I’ve never understood people who seek out bar work. Why work in a bar when you can work in a coffee shop? It’s essentially the same job, but with a fraction of the customers and you get your evenings off. Also there’s an abundance of free cake and caffeinated drinks, sandwiches too. I love my job at the moment, but I do still sort of begrudge having to pay for lunch.
I’ve worked for three coffee companies since moving to London. One with shops in Camden and Soho (good Soho, up the road from Sister Ray), one in Chelsea and Bloomsbury, and one in bad Soho (Carnaby Street, horrible, rubbish Carnaby Street), each one aggressively independent.
This last point is very important when looking for cafe work, for three reasons. One: saying you work in an independent cafe makes people think you have some sort of integrity, that you enjoy artisan bread and listen to vinyl, and that maybe you bought that vinyl at Sister Ray and that perhaps you chose that particular cafe in good Soho because it was, as I’ve already stated, up the road from Sister Ray (IT REALLY WAS!). Two: independent cafes are almost always quiet all the time, because those people who coo at you saying you work in one are the same people who get excited at having a full Nero loyalty card – independent cafes rarely do loyalty cards, nothing in it for them is there? Three: nobody gives a shit in independent cafes. You can give away as much free stuff as possible and charge what you want when an attractive woman (much, much lower) or Chelsea bellend (much, much higher) comes in.
Carnaby was the worst, for various reasons, chief among them being my employers paid me cash in hand (yes!) then asked me for all the tax back when I quit (boo!) – not that I gave them any, but now I can never go back, which is inconvenient because the girl in the Yoga place opposite looked as if she’d been designed by all the men in the world, and was totally into me*. Also, that shop was the scene of my greatest crime. A sweet Spanish couple came in one evening, to shield themselves from the rain. They shared tea and cake, and stared lovingly into one another’s eyes, that kind of loving stare that people from countries with fascist histories do so well (Spanish: check. Italians: check. Germa—DAMMIT). The rain died down, and they left arm in arm. That’s when I saw it: her umbrella. Man, was that a nice umbrella. Great canopy, smooth opening mechanism, terrific weight on it. I took that bad boy home (it started raining again!). They were Spanish and in love, they could shield from the rain with an Evening Standard or something and it’d be a story they could tell at their brilliant Mediterranean wedding, meanwhile I’m not getting pissed on down New Cross Road – everyone’s happy.
The next day, she came back in. She was alone, her face a stony grey. “Excuse me, has anyone handed in an umbrella?” The love had gone, overnight, quick as a flash. Her partner had clearly left her for someone drier, more dependable. This was a broken woman, so what did I do? I did what any other man would have done. I looked her square in the eye and I said: “No, nobody has brought in an umbrella, absolutely not.” She left, soaking. I walked to the bus stop, dry. I went on to lose that umbrella, and I miss it everyday.
Camden was my favourite, by far. Nice people, nice customers, nobody had a clue how to make coffee and all you had to remember was to put cold water in the green & white tea before putting the hot water on. Piece of the proverbial. Apparently now the whole operation has gone a bit Big Brother, video cameras everywhere and the bosses monitoring your every move. Probably a good idea. One time a friend and I managed to convince an ex-colleague to part with a good sixty quid’s worth of stuff. Didn’t take much convincing either.
Though Camden was the cafe’s spiritual home, it was the branch in good Soho that closes our tale. I remember one particularly day, evening setting in, when a flustered looking American chap strolled in from the cold. I greeted him with the enforced joviality we were all taught to adopt, and was met with a gruff: “I want a cup of coffee.” Again, as was my training I replied: “Latte? Cappucinno?” An even gruffer response: “COFFEE!!!” Not having learnt my lesson, I asked if he wanted some cake. Did he fuck. “JUST A BLACK COFFEE!!!” Anyway, he took a seat and groaned into his drink. I carried on clearing up. Ten minutes later the man approached me with a half drunk cup, popping it in front of me. “That was just what I needed,” he said. “My pleasure,” I said. Then, he said something which has stuck with me to this day. He beckoned me closer, and whispered these words, ver batim: “Hey listen kid, I’ll tell ya a secret…there ain’t nothin’ prettier, than a pretty lady.” The man put his hat on, and left, disappearing into the Soho mist, never to be seen again.
*that Yoga lady almost certainly wasn’t into me, but one time apropos of nothing she told me she was a dancer, so I’m inferring it from that really. She almost certainly has no idea of my continued existence, and were she to read this blog would probably call the police.
Posted by Harry