New Orleans Getting up at 430 AM to go to work reminded me of the days worked in the oil fields and offshore after high school where the clock started at 6AM and I had to be in the field or on the boat, or at Luzianne Coffee Company when I was 19 and 20 and had to catch a couple of buses to make it for 7AM. Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday and all of the baristas were hitting the parades and partying down, and I was going to open until noon to support our regulars and those who might be in need of a good “cup of coffee for a change” until noon. A couple of hours playing with the cash register months ago and a quick couple of hours of training on Saturday and another hour on Monday, and I was ready to try and open up, pull shots, pour java, and make it work in some form or fashion. I was counting on some Mardi Gras good spirits from customers willing to be more patient than usual perhaps, and the fact that the tip jar was going to support ACORN International organizers in Latin America as well as anything we cleared on my time and effort. Of course as I told more than one customer, I was also in that rare position where I couldn’t get fired!
In the almost 6 hours I kept the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse open, believe me, it was hopping. I never had a break, not even a cup of coffee, from the time I poured the first cup for a tired regular that had been cleaning up her family’s parade watching spot.
Here’s what you notice behind the coffee bar, sometimes with a bit of surprise:
- I was surprised how few people I saw in costumes?
- It was embarrassing how happy – and patient – most people were at seeing that we were open! One young woman blurted out how happy she was in the thick of a long winding line, I thanked her, and it turned out she had gone to school with my nephew and was another Little Rock girl!
- Standing there working the bar gave a fair number of people the opportunity to mention ways in which they knew me or someone in my family or supported the work or one thing or someone we knew in common, and that was especially nice.
- I did more than 100 tickets and got raves for my espresso drinks (maybe I have a future!), and I bet some 20 or 25 actually thanked me for being open on Mardi Gras, which didn’t make me less tired at the end of my 8 hours there, but did make me feel at least as smart as the average bear for doing this crazy thing.
As an organizer it can be easy to forget while crunching the numbers, evaluating job classifications, and emerging formal and informal work settings, that the service industry, growing so rapidly as a job source throughout the USA and in many places beyond, really is about service. But more than that, embedded in that relationship when it works is not simply a master-slave hierarchical situation, but a sense of shared community, a recognition of commonality that counts as currency both need and mutual dependence. Who knows where the widgets go, highlighting some of the alienation of production, but it seems in the service industry if we embrace it more fully and deeply, we have to be able to use this sense of community in both organizing and, ironically perhaps, delivering better service.
Perhaps my favorite customers were a younger couple, perhaps pushing 30 or so, that came in around 11 or so. It came out that both of them were bartenders working at different places in uptown New Orleans and they had both pulled double shifts the night before. The woman might have been pregnant by 5 or 6 months, though I’ve never been able to tell age or such conditions worth a darned. She wanted a “vampiro,” which is a beet-ginger-etc drink we make that is our most popular new, health juices addition and he wanted a cappuccino, which ended up at 4 shots, 2 of which I “comp-ed” him as it developed. My son, Chaco, had showed up to help me at the tail end of my shift and had two great quiches in the convection oven for them, and while I was pulling his shots, they kept looking at the brownies and chocolate chip cookies, and before it was all done, I had rung up their first order and their second order, and he had thrown $8 or $9 bucks in the tip jar to support ACORN International. They were service workers, too, so when we pulled the quiches out too early, they had quietly gone around the coffee bar and gotten Chaco to put them back in for another couple of minutes. As I move out to lock up the patio door, I saw they were still sitting at a table, food and drink long gone, bent forward to animated and serious conversation.
I’m rootin’ for them and a lot of other folks who shared a minute of conversation, needed their coffee and appreciated getting it hot and strong, joined our community in a quiet spot on a beautiful New Orleans day, and found a piece of peace as the parades rolled on.