In between its coverage of bushfires and floods Fairfax media has recently seen fit to run several opinion pieces on the “problem” of kids behaving badly in cafes. Maybe it was a slow week. After all Craig Thompson hadn’t yet been stripped naked.
But I have to say during my barista days, I honestly never minded the screaming babies. I could even take all those annoying requests for weak decaf, soy lattes with honey with something approaching aplomb. But, in my book, there’s a far worse scourge blighting cafes across our burnt and flooded land; a scourge that lingers long after the screaming babies have left the building. It’s those lingering patrons who seriously overstay their welcome, day after day.
At the café where I worked as a barista (most days I’d put together a decent flat white) until fairly recently, Janice’s daily arrival, typically in the middle of the lunchtime rush, always drew a chorus of muted groans and sighs from all the staff. From her idiosyncratic attempt to “park” her much pranged VW as close as possible to the entrance, to her commandeering of the table that afforded her an excellent vantage point; her presence annoyed the hell out of everyone. She’d always try to engage us in small talk as we ferried food and drinks past her to the impatient punters.
Don’t get me wrong, I never minded a chat –as long as it constitutes a two-sided affair. A meeting of minds always offered a welcome respite, however brief from the repetitiveness of café work. But Janice never had any interest in what I or my workmates had to say. She simply craved our undivided attention – enough could never be enough. Having already been barred from several of the other cafes in town – her trenchant criticism of their service was never going to go down well – we were literally her last culinary option in town.
Most people grow old gracefully. Janice wasn’t most people. She was well past not caring what others thought about her faux-haughty demeanour. Having seen off several husbands, she had no intention, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, of shuffling off any time soon to an assisted care facility. With her unsteady gait and shortness of breath, she was barely managing to live independently.
Of course Janice was lonely beyond belief. She was lonelier than a lost child at Moomba. Her loneliness was palpable. Is there anything more poignant than a long-since cleared table and the customer forlornly sipping on yet another unnecessary glass of water?
Most of Janice’s friends had died or gone to ground. Her irate persona and her inexhaustible supply of caustic comments did not endear her to others, and she was seldom joined by anyone at her table. On one memorable occasion, she even chided a local politician for licking his fingers as he turned the pages of the café copy of the newspaper. And if her muggachino wasn’t past boiling point or not strong enough, I’d never hear the end of her griping.
Whatever community supports were available, they were never up to scratch as far as Janice was concerned. All attempts by the local council to offer any assistance were curtly rebuffed. Meals on wheels were rejected out of hand. “I won’t eat that muck,” was Janice’s withering put-down comment. So she came to rely on our café for her daily sustenance. It was never her mere presence that I resented. Nor for that matter was her unbridled enthusiasm for Tony Abbott. Rather it was her patent need for attention and company that I found most frustrating. And, as a busy café, we could never come close to assuaging her loneliness.
Hospitality staff cop more than their fair share of demands in the workplace. From the miserly award, to the expectations that we act as impromptu social workers to our customers; it’s a tough, often thankless gig. We don’t expect our dentist to offer us any tips on the housing market or the economy. So why should so many extra demands placed on those of us who choose to work in hospitality?
As a society we’ve never managed all the needs of those who are socially isolated and lonely. And the sad reality is that café workers don’t have the time to accommodate the Janices of our world. Against all my instincts, I’d duly serve Janice her boiling mug of coffee and brace myself for her withering feedback which was as inevitable as our rooster’s cries at dawn.
So I say, bring me your screaming babies, any day.