Cafe Culture: Where Everybody Knows Your Name And You Wish They Didn’t

Dear CF,

I have a social problem that involves the awkwardness of capitalism and the importance of a good coffee place. It’s about where I work, and it has to do with (oh boy) customer service. Yeesh. I feel like I have to wash myself off after using that phrase. It’s such an uncomfortable concept. That someone is serving you. You didn’t serve me right, person. Serve me, servant!

Yuck, yes? SO AWKWARD. I want to apologize anytime I order anything anywhere. If I could, I’d order things out of a machine and apologize to it. WHO EXACTLY DO I THINK I AM, “ORDERING” THINGS ANYWAY? J. LO?

And yet, things somehow get even worse when the transaction graduates from the purely mercenary to the borderline-social.

Sometimes a woman needs a cafe. I need something pretty specific—roomy, dark, internet-equipped, cheap—and if I don’t leave the house on occasion I become a matted pajama-beast. I had one until recently, and I need to think aloud about for a minute because rehashing the events that follow hasn’t gotten me very far.

It seems like the consumer fantasy is that you get to be a “regular” in a place and everything is better. (Can you tell I’ve been watching a lot of Cheers?) It most certainly does not. Relationships ruin everything.

Rooz has been my go-to spot. It was perfect. Comfortable chairs and big tables. Space! None of those cramped tiny tables where you’re sharing an outlet with four other people. Good music, decent food and coffee. Art on the walls and a vaguely industrial feel that makes studying reasonable—this is not a charming place, it’s a place where I can more or less disappear into work.

Or I could, until the Darkness fell.

The darkness: that moment when you get identified. When the people at a place start remembering you, and it gets awkward because you both know and sometimes they feel like remembering and sometimes they don’t.

It started when they gave me the wrong order—a full breakfast instead of the hash browns. The nice guy at the counter brought it over. I stared at my luxurious breakfast and went up to the counter and offered to pay the difference. The owner happened to be there, waved it away with a smile, said “Enjoy,” and I did. When my friends joined me, they were so taken with my pretty breakfast that they bought full breakfasts too.

Hurrah, right? Everybody wins!

I was really happy about that day.

Every time I went I’d see the guy who brought me the wrong order. The first few times he remembered me and asked if I wanted my regular thing. I usually did. And I felt grateful to him for remembering me, but also just a little unhappy because it couldn’t last. I had a face now, and it doesn’t take much for me to feel self-conscious and slip back into seventh-grade worry about my dumb shoes. I started worrying about my clothes.

Sure enough, one day, he stopped talking to me. No smile, no greeting. Strangers. It was just like that Seinfeld episode where Elaine’s neighbor stops saying hello.

Then a girl who works there started helping me instead, even when he was actually at the register when I walked up. (Or maybe I’m imagining that and they have some sort of mysterious swapping-out system, but I don’t think so.) The first few times were great—she even brought me a special side salad one time. Always asked if I wanted ketchup, etc. And she’s not a person who smiles much. She and the other people behind the counter tend to spend a lot of time chatting and laughing, but it usually switches off when it comes to customers.

Me: surprised and grateful to her. Tips! Lots of tips!

Then, one day, everything is different. Same order, same tip, but she ignored me as much as you can ignore someone whose order you’re taking. Later, she slammed the plate down in front of me so hard that the whole cafe looked up. A couple of other customers stared at me and shrugged. I asked for ketchup (they were hash browns). She walked away, came back and slammed a bottle of ketchup down just as hard. No knife, no fork. Just rage.

I don’t think I did anything. I spent the next hour trying to remember what I’d said, whether I smelled especially bad, if I’d worn a particularly loserish jacket. Most likely she was just having a really bad day, but as far as my rabbit-psyche’s concerned, it’s personal, and I can never speak to her again.

There are two other people who work there who seem totally normal and nice, but I don’t know their schedules. So the place is ruined. The tension destroys me. I feel guilty about ordering, I worry that they’re talking about me (I’m sure they’re not), tell myself I’m being paranoid and stupid for even thinking that, I mean, what kind of a narcissist am I, really, and by then I’m all hyperactivated in the parts of my brain that keep me from concentrating on the work I used get done there before I was anybody to the guy and girl and they were anybody to me.

So I’m looking for a new cafe, big enough to disappear in, quiet enough to work in, ugly enough to distract the people who want a poetic experience. Maybe I’ll go in disguise.

Still. It sucks.

Fondly,
M

5 Responses to Cafe Culture: Where Everybody Knows Your Name And You Wish They Didn’t

  1. LKC says:

    I think I know exactly what you mean. I’m pretty regular at both Roozes in Oakland, though I go to the one on Piedmont more, as it’s closer to my house. And I am not the friendly sort who wants a Cheers-y experience. So I’m more of a nod-in-acknowledgment type, not an extended-small-talk type. I’ve even had that awkward didn’t-get-what-I-ordered situation, and felt uncomfortable trying to resolve it. (I asked for a chai, which I get all the time, but then one time it came with a shot of espresso in it.)

    I’m guessing it’s the Rooz on Park that you’re describing. If you’re on that side of town, you might also try Caffe Diem in the Dimond District or World Ground in the Laurel. Or just the other Rooz on Piedmont (same menu, different staff). Of course, you might just try wearing a big hat and sunglasses next time.

    • Millicent says:

      Yup, it’s the Rooz on Park. I haven’t been to either Caffe Diem or World Ground, but I’m looking them up right now because I need a new place. Thanks for the tip! And I’m relieved you’ve had the same sort of experience. Awkwardness loves company.

  2. Jane says:

    Oh my goodness, could this be more on target? I desperately require aid in this department. Today I wanted to tell my barista straight up: “Hi! I’m having trouble writing in most places but here these days. Still, I have a deadline, so can I just buy things and sit at that table for long, long hours this…entire month?” But the line was moving pretty fast… It’s excruciating.

    • Millicent says:

      It’s like dating, only with even fewer rules of engagement. Maybe we could just pass a note:

      Do you tolerate my presence here? Yes [ ] No [ ] Maybe [ ]

      That one company that makes those oh-so-clever pads that you can use to give people roommate citations or the reasons you’re having a fight needs to get on this. Of course, any barista worth his salt would judge you instantly for owning such a thing.

      • Jane says:

        Out of ALL the self-help and etiquette books out there, I’m just crying for one to steer me through this maze of abundantly uncomfortable interactions.

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