I’ve worked in a few cafes in my time. Such jobs taught me to despise customers, and vow quite sincerely that I would never work in hospitality ever again. But cafés didn’t engender this hatred by virtue of any inherent evilness. I do not regret one minute working in cafes – they introduced me to society.
It’s not a role just anyone can handle, the waitress role. You are flung in the faces of an entire spectrum of people: the unwarrantably arrogant young men who don’t look you in the eye when they tell you what they want, the flustered mothers who don’t have any time or energy for anyone else but their children running rampant, the elderly who have outlived the institutions that were once relevant, who look at you when you take their order as though trying to hear a distant voice through a tin can. It was character-building – a bootcamp for all fretful introverts. The customer spectrum represents all the idiosyncrasies of our culture: the fads (soy piccolo latte), the narratives (the customer is always right), the long, meandering river of history that birthed it all.
But no, once you begin to cotton on that you have been dumped on a grand stage, under blinding floodlights, the novelty of being so intimately privy to the entire show fades pretty quickly. You’re a meagre character struggling to keep up with the various protagonists as they swan on and off, and you soon get sick of the lot of them. You begin to blame them, hate them, for their metaphorical connotations. You begin to see them as genres of people rather than real people, of two-dimensional figures cut out by circumstances, the same circumstances that give rise to the sickening cliques they adhere to, wet uniform shapes stuck on concrete.
In my case, I began to construct bitter, exaggerated theories in my head. I saw customers as ignorant purveyors of a system of economic slavery in their belief that “the customer is always right”. The customer is always right? Surely that notion echoes out of structural dictatorship, not democracy. I am paid enough to provide a technical service, mesdames et monsieurs, not kiss your arse while I’m doing it. Would you dream of talking to me – to anyone! – like that if you didn’t have that money in your hand? This is a free and equal country after all, isn’t it? Isn’t it? (Cue wolfing down of cake or, later, a hearty slosh of Mishka and Emma and Tom.)
I got pretty jaded.
But I’ll never blame cafes themselves. As a consumer of long blacks, soups of the day and banana smoothies myself, I love cafes. They are for me, as much as they are for everyone else.
I love to go there by myself, to sit and people-watch. I like to see the middle-aged man with the paper and the coffee and the creases on his brow sit with his hand to his temple, like a statue for several minutes, or until he shakes out the broadsheet to turn a page. I like to see the children earnestly negotiate the terms of an imaginary game. I like to see the girl sit tapping on her phone with a shiny pointed nail, compulsively smoothing the perfect bauble that is her hair, elbows on the table like a nervous bird on a perch.
I hardly ever read when I go to a cafe alone. I save that for when I have company, which I guess is kind of contrary, thinking about it now. It’s one of my favourite things though, being hungover together reading together, shovelling down the heavenly carbs while those superhuman staff flitter about taking shit, or – more sensibly – delivering it.
Cafes are the bastions of Australian culture in a lot of ways. They’re much of a muchness, really, travelling in the same direction – if at varying distances – behind the conveyor belt of food trends. They never overshoot themselves into restaurant status. Cafes have a special power in that they’re for the people, in more ways than one. Peeling posters, art on the walls, dog-eared children’s books, the inevitable Merv or Bev in the corner with today’s crossword – all a big butcherpaper sketch of the surrounding community. I was amazed at the lack of cafes when I visited Europe. I thought there’d be even more than in Australia, spilling out into French boulevards, tucked into London alleys, sporting cheap fare and a place to sit down and fuck around for hours on end. I didn’t realise they were a modern invention, an Australian one no less.
But things are changing as well. Shiny imposters that look like cafes but act like vending machines are multiplying. Sterile places where the staff wear uniforms and requests to stick up a poster are denied as a matter of course. Despite the fact I would never again work in a café if I could help it, I do hope to god they don’t die out. That would be a real tragedy.