Only a cup of coffee?

“Not that many consumers care to dwell on where their fruit has come from, much less where their shirts were made or who fashioned the rings which connect their shower hose to the basin.

The origins and travels of our purchases remain matters of indifference….

Why, then, endowed as they are with both practical importance and emotional resonance, does so much go unnoticed, except by those immediately involved in the processes?…

Two centuries ago, our forebears would have known the precise history and origin of nearly every one of the limited number of things they ate and owned, as well as the people and tools involved in their production.

They were acquainted with the pig, the carpenter, the weaver, the loom and the dairymaid.

The range of items available for purchase may have have grown exponentially since then, but our understanding of their genesis has diminished almost to the point of obscurity.”

Alain de Botton, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Consider a cup of coffee at your local Starbucks or your local cafe.

Where do the beans come from?

Who picked them?

Who sold them?

How did they get from faraway places with strange-sounding names to your local establishment?

Consider the folks who serve you that coffee.

What kind of folks are they?

Where do they come from?

What led them from their homes to work there making your caffeine fix possible?

Consider your own place of employment.

Unless you work in an extremely small organisation, can you honestly say you KNOW and understand all your co-workers?

And, of course, the further removed they are from your actual worksite or life experience, the less you know and understand and empathise with them.

There is something almost “fly-on-the-wall”-ish about my working at Starbucks part-time, for it seems to lend me a perspective of seeing both the forest as well as the trees, i.e. I see and experience the on-the-job experience yet being part-time kind of lends the experience a sense of surreality.

I am an English-as-a-second-language teacher, a very unambitious freelance writer and a part-time barista at two Starbucks “stores” in St. Gallen in northeastern Switzerland.

My two stores are filled with workers from scattered parts of the world: Asia, Europe and the Americas.

(I am sure that Africans and Australians are soon to join!)

Working in a cafe is sometimes a positive experience: the interaction with customers, the camarderie of “brothers-and-sisters-in-arms”, the variety of experiences that occur when the world comes a-knockin’ on your door.

Working in a cafe is sometimes a negative experience:

…customers suffering from the twin maladies of ignorance and apathy,…

(They don’t know and they don’t care about the workers.)

(Just make the damn coffee.)

…too much intimacy between workers who see one another too long and too intensely, more than they do their spouses or intimate partners,

(We spend 80% of our adult lives working.)

(Familarity can sometimes breed contempt.),

…and the inevitable disappointment that such a job offers due to low pay, low career prospects and low respect from others.

So this forced intimacy, the demands and stress of the job, the poverty of income and spirit such a job gives, often lead to conflicts between workers, often over issues of minor importance overblown to major conflicts of tension created.

The boss appears to like Person A better than Person B.

Person C got a privilege that Person D felt he/she should have gotten instead.

And I know in my own adult life working…

…and I have done many many types of work in my travels…

that these kinds of conflicts are not exclusive to working in a cafe.

I have seen this in factories, business offices, government offices, farms, wherever groups of people try to work together in the production of goods and services, for others to purchase, for a trickling-down of profits, to make more consumer spending possible

…and the merry-go-round continues to spin.

Very few people are in their “dream jobs”.

No child, no teenager, dreams of being a farmhand, a civil servant, a barista…

We, the unmourned and forgotten, humble workers, strive to find dignity in work that is undignifying, appeciation for our efforts in work that is taken for granted, love in work that is unloveable.

So, when you ride that bus or train…

…see a farmer tending his crops…

…wait upon a civil servant trying to manage stacks of papers each representing someone’s urgent and special request…

…order that double tall latte with caramel syrup and whip cream topping…

…give a thought and a smile to those that make all these things possible.

As Oscar Wilde so aptly phrased, we all may be living in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.


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