student life

HELP, call the Police – life as a Coffee Shop Barista

I’ve never been so inexorable as to purposefully evade all the trendy new things young people are into; my thrifty, second-hand collection of ‘The Smiths’ and ‘Velvet Underg

I’ve never been so inexorable as to purposefully evade all the trendy new things young people are into; my thrifty, second-hand collection of ‘The Smiths’ and ‘Velvet Underground’ vinyl is testament to that. But four years ago I wasn’t so savvy about such things as I am now. The word frappé was Greek to me and for all I knew mochaccino was a made up word. With that in mind, imagine my ineptitude when I walked into a franchised high-street coffee outlet in London and asked for: “A cup of coffee, please.”

The barista’s eyes turned to slits behind her tortoise shell spectacle frames and the sound of the next Chuck Palahniuk typing behind me fell  to silence.   

“Zis way mon ami” she said, affecting an accent different from the one she had used a moment ago to announce the sale of a ‘non-fat blueberry muffin’. Not that I’m a whiz with accents by any means, but I can always tell where a person is from when they say the words: ‘non-fat blueberry muffin’. I’ve also had some success with ‘this penguin is a cheat,’ but it comes up far less often in a casual setting.

I followed her through a door marked private, into a smoke filled corridor which was guarded by a surly man in a turtle neck and beret.   

“What’s ze password?” he growled without removing his cigarette.

“A cup of coffee please,” said my guide, at which he stepped aside and allowed us to pass.

“Apologies for ze security precautions” she said, “but we cannot ‘ave just anyone walking in ‘ere. ‘Ence ze password.”

“About that, could I get it to go?”

“Very funny comrade, you’ll go far ‘ere.”

We went through another door into a dimly lit room. The walls were covered in city maps with lengths of string connecting things. A man in a beret and military jacket was blowing smoke at the wall.

“Allo Maurice.” said my captor. Maurice spun around, pulled a pistol from a cardboard cup and pointed it at me. “Eez okay, eez one of us,” she said.

“Ah,’ he said, “zen welcome to ze resistance, I am Maurice, ze ‘ead barista”

“Err…black, no sugar.” I said. After a pause he threw his head back and laughed, slapping me on the back with sufficient force to knock the gum out of my mouth and onto the wall somewhere between Baker Street and Oxford Circus.

“Ave a seat, comrade” he said, shoving me into a tiny leather armchair. “Would you like something to drink? A latte, or perhaps a refreshing macchiato?”

“I just came in for a cup of coffee.”

“Then let me make you an americano, unless you’re more in ze mood for a mocha?”

“Please…I don’t know what’s going on.”

“But of course you do comrade” he said, pushing a hissing steam wand close to my face. “You were clever enough to find your way back ‘ere. You are a spy!”

“I’m just a customer, I swear.”

“What makes you think you can come ‘ere and learn our secrets” he said, now starting to foam.

“I don’t know anything. Please.”

“Don’t play dumb spy. You mean to tell me, you haven’t been monitoring our covert communications?”


“Ze little poppers on top of ze lids! You expect me to believe you thought zey were zere for no reason!”

“I thought they were there to tell you if the coffee had milk or was decaf or…”

“Zen why do we write it on ze side!?” he yelled, throwing his cap to the ground and jumping up and down.

“I don’t know!” I said “Please, just let me go.”

“And what about ze cup sizes?”

“What about them?”

“ZEY MAKE NO SENCE! ‘Ow does tall mean small? Eh? Grande is medium? Come on.”

The girl who brought me in nodded sternly.

“I hadn’t thought about it!” I said.

“Of course you ‘ave. ‘Ow could you not?”

“I was distracted, I was reading a book.”

“A book? Alone in a coffee shop reading a book? Zat’s your cover? You will ‘ave to do better zan zat spy.”

“I just want to go home.”

“Impossible. You know too much for us to let you go.”

“What are you going to do with me?”

“Ow does minimum wage sound?”

I’ve been a barista here for four years now. Next year I move up to assistant manager. I still don’t know much about what’s going on here but I’m getting the hang of the secret codes. If you ever come in and someone ‘forgets’ to stamp your loyalty card – that’s my little way of saying ‘help, call the police.’