, please, no calories and super sweet. How did you ever get to the point in your life where you have to be so picky? Is your latte the only thing you have control over? Or are you like this with everything? Here. Just take your coffee.
T-shirt holds out a cardboard cup and a handful of change. She is so close the boomer can see coffee dust in her pores. Her smile is stained brown. She glances at her watch. Only 3 1/2 hours until this shift is over.
It's not like the movie "Singles," like you can just move to
Seattle and join a band and work in an espresso bar. Being a barista, making decent coffee, takes skill. If you're good, you adjust your burr grinders with every cup through the morning as the sun and humidity rise. Espresso is temperamental stuff.
You've got to find the right rhythm to grind, flip, tamp, brush, shove, twist, jerk, jiggle, swipe, swirl, chat while you're really thinking about your sister's new used motorcycle and hauling a secondhand refrigerator after work.
Pay is $6.50 an hour, $10 if you manage the cafe; 25 to 40 hours a week. There usually isn't health insurance and no, it's not a real career, but look, the tips aren't bad. Beats being a photocopy grunt or a bartender and spending all day around people who are depressed and drunk.
The regulars, most of them, are pretty cool. Like that guy in the denim jacket over there gulping his second cup. Always orders dolces, straight shots of espresso. He's in here all the time with his black bike helmet and his newspaper going on and on about Haitian boat people, the Coast Guard, Chiapas, peasants who can't afford beans with their tortillas and, oh yeah, Sun Ra, they just don't make music like that anymore.
It's practically community service, this job, giving customers something hot to drink, something warm to hold, sometimes their best, most real connection of the day. So what's it worth to you?
The boomer with the berry lipstick hesitates, coins in hand. The T-shirt with the double-pierced ear. The parking meter. Ignores the tips mug, drops the coins in her purse.
Hi. What can I get for you?
OK, so sometimes it's a drag pouring latte after latte, especially for boomers clogging the job market, demanding their midmorning caffeine, demanding perfection, demanding so much of themselves. A barista could resent this.
But really, why bother? It's just a job, not a life. Once upon a time, a job was a life, you were your job. That's old. Behind the counters in the cafes, music grinds and steam spits and baristas are not, do not want to be, their job. The job is just a way to be who they are.
REMEMBER LIFE BEFORE lattes?
It's not like where were you when Kennedy was shot or Nixon resigned or the Challenger blew up. This is recent, like late 1980s.
Fifteen years ago, in all of Seattle, there were maybe, maybe, a half dozen espresso machines. Allegro. The Last Exit. Monorail. Spin-offs of Berkeley-style cafes. The early '80s brought a dribble more.
Wasn't until 1985 that Starbucks, then solely a gourmet coffee roaster, added Italian-style coffee bars to the company menu.
A few years later, cafes and carts were sprouting like fungi after a Pacific Northwest rain; espresso was sloshing into gas stations and Laundromats. In 1992, Seattle Mayor Norm Rice and former Gov. Booth Gardner declared Specialty Coffee Week: Whereas the people of Seattle have become inseparably fond of high-quality specialty coffee and have crafted a vibrant and growing industry around it . . .
That's the official proclamation and it reads a little too clean, like some kind of pithy logo stamped on a ceramic mug.
What's missing is the anguished electric bass gurgling up from basement windows and the endless rounds of darts late at night in Belltown bars and a whole subculture of twentysomething baristas risen from the primordial sludge of leftover coffee grounds. One in five Seattle residents is in his or her 20s.
What happened is that most everything that gives this city its '90s flavor - deluxe coffee roasts, rain, yuppies, grunge, ripped flannel, Generation X - dived into a mosh pit and somehow got ground up and poured out as espresso.
Espresso is the base for lattes, lifestyle, a growing gulp of the local economy. It's hard not to trip over one of the area's 450 espresso carts, 4,000 espresso machines and 10,000 or so baristas. Ten Thousand Baristas, sounds like a band.
HI. WHAT CAN I get for you?
Usually after noon a couple of guys with rock-star hair still damp from the shower wander into Uptown Espresso at the bottom of Queen Anne Hill and order Americanos, please. That's espresso with hot water, no milk, 40 cents cheaper than a latte.
The milk issue is kind of a guy thing, explains Lisa Vanderbeck, the barista with the double-pierced ear; the rockers from Mother Love Bone always shunned milk.
Andrew Wood was their lead singer. He lived in the apartment above Vanderbeck, then 25, and her new boyfriend, Paul Weir, a painter-turned-law-student-turned-back-to-painter, a hunk she fell for hard, immediately, the first time he came into Uptown and asked for a short Americano.
