Stamped Hearts

NOVEMBER 18, 1996; TWENTY-FIVE-ISH MILES NORTH OF CHICAGO, IL: I live in a second story walk-in closet with a window and a toilet. The window and the toilet are at opposite ends of the space. Is it ironic that there’s nowhere to hang clothes? And, no, that’s not a phone booth next to the toilet, it’s a shower stall. There’s a “kitchenette,” too. It’s more “ette” than “kitchen.” It’s an all-in-one sink / stovetop / minifridge. If apartments got any narrower than this one, you wouldn’t be able to sleep on your back. I think of it as a walled-in Winnebago wannabe. The floor holds up the ceiling of Arabica Love. (Unless the ceiling of Arabica Love holds up the floor.) Below your feet you can hear the hiss and scream of a steam wand frothing milk; you can hear the grinding of coffee beans; you can even hear old man Holstein shout, “You call this a bagel?” And he still comes in every day—not to buy a bagel, but to complain about it. (To be clear, he buys the bagel and, in so doing, he purchases the right to complain about it.)

Arabica Love isn’t just my downstairs neighbor, it’s where I work. If there’s an award for shortest commute, please nominate me for it. Sometimes, depending on how little I’ve slept, said commute—down a steep flight of stairs—is even shorter. Living above my place of employ has become less a blessing and more a curse. I can’t call the boss and say my car won’t start. I can’t blame the weather or the traffic if I’m late. But when other employees don’t show up, guess who gets called in on his mornings off? And the boss knows if I’m up there. Everybody below can hear me flush the toilet.

If you let Picasso cut your pizza, one of the slices would inevitably match the shape of this little coffee shop. It’s wide at one end and pointy at the other, like a triangle—more obtuse than isosceles. Come to think of it, the makeup of the entire neighborhood is, generally speaking, more obtuse than isosceles.

My Winnebago wannabe’s one window is a few feet above Arabica Love’s door. The owner sets out a few chairs and tables in the spring and summer. Folks who call this neighborhood home aren’t exactly genteel, but most of them have all the trappings of gentility. They tend to shout no matter how close they are to each other. On the bright side, you’ll never hear anybody say, “What?” Many of them sound like geese when they speak. They speak through their noses. It’s a whiny-nasally sound. But it’s strange because it’s a whiny-nasally sound with a faux tough-guy edge. There’s nothing tough about this neighborhood. Everything is soft and pretty. There’s no crime. Everybody drives Porsches and eats squid.

For the record: 
It’s the student debt that’s bitter, not me.
I majored in pipe dreams, 
minored in self-delusion.

I clean, I stock, I serve. I stamp the cups with hearts when business is slow. We can’t have any broken hearts, of course. The boss won’t sell a cup of coffee without a full heart stamped onto it. She won’t even sell one with a heart stamped over the cup’s seam. A seam stamped with a heart is unsightly. Who knows how many of our customers spend hours, if not half the day, or more, staring at their disposable heart stamped coffee cups? If not consciously, each hearted cup is subconsciously appraised for its artistic merit. An opinion is formed one way or another. It cannot be helped. We judge. Even to ignore the heart stamp is to judge it—to deem it unworthy of our attention. Our more dedicated regulars seemingly have the time to get together and compare. No doubt they’ll soon start asking me to sign my work. When that happens they won’t even want the cup filled with coffee. It’ll be to show off, to set on a shelf for display, to trade like a baseball card. You wait, someday, Christie’s will put my cups up for auction.

Once, long ago, when the possibilities lined up with the probabilities, I had huge dreams, wild ambitions. Now I live for stamping paper cups. Nobody can match my stamping speed and accuracy. Not even the boss. They say that everyone has a talent or some area of expertise. (“They” never shut up, either, do they? And yet you never hear directly from “them,” do you?) If nothing else, clearly, I excel at stamping hearts onto paper coffee cups. When I get into a stamping rhythm, I can zone out, zone in, or simply zone. I’ll stamp—fully, perfectly, seamlessly—without even looking at the cup. That’s how good I am. A thick chunk of every afternoon is devoted to stamping. That is, until thirty-odd people suddenly decide they can’t live a second longer without a heart inked cup filled with espresso and frothed milk. All told, I think of myself as an artist and a drug dealer.

Old man Holstein’s wife comes in every afternoon and expects me to follow a specific routine. First, I’ve got to pick out the darkest bagel in the bin, toast it—twice—to a charred crisp, then make her a triple wet cappuccino (which, to me, seems a lot more like a latte). Every Monday, her drink gets a Sweet’n Low. It must be sprinkled on the bottom of the cup before I pour in the espresso. Tuesday, it’s an Equal. Wednesday, it’s a packet of plain sugar. She wants it with a squirt of vanilla on Thursday. On Friday, she orders a regular cup of coffee. Black. But we’re not through with Mrs. Holstein. Remember the bagel? I am never allowed to start her cappuccino before I start toasting the bagel. Never. It doesn’t matter if I spot her through the window, across the street, or down the block. No, I must wait for her to articulate her order from the other side of the counter. Once the bagel is toasted to the likeness of a piece of coal, I pluck it from the toaster and, while it burns the skin off my fingers, she leans in to inspect it. At least once a week she’ll say, “toast it again.” She likes to see smoke rise from the toaster. She wants the smell of a burned bagel to fill the shop. She eats it without a spread or a topping. When I ring her up, she wants her change in quarters. She’ll pay with bills—crisp new ones—but she won’t accept bills, dimes, nickels, or pennies. She doesn’t care if she’s short changed. (This is good news for the tip jar.) She’ll also dig through her purse for dull and soiled quarters. These she expects to exchange for shinier ones, if we have them. So long as there isn’t a line, we’ll play Who’s Got the Grubbier Quarter for twenty-odd minutes. One thing’s for sure, no one at Starbucks would be half as accommodating.

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