IT IS JUST PAST SIX in the morning and I’m barreling south down Victoria Dr. on my Specialized mountain bike. There is a fine fog that is dissipating in the morning light but that still renders the boughs of the ornamental plum trees and the few cowichan-clothed people in a grey film. I cross Broadway, and can hear the ducks off Trout Lake. The tai-chi group is practicing in front of the community centre across the street as I come breathlessly to a halt in front of a little cafe tucked incongruously between the low-rise apartment buildings. I disable the alarm, bring my bike inside, lock the door behind me.
I go about my duties automatically, always in the same order. Preheat the convection ovens, turn on the grill, prewarm the coffee urns. Put out the butter, fill the prep stations, set the croissants to proof. Grind some espresso and tamp it into the portafilters and run it through the machine to get rid of any trace of cleaner from the previous day’s closing. Start the breadmakers and spoon the muffin batter into the tins, set the timer for them to bake. Apple-cranberry oat muffins, carrot walnut, blueberry, everyone’s favourite. Set out the milk and cream, turn on the lights, bring out the patio furniture, count my till and pick the day’s music.
Sometimes when the first customers come through, I’m at the back of the skinny kitchen that runs the length of the cafe, and I hear them call hello. I’ll be by myself until nine or ten, when the owners drive in from Coquitlam. The young schoolteacher who has a large soy chai, the electrician who likes poached eggs on toast, the father who has two bagels and cream cheese before dropping his son off at the french language school. The customers come in steadily; it’s not difficult to remember to keep brewing fresh pots of coffee or their orders, which I slip in a rolling clip, pull off and stab through a pin when their plates have gone out. It’s all about timing, like a dance. Don’t waste a trip, one of the cardinal rules of server- always carry an order on your way out of the kitchen, always bring a dirty dish back in. By the time the owners arrive, a cheerful Chinese couple with bags of groceries and crates of skim milk, the soup is boiling, the bread’s on its second rise, and the cafe smells of buttery croissants.
The thought always seems to come at the same time every morning, when my morning mug of coffee has already gone cold. My hand, holding a spreader of mayo over a counter spread with focaccia bread, stops in the air. How did I end up here? I look up out the front window at the park by the lake, and listen to the album that’s playing- Johnny Cash at Folsom prison, the Be Good Tanyas, Songs:Ohio, the Mountain Goats, Oumou Sangare. Listening to whatever I want has been one of the best parts of working part-time in this neighborhood cafe, as is not having to wear a uniform, and the structure it gives to my week. Yet my lack of ambition disturbs me. The line from my most recent poem, laid open on my desk at home, descends into my mind. You’re admitted without ceremony I repeat, savour the word ceremony. For the rest of the morning, before the lunch rush, I’m counting cadences while peeling carrots and pressing down oats and butter for date squares. This has been characteristic of me as long as I can remember, my habit of existing somewhere else while my body apparently moves through the real world, a strange shell.
Biking home on Commercial Drive, past the bustling shoppers, organic grocery co-ops, Britannia Library, I think, something has got to give. I think, how much longer do I have to live this way? I keep pedalling hard, as though I could propel my unwilling legs and arms to a place where my duties are clear.