The Experience Cafe
It was the last week of July and my glorious days at The Rutgers Summer Acting Conservatory were drawing to an end. The reason I’d come home, to be the Associate Director of RSAC, was ending and I was about to embark on my 2nd move this year and hopefully the last move for a while: Philadelphia, PA. My last move had been traumatizing in ways that I thought I’d foreseen, but alas, just cause you know it’s going to hurt doesn’t mean it hurts any less. I’m breathing better now.
My main concern post-RSAC was what to do while I waited for Grad school to start. I would be studying Arts Administration and hopefully write a thesis on International Arts Education (work in progress..please hold). But this all started at the end of September. What would I do for nearly two months and more importantly, how was I going to pay for this naturally exorbitant American life?
So I applied to several arts/cultural gigs in the Philly area. To my pleasant surprise, there were a multitude of openings that I was perfect for! If I weren’t starting my graduate degree, there were even some full time gigs that seemed made for me. RATS! Well, at least I can get an interesting and relevant job in my sector.
“I’m sorry, but although you have the skills we’re looking for, you are far too overqualified for this job”
“You seem like a great fit, but we feel you’d be better suited for our Education Coordinator position and would be bored with the Visitor Guest Experience role.”
“I don’t usually write personal notes but you really should apply to something that is equal to your skill level!”
“You seem very educated, so this won’t work.”
“Sorry, we can’t meet your salary requirements at this time”
But I didn’t ask for anything..
“We still can’t meet your salary requirements”
What is happening? My cover letters indicated that I was a Grad student looking for some side work, not that I was trying to do more than what they asked! I felt horrible and my feeling horrible about this “ideal problem” made me feel privileged which therefore made me feel annoyed…then I was angry…then I was sad…then I realized I was gonna be on the streets if I didn’t do something. Skip to an old old friend who had connections at a chain cafe in Philly….He could get me a job as a barista to help me get by. Something simple where I can rack up hours of easy work. Better than nothing, right? Plus this is exactly what I would advise my friends to do when they were having a hard time finding teaching jobs in Barcelona. None of them listened, of course, but that led to a super difficult life that they had let happen to themselves. I didn’t want to let my pride get in the way of my belly. I like my belly. PLUS soon, my graduate assistantship would start (and pay), Rutgers would start again (and pay) and I’d be in a MUCH better place.
So I agreed. I called up the manager with my friend’s name on my lips and told him to hire me. He said sure but had some reservations..
Manager: So these aren’t college students that work with me…they’re…um…well…inner city people…you know..that are very territorial…
J: I don’t mind where they’re from, that’s not relevant.
Manager: Well it is..cause um..they might not take to you well..you’re far more educated than they are and um well…they won’t relate to you in many ways..
I then realized what he was trying to say. He thought I was white. And obviously, his employees were all black. Also, what the actual hell?
J: It’s not going to be a problem. I can assure you.
When I showed up to sign the contracts, he, of course, pissed himself. He did not expect a Latina to stroll in through the door. Then he told me he was relieved. I, on the other hand, was disgusted.
So here I sat with this big white guy, telling me about people of color in his work place. I looked at him with furrowed eyebrows. He realized this. He pulled back slightly.
No buddy, we’re not speaking the same language here just because you and I were lucky enough to get degrees. I don’t look at the world that way. While I recognize that I was privileged in my upbringing, I don’t naturally approach my relationships with people with my degree stapled to my forehead, thinking that that makes me better than those who don’t have it…as you obviously do.
I have the unique perspective of having been brought up in a Latino culture as well as an American culture. I bounce back and forth between the realms like you don’t even know. I rock out to my 80’s Bon Jovi while cooking rice and beans. I dance salsa in between my Golden Girls episodes. I dream in both English and Spanish. My American friends think I’m SUPER Spanish (not correct but it’s how they say it) and my Latino friends/family think I’m SUPER GRINGA. As Selena’s father says in Selena The Movie, a classic Latino staple: “And we gotta prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are, and we gotta prove to the Americans how American we are, we gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time. It’s exhausting. Damn. Nobody knows how tough it is to be a Mexican American.” I literally clap every time I see this part. It’s the same for other Latinos as well and probably for other ethnicities too. So NO we do not have common experiences and NO you don’t understand these people, nor do you try and it’s so painfully obvious it hurts. More on this later…
He sat there giving me their names and conditions some of them had (bi-polar, ADD etc) and pretty much telling me that they were going to resent me just for being the way I was and “speaking correctly”. All I would repeat to him was… “They are people and they will like me because I’m chill. Let’s not make this into a thing.”
He didn’t believe and honestly, I didn’t care. He was what was wrong with this society. And I was here to prove the opposite.
I walked in and immediately got looks. I was the new girl and it’s true, I’m not black. I didn’t care. My life is being a new girl…same game, different location, this time I’m not the darkest, but the lightest…It’ll be fine. The Manager threw me right into the mix of things on my first day. Had me on a cash register within the first 5 minutes of my arrival “since I was smart enough to figure it out and move quickly” therefore no one was assigned to train me. For the rest of the shift I just had to pick things up “since I was smart enough to figure it out and move quickly”. Well hot damn. And there I went. Luckily, two of the girls there took to me and would coach me unofficially. They were super nice and curious to find out more about me so we bonded. I made them laugh within 2 minutes of knowing them and I knew I was in. For the rest of the week, I had these two ladies rolling on the floor laughing, the guys in the sandwich line crushing on me and the guys in the back asking me if I was alright and getting things off tall shelves for me. I even got a nickname, Butter Pecan Deluxe, thanks to my “nice tan skin”. I laughed so hard with this. I would come in, greet everyone, ask them how their day/weekend was, ask for more detail, tell them how I was REALLY feeling (my back was killing me most days) and shared in the disgust that sometimes we had to open and sometimes we had to close.
