THERE IS A SLIPPERY satisfaction in the act of donning my uniform at the start of my shift. White t-shirt with the company name stamped in green on the back; non-slip shoes, hair covering, name badge. The last thing is to wrap the cords of a clean white apron tightly around my hips, folding the excess fabric over the cord ends so they won’t catch on sharp objects, & finally, tuck a green-stripped dishtowel at my side. As I stride through the kitchen toward the bread production area to the bakery elevator that goes up to the cafe at street level, I hear a deep, booming voice at my back: “PHOEBUS!” It’s A. of the Deli, a big Mali man with twinkly eyes, calling me by the nickname that furthers my sense of transformation. I raise my arm in greeting but keep moving.
For the next several hours of my shift, my attention will almost be entirely consumed by the day’s production lists and the watchful demands of customers. My co-workers and I will be moving as fast as we possibly can to push through our tasks while taking orders, busing tables and foaming lattes, a delicate balance of multitasking that evokes the image of high wire acrobats. While making several gallons of ginger lemonade, flattening pizza dough on the sheeter, roasting trays of peppers and portabello mushrooms and carrying plates of paninis, it’s as though we’re performing in front of an audience who gaze at us hungrily. I master a blank, inscrutable expression and struggle to keep my hands from shaking with self-consciousness. Worst of all is noticing how reluctant I’ve become to make eye contact, to give attention to those who are starved for it. “I hate being watched,” my coworker whispers to me through clenched teeth. We all do; we speculate why whenever we look up, our eyes snags the stare of some impeccably groomed shopper. What acknowledgment could they possibly want from a cafe worker, sweaty from the heat of the ovens? The walk-in fridges and freezers are a refuge, both to escape the high-tension atmosphere and the rising temperatures.
And the noise. Below the level of conversation, and the constant pages on the overhead announcer, there is the drone of the industrial, room-sized dishwasher, the hum of the coffee grinder, plates clattering and mixers whirling. I pitch my voice low and speak slowly to be heard, repeating my customers’ orders carefully back at them and keeping any trace of sassiness from my tone. Timers shrill out; whoever turns it off is bound to shout out the location. “BOTTOM OVEN!” “BEHIND YOU WITH HOT RACK!” We smile at the well-worn joke, and squeeze ourselves into the narrow crevice between a garbage can and a cooler door while a clattering tall rack stacked with trays of ginger cookies, is pushed by, leaving an intoxicating scent.
Because in fact I am starving. Most of my co-workers are too. I have never felt this hungry or this skinny in my life. I can barely think of anything but food. The paradox of being surrounded by a clientele with their never-satiated, finicky and peckish appetites as that we invariably lose ours as soon as we go on a meal break. In a surreal cycle, our customers finish their workouts at the high-end gym across the hall to visit the cafe and the grocery store downstairs. It is hard not to give in to the cravings for cigarettes and fried foods that some of my coworkers have penchants for, yet they are still thinner than most of this neighborhood’s residents. Pushing a block of gruyere through the slicer is still the best upper arm work-out I know of. I daydream of the curries and frittatas I will cook in the calm of home, when I’ve left.
The past four years of my life in this industry have felt like a penance, for not doing the work I should be doing. Sometimes it has been easier to punch in a time clock, mop floors, lift broiling trays of meat out of the oven, snap bills between my fingers again and again while I inwardly retreat. Sometimes it is easier to do this work than listening to all the swelling voices in my head, until the day it’s not. On that day I wonder if I am leaving or if I’ve only just arrived.