"Those were our glory days," the barista says, licking the foam off a latte. "It was fun. We just played."
Days in the cafe, nights at the Vogue, semesters on and off at the UW. Rent for their huge one-bedroom near the Uptown was cheap because she and Paul cleaned the apartment building's hallways. The barista was in love, Mother Love Bone was about to release its first LP on Polygram Records, Wood was kicking his heroin habit and had been clean for 116 days.
Somehow it always seemed like summer. But it was really March 1990. Vanderbeck sets down her latte to tell the rest of the story.
A guy was yelling at Wood's windows, "LANDREW! LANDREW!" He pronounced it with an L in front, so irritating, public noise on a private night of watching TV, making love, reading.
Pretty soon the guy went away, but Vanderbeck believes he left a hit for Wood that never wore off. A while later, a siren. Red ambulance lights ricocheted off the ceiling and walls. Xanna, Wood's girlfriend, stood there in the doorjamb in a filmy dark dress, her hands shaking wildly as though she was about to drop her cigarette. Wait, did she have a cigarette? It's all so long ago, so blurry. She needed a ride to the hospital. Wood had overdosed on heroin. He died a few days later. He was 24.
After that, a few of the guys from Mother Love Bone formed Pearl Jam with Eddie Vedder. Xanna moved out. Vanderbeck left Uptown and worked as paralegal for two years before burning out on lawyers and the child molesters they defended. Pearl Jam hit it big.
"They were totally neighborhood guys," the barista says of the rockers from Mother Love Bone. "I served coffee to them and they became famous. Pearl Jam became so huge." She pauses, shakes her latte, now cold and with a wrinkled skin of milk floating on top.
"I always wondered, if Andrew Wood hadn't died, what would have happened to Eddie Vedder?"
Vanderbeck went back to cafe life, this time at Vivace, on Capitol Hill. Same ache in the shoulder from whomping the coffee grounds to a sheen ("espresso stress," the baristas call it), same blisters. It's like riding a bicycle. The rhythm returns, the style comes back: rolling foam, whirling between the cash register and espresso machine, pointing at customers who space out in line. You! Hi! What do you want?
These days, what 30-year-old Vanderbeck wants is to graduate from being a barista.
It's Saturday morning in the green and wood Capitol Hill cafe, and yesterday Nirvana's lead singer, Kurt Cobain, was found in his Lake Washington home shot dead, pumped with heroin, suicide at 27. The theme from "The Partridge Family" plays on the radio. Newspaper pages turn. Vanderbeck chews a bagel.
She stares at a photo of Cobain in a striped shirt and ripped jeans. His incredibly blue eyes. Cobain clutching a baby bottle while Courtney Love, all satin and red lipstick, holds their plump baby daughter.
"Wow," Vanderbeck says. She stacks smooth white cups and sorts silverware and suddenly it all feels kind of strange.
At 2 o'clock, her shift will be over. In a year, the barista will have a master's degree in education from Western Washington University. She and Paul are still together and they scraped up a 5 percent down payment for a ratty house on Capitol Hill.
The T-shirt with the double-pierced ear says over and over, like a mantra, how she can't wait to teach urban kids, earn more than $10,000 a year, own a washer and dryer, goodbye Generation X.
TWENTY-FIVE years ago, right out of high school, you could have gone into the woods, joined the mill, worked the line in an aerospace factory.
Manufacturing was where it was at, and one in four workers in King and Snohomish counties did just that. Another large chunk of workers, 16 percent, buttoned on pastel uniforms embroidered with their names and headed for service jobs as waitresses, gas-station attendants, beauticians. There were no baristas.
Now the numbers have flip-flopped. One in four workers waits tables, pumps gas, cuts hair, pours espresso; 18 percent of workers are in manufacturing. Of twentysomething baristas in Seattle, 96 percent wear black on and off the job; 99 percent hate fluorescent light and office cubicles. Your corner barista pulls 230 shots a day and earns $9,000 a year.
Service-industry jobs pay less than manufacturing.
During the last two decades here, employment rose, incomes fell. Especially for people in their 20s. Across the nation, average household income dropped by 21 percent in homes headed by adults younger than 30. One in four King County residents between the ages of 18 and 34 lives in poverty and earns less than $6,800 a year, according to the 1990 federal census.
You could get depressed and whiny. Or you could pour yourself another cup of espresso.
Make that a quadruple shot.
ON THE WAREHOUSE SIDE of Capitol Hill, where REI hikers share sidewalk with smokers from the Comet Tavern, a barista with screaming red hair pours the last of the dozen shots he normally drinks during an eight-hour shift at Cafe Paradiso. The caffeine rises into his heart, revs it, and then flushes smooth and warm through his face. End of the day, start of the night for 21-year-old Odin Bettinger.
By 8 p.m. the tips jar has a nice heft and glitters when Bettinger pours it onto the faux marble counter. He exchanges the pennies, nickels and quarters for bills. $36.62. Not bad.
The thing that's nice about being a barista is always leaving work with cash to spend, good friends to hang out with, places to go, the night stretched out with possibilities. Isn't that what's important?
Bettinger gathers his gear: a black leather jacket studded with zippers and snaps; a cup of macchiato; a used paperback about Madame Curie's daughter's husband; a pack of Old Gold 100s; a cassette tape; snapshots of his friend's thrash band at the Vogue last month. A still life on a cafe table, everything he needs.
Friends strolling Broadway spot the barista a block away, his scarlet hair against black leather, his silver earrings, tongue stud, and nose hoops reflecting the light from shop windows.
Kurt spins by on Rollerblades, ropes him into an imagination game called Magic next Sunday. Ugh, there's that sleazy guy who's been trying to hit on Chelle. The cocktail waitress from Ernie's floats past in a flowered dress, hi, Marie. A Long Island iced tea would taste really good, but, no, not now.
Every five steps, someone else. Hey, Odin, lemme bum a cigarette, wanna look through records at the Orpheum, meet us at the Cloud Room at 11, Linda's Tavern at 9, where's Chelle?
At Linda's Tavern on Pine Street, Chelle is in his arms, her black velvet vest soft and clean against his chin. They pool their tips, hers from styling hair and his from pulling lattes, and buy pitchers of dark stout and thick microbrew. The tavern table is crowded with glasses, candy-colored cigarette lighters, friends wearing variations on black.
Joaquin smokes clove cigarettes and draws tattoos on people's hands with a felt-tip marker. Keeley shakes his mottled dreds, slides quarters into the jukebox, selects Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night" three times in a row. Maarit is visiting from Finland. She spotted Bettinger's roommate, Evan, in a bar in Prague, gave him a flower, wrote him a poem and, well, here they are now. Bettinger kisses Evan on the lips, a long kiss, and hugs Maarit.
The conversation skips from linoleum block prints to Norse mythology to buying a case of Top Ramen at Costco. "Have you ever noticed," Bettinger muses, "how the best bars never have fluorescent lights?"
At 11:40, one of the friends starts screaming and most everyone joins in, mouths gaping like cups of dark coffee. The sound is raw and dizzy, pure reverb splashing off the pool table, jukebox, bar glasses.
At midnight, Bettinger huddles at a sidewalk pay phone scrolling through numbers on his Sharp electronic organizer, inviting more friends to join them. They hang out until 4 a.m. in Bettinger's apartment. Everyone smokes and laughs.
Ten years from now? It's kind of hard to imagine, the barista says. Why would you want it to be any different? And anyway, how are things going in your personal life? Are you happy?
When a 1992 Gallup poll asked that, 82 percent of Generation X-ers said they were satisfied with their lives, a higher percentage than any other age group.
This April, Paradiso taped a slip of paper to the cafe door - Experienced Barista Needed - and got 36 applications in three days.
IT'S THE HOUR WHEN caffeine reigns and the regulars are lined up for their morning fix at Caffe D'arte, a brass and jazz Belltown cafe.
What the heck, it's Wednesday. Give 'em a show. Flip the cup off the fingers, catch it on the third somersault, spin the syrup bottle, swirl the milk foam so it looks like a heart. Good. A smile from that woman with the freckles. And a tip.
"The difference between when I'm in a good mood and a bad mood behind the bar is $10 a day," says 23-year-old barista Josh Crow.
It's not really a scam. Call it customer training. Like always handing back change over the tips jar, pausing in the air, maybe bumping it. Clink! Or making sure to give back three different coins. That way, even if a customer won't surrender a quarter, they might give up a dime or a nickel.
Then there's the ripped dollar bill. Crow would never deface U.S. currency himself, but if it happens to be ripped already, why not give it back as change. People always stuff torn bills into the tips jar.
And jokes. Self-deprecating quips. Good-humored gibes lobbed at the regulars. Especially when they're two, three back in line looking a little lost. Makes them feel special, like, hey, my barista knows me well enough to insult me.
Take the yuppie architect with the trimmed ponytail and sculpted silver belt buckle over there waiting for his latte. He comes in every day. Sometimes twice a day. Mocha at noon if things aren't going well at the office. He's taking the afternoon off to go to a game. What a slacker, Crow tells him. What's with the three-hour workday between nine and noon? Leave your change if you want to. Yuppie architect laughs. He'll be back.
"By opening the small bars, interacting with the consumer is becoming a beautiful process in Seattle," says Dr. Ernesto Illy, an Italian chemist and coffee roaster who recently toured America lecturing about specialty coffee. "People are looking for who is behind the machines . . . He is not a movie star, but he is a little star."
Crow feels like a star some days behind the bar, bantering about art shows and the Sonics, a $300 Elgin driving watch curved against his wrist, $200 Italian leather shoes wrapped around his feet. Yeah, the watch and the shoes do get mucked up with steam, splattered with milk, dusted with coffee pollen, but practicality is not the point here.
"Personal style is foremost," the barista says, motoring his white '66 Ford Mustang over the Magnolia bridge. "Nobody has it anymore. It's a lost art."
Today is moving day. Well, one of them. Got about an hour for a quick run back to Mom's house in Magnolia. Enough time to load one box and paw through the stuff strewn around his old bedroom: laundry, Cracker Jack boxes, stuffed animals, "Monty Python" scripts, a Bush/Quayle campaign poster.
Crow's new apartment, his first, is in Belltown, on the ninth floor above Caffe D'arte. It has a view of the city, a sleek gray carpet, a futon, no chairs. Crow knows seven people in the building. Two are baristas and the others are regular customers, including the high-rise window cleaner next door who's hooked on double shorts and heights. They play darts late at night at a bar down the block.
"Downtown has an edge, a different attitude," Crow says. "I love the energy."
Crow wanted to move away from his mom's brick house and the weedless Magnolia neighborhood a week ago, a month ago, six months ago - but things kept coming up.
First there were job offers. Sydney, Australia; Austin, Texas; Portland; Greenwood Avenue. Espresso is spreading across the country faster than beans spilled from a bag, and coffee people press their cards on him at trade shows, gimme a call if you're interested. So far, Crow has turned them all down. One planned to use an inferior coffee roast from California. Another's customers were the type who would order pretentious drinks, double tall mint mochas.
"I can't even understand people who want cream or sugar in their regular coffee. What's the point?"
Then there was the matter of maybe saving to go back to Seattle Central Community College, where he had been studying art history. "I'll feel like a loser if I don't," Crow says. "I would not feel happy with even a four-year. I want a master's, at least."
Someday after coffee, Crow's dream is to be a museum curator, but it's so far off. He'd have to slog through boring math and English survey courses (which were why he quit in the first place), then a four-year degree, then a graduate degree and THEN, the barista says, "You'd have to wait for someone to DIE to get that job."
"I don't feel I have to be in my chosen career by 30. The cost is too great. . . . Ninety percent of the people are going to be doing a job they don't want to be doing, but it pays their bills and gets them to the next point. You're living from the 2nd to the 17th. I don't need that. I want to spend time doing the things I want."
That's what the latest moving delays were all about. Couldn't miss the Sonics. Picked up some tickets to hear KMFDM at the Oz. Hard-core industrial, screaming, bodies flying. It was great.
Crow wrestles the box into the Mustang's back seat. His mom peers out the basement door into the garage. She can't understand why he wants to live downtown. She's a widow who wears her gray braid in a bun and drinks whatever coffee was on sale at the market last month. Folgers Instant is fine.
This will sound mundane to anybody else, Crow says, but on his 23rd birthday, his mom suddenly jumped up from the tapestry-covered piano bench, ran to her bedroom and returned with a paperback copy of the 1994 Poet's Market. It lists 1,300 publishers. Crow's verse is dark, scribbled in pencil and filed away in a binder. His mom, the only one who ever encouraged him, hasn't read most of it.
Breaking hearts lie broken/Like statues at my feet
Holy souls lie open/ Baking in the heat . . .
"Even if I get rejected 1,300 times, it's still kind of cool," he says of his mom's gift.
But today the barista is trying to move out and his mom is bugging him about details. Dishes. Silverware. Wastebaskets. People need odds and ends to live, she tells him.
"You don't have a good knife," she says. "I made you some bread. Do you want me to stick it in the box here?"
Crow needs to leave.
"See ya," he says. No kiss.
"You don't know when?"
"No, I don't."
The '66 Mustang coughs back to life and Crow heads for his new Belltown apartment with its view of Lake Union and its lack of odds and ends. He sparks his cigarette on the electric stove burner because his lighter is out of fluid. He leans against the refrigerator and takes a long deep drag.
Espresso, whenever he craves it, is in the cafe nine floors down.
Paula Bock is a Pacific staff writer. Harley Soltes is Pacific's photographer.
Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.