But we did it together. That’s not to say there wasn’t a problem. There was literally one. And I took care of it and now that girl and I are fine. As I said to my new cohort, one of the two girls I loved to make laugh…I’m all shits and giggles till you fuck with me..then I’m ready to roll. I got a lot of respect after that day the other chick and I had a problem. Then we cleared it and moved on. The Manager of course shit himself…I told him to relax, everything was under control. He told me I had tough skin. Um. Yeah, I know.
I’ve learned so much from this experience. So here goes:
It’s not as easy as it looks
- If you know me, I’ve probably tried to con a massage out of you…AKA I have a crooked back. It’s been pretty bad for years and with this recent fall at the beginning of August, it’s only gotten worse. Standing around for a chunk of hours without fluid movement is KILLER. Even my coworkers that don’t have a bad back complain of similar pain.
- You’ve got to be able to multitask to a ridiculous extent. Making a yogurt parfait while finishing up a coffee order and getting change from a slow cash register for a moody and probably wasteful customer takes practice. My whole life I’ve admired waiters, bartenders etc because I wondered how they could do what they did without dropping everything or having a mental shutdown. Add to this, the physical stress. My admiration was not misplaced.
A Consumer Culture: The waste oh the terrible waste!
- WE WASTE SO MUCH FOOD. I cannot begin to tell you how much food we waste behind the scenes. At the end of the night, several drinks get thrown out, several salads…whatever wasn’t purchased? Out. Nothing more. I closed ONCE. ONCE! And I promise you I won’t do it ever again..I was in pain over all the food/drink we were wasting knowing how many poor people there are out there in the streets of Philly. If I were a head honcho for this cafe I’d make sure this food got to them somehow. It’s ridiculous. We have several stores. If they are all wasting the way we are…I can’t even continue…
- WE USE SO MUCH PLASTIC. Apart from the food waste we also have a crazy amount of plastic waste. Those drinks and salads get tossed in their containers. I cannot stress enough how much this is damaging our Earth.
- DO NOT BUY JUST AN APPLE OR WATER BOTTLE IT’S A WASTE OF YOUR MONEY, WAWA IS NEXT DOOOOORRRR!!! YOU ARE PAYING TRIPLE THE PRICE! ARGHHH!
Does it matter if you’re Black or Butter Pecan or..?
Yes. But it also matters how you live it. No one actually cared that I was not Black. In fact, the 2nd or 3rd day after being named Butter Pecan, another girl told me she was glad they’d hired someone who wasn’t black so it wouldn’t look so “Slavery-like”. YIKES. Glad I could help I said with a chuckle. But she was right. I happen to know that each of these stores including others of a similar service, have ALL Black employees and then, weirdly enough, the ones I’ve seen have big white guys that have NO IDEA how to communicate with their team. A manager in training came through our store and was told to practice his managerial skills with us and he couldn’t have alienated my coworkers more in his approach. I, because I was educated in a very white (and God-fearing Catholic) environment had no problem “huddling up” because I felt bad and knew what he was trying to do. This poor guy had read through his “How To Be A Manager: A Classic Approach”(made up but pry exists) really hard . Bless his soul. The others looked at him like he was out of his mind. I, knowing he was out of his mind but meant well, asked the others how he could have done that better and not be so insulting. They just wanted it straight, and they certainly didn’t want information they deemed obvious tossed in their faces. List what you want if it differs…otherwise, don’t insult me. Fair enough I thought. Our manager isn’t much better. He’s friendly enough but I also happen to know he loooooves his gossip and although I do believe he’s a good guy, he’s got a lot to learn in relating. So far he’s floating, but I’m not sure for how much longer. He doesn’t seem very content.
After working there for a bit over a month, I’ll be giving my notice in the coming days. Why? Because yesterday I had my Grad school orientation and I realized I need to keep the free time I have, just that…free! Free for my other work, free for play, free for crying when I can’t get MLA or APA or whatever right. Also, my back really can’t handle the work which is ironic considering how active of a person I am. Lastly, I can’t justify working there on the weekends for such little pay…not that I deserve more, because I don’t, but it won’t make or break me if I’m smart with my other cash flow.
In conclusion, I am extremely grateful to have had this time working there. I truly am. I have met some amazing and giving people who are mischaracterized because of the color of their skin, their backgrounds, ways of expression and lifestyles. I’ve experienced similar prejudices and although I’m not going to pretend I can relate to their every day, we certainly have things in common and that’s what really united us. We’re people. We each have hopes, dreams, bad times and good times. I also learned a lot about the food service industry and was able to challenge myself with a very different kind of work. I also had to practice NOT JUDGING MYSELF because believe you me, it’s not easy going from Associate Director of a theatre conservatory program at a university/language professor to barista, no matter how temporary. That hurt a lot. But I DID learn and I DID gain from it, so it was worth it.