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Fay's Beach Buzz

The Daily Grind

By Fay Jacobs


Fay Jacobs

No coffee beans were injured in the making of this story.

Let's face it. There are jobs people can and cannot do. My career is talking and writing. I seem to be able to direct plays. But I flunked algebra and probably still hold the New York State SAT record for the widest split ever recorded between math and English. And I'm a complete bust at anything requiring eye-hand coordination.

I learned this once at a dinner theatre where folks drank Kahlua & Cream and Brandy Alexanders with their comedies. One night we were short a cocktail waitress and some genius suggested the director pitch in.

Now I know I got good tips. I used my talking skills to let my customers in on scurrilous backstage gossip and despite my spilling a Sloe Gin Fizz all over myself (eye-hand thing), people had fun. Good tips.

But by evening's end, my tip pocket was empty thanks to my fuzzy math in making change. I was the first person in dinner theatre history ever to make more money in show biz than waiting tables. So food service was not a career path for me.

Fast forward thirty years. A friend, who shall remain blameless, is part owner of a coffee shop. One morning her co-owners were at a coffee convention while she stayed here to hold the fort. At 8 a.m. I got a call asking me to make an emergency run for capers and cream cheese.

By the time capers-r-us delivered, it was clear that the lone barista was in deep Cappuccino. A line of customers stretched down the Mews alley toward Baltimore Avenue. These folks didn't seem surly, but they hadn't been caffeinated yet either and I feared eventual civil disobedience.

Figuring an unskilled barista was better than nothing, (in hindsight, perhaps a tactical error) I fought my way around the counter and into the coffee business. "I can help for a few minutes," I said to no one in particular as you couldn't hear squat over people shouting for double skinny raspberry chocolate Macchiatos.

"Here, can you rinse the spout of this bottle?"

How hard can that be? I unscrewed the cap, withdrew the spout and shot Ghiradelli chocolate syrup straight down the inside of my shirt. I fought the urge to bow my head and lick.

From there I followed orders to wipe crumbs off the sandwich and bagel station, identify empty coffee urns, joke with the customers and keep away from the chocolate brownies (my weakness).

"Fill this cup with San Francisco Blend beans and pour them into the grinder."

Okay Frisco Blend, Frisco Blend. I located it on the top row. I held the cup under the wide-mouthed spout, reached up and pulled the handle, releasing a torrent of beans into the cup. Did I mention the eye-hand coordination thing? By the time my cup runneth over and I lunged to close the floodgate, coffee beans flew at my face like buckshot. And Dick Cheney wasn't even there.

I got to San Francisco alright, but instead of flowers in my hair I got coffee beans.

It was only 10:30 a.m. and I longed for a breakfast blend: vodka and ice. A friend walked into the shop, spied me juggling a pair of drooling coffee filters in one hand and a pot of hot java in the other and burst out laughing. "Now what????" he sputtered.

"I'm helping," I said. At least I hoped I was helping.

"I have a feeling we'll read about this," he said, and I had a feeling he was right. After all, column deadlines come up fast around here.

Besides, I feel an obligation to uphold the ancient art of memoi—unlike author James Frey who has been charged with inventing much of the outrageous material in his best-selling memoir A Million Little Pieces—or, A Million Little Lies, which would have been a more accurate title.

So, truth is, I continued my tour of duty trying not to slip and fall on the splattered coffee beans and trying equally hard to leave the luscious pastries for the general public.

"I'll have lox, on a sesame bagel with cream cheese," said a customer.

Here was something I actually knew how to do—although cutting and shmearing a bagel with my paws in surgical gloves felt more like M*A*S*H than haute cuisine. Then I discovered that capers have a propensity to roll off the lox and bounce all over the floor. In food service, the 5-second rule does not apply, so capers bounced were capers lost.

While an open-faced bagel with capers dotting the smoked salmon may look professional, these customers got their capers embedded in cream cheese sockets secured by a lox blanket so the little suckers stayed put. Function over form.

Who were these customers? It was a cold day in March (as opposed to a cold day in hell, which is when I pictured myself doing this kind of work) but town was packed. While honcho barista was pleased, she wished the crowds hadn't come on a day when she was stuck dealing with the sorcerer's apprentice.

Hour by hour, Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz raced to keep espresso orders from backing up. My premier attempt at actually brewing coffee was a tragic pot of brown sludge (flavor of the week: Nuclear Waste), but I improved as the day went on. Sumatran, Nicaraguan, Guatemalan, Costa Rican, customer orders sounded like the blue questions from Trivial Pursuit.

When business slacked off mid-day, Ms. Barista took a moment to duck next door for refills for the soda case. The second she left, thirteen people appeared (this is true; it's a memoir), requesting things like Mocha Macchiato and double shot vanilla chai espresso grande. My face surely said I didn't know Chai Tea from Tai Chi.

I explained that the real barista had left me holding the tea bag and would be back momentarily. I offered to get cups of plain coffee or tea for anyone wanting something so dreary.

Hours passed. Gee, the last time I'd spent this much time in a coffee house we were singing "Puff the Magic Dragon." Eventually, my mate came to help vacuum the floor.

"You've spilled the beans before, but never like this," she said.

While I am now retired from my fledgling career in food service, it was really a major buzz. I'm proud that I sliced bagels all day without slitting my wrists (accidentally or on purpose) and I now know the difference between an espresso shot and buckshot (does the Vice-President? O.K., I'll stop now).

And I did not, during my tenure, violate any health or food handling rules (happy, Pam?). When I got home, I found capers in my shoe laces and a brassiere full of Ghiradelli chocolate. Same s**t different day? Not in Rehoboth.
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Fay Jacobs, a native New Yorker, spent 30 years in the Washington, DC area working in journalism, theater and public relations. She has contributed feature stories and columns to such publications as The Baltimore Sun, Chesapeake Bay Magazine, The Washington Blade, The Wilmington News Journal, Delaware Beach Life and more.

Since 1995 she has been a regular columnist for Letters from CAMP Rehoboth, and won the national 1997 Vice Versa Award for excellence. Her writing is also included in the 1998 Alyson Publications' anthology Beginnings. Her columns are collected in the recently issued book, As I Lay Frying: a Rehoboth Beach memoir.

She and Bonnie, her partner of 22 years, relocated to Rehoboth Beach, DE in 1999. They have two Miniature Schnauzers and a riding lawn mower.

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