September 8: Grounded

I’d been ignoring the nagging pain in my left shoulder since the end of the trip. I finally went to see a medical professional about it on Tuesday. After jerking my arm in various directions, Dr. Rosenzweig’s assessment was that I needed to stop climbing until my shoulder stopped hurting. While this might sound logical, in the moment, sitting on the examination table, I struggled to follow his line of reasoning.

Me: So, I should take a few days off, pop some Advil, and then I can climb?

Dr. Rosenzweig (struggling to figure out how to explain this since I clearly wasn’t getting it): Um, no. You should give your shoulder a chance to heal. Then rehab it through physical therapy. Once it’s strong, you can go back to climbing.

Me: So I can go back next week?

Dr. Rosenzweig: If it doesn’t feel better in a month, call the office, and we can schedule a cortisone shot. If that doesn’t work, surgery is the last option.

Me: So if I climb, but make sure I don’t do anything that makes it hurt, I’m good?

Dr. Rosenzweig (having had enough): We want to nip this in the bud.

I’m now on a diet of anti-inflammatory medication, regularly heating my shoulder to “stimulate healing,” and I start physical therapy on Monday. When I want to wallow in self-pity, I think about the irony of working at a climbing gym, having free gym membership for the first time in my life, and being unable to use it.

Now that I’m grounded, I’m having to seek other forms of exercise, exercise that doesn’t involve raising my left arm above my head. Imaginatively, I’ve come up with hiking, biking, and running. Biking has risen above the other options because it doubles as a legit form of transportation, dovetailing nicely with my desire to spend as little on gas as possible. And save the planet, of course.

I’d always thought of biking as a fairly unskilled form of exercise. It turns out this assumption was not entirely correct. I’m slowly learning how and when to shift gears on the janky bike my dad found on the side of the road (our family’s only bike. It has one of those baskets on the back for carrying things, a nice feature, but I can’t figure out how to lower the seat). I’m pretty sure that, as a biker on city streets, I’m supposed to obey the same rules as cars. I try to do this as much as is convenient for me. I’m also still unclear about what arm gestures I’m supposed to make to indicate right and left turns. I’m a little afraid to learn these arm gestures because if any involve raising my left arm above my head, that will eliminate biking as a form of exercise. So far, I haven’t hit or been hit by anything. I’m starting to think the Tour de France might be in my future.

My father’s bike and I are an unstoppable team, making our way all over the west side of Los Angeles (usually no more than a 5 mile radius from the house). Yesterday, we biked to the bank to close out a checking account where they’d started charging me a monthly fee. I had to wait to be seen by a bank official, for which I was thankful because it gave me time to stop sweating. Through my interaction at the bank, I learned that really all they want to do is keep you on as a customer. The woman I spoke to quickly came up with three different ways for me to keep an account with them without paying a monthly fee (one involved claiming I’d be in school for another four years, allowing me to open a new college checking account).

Post-bank, I decided to reward myself with an espresso drink at the Caffe Luxxe across the street (one of a long list of LA coffee places that have passively rejected me over the course of the past month). Sadly, there was nothing in it for the bike, but I think it understood. When I enter coffee shops, I try to hang back because it takes me time to go through the drink offerings and pretend like I’ll choose something new and exotic this time, before finally settling on an almond milk cappuccino. The place was pretty empty when I walked in, which meant that the baristas noticed me immediately. I stayed back, hoping they would take this as a cue that I wanted to mull over my decision, but I think they read it more as fear. One of them, a guy with glasses, who I would later learn was named Preston, called out to me, asking if I wanted anything. In an effort to appear well-socialized, I took several steps forward and told him I was considering my options. After anther minute of careful consideration, I ordered an almond milk cappuccino. Preston didn’t ring me up; he just started making the drink. After pulling out my credit card, I had nothing to do but wait. I felt awkward waiting for Preston to make my drink in silence, so I brought up the first thing that popped into my head.

Me: You guys sell liquid soap?

There was no reason to phrase this as a question since they were quite obviously selling soap, and it was quite obviously in liquid form. Either that, or it was an art installation designed to be reminiscent of a soap display case. Thankfully, it is the job of all baristas to engage with their customers, no matter how pitiful their attempts at small talk. My comment led to a discussion of all the non-coffee-related items for sale in the store and a recommendation that I try a sample of their hand cream.

I watched with envy as Preston confidently poured dollops milk into a thick, creamy shot of espresso. When he finished, he’d transformed the dollops of milk into the classic leaf-shaped latte art. I offered him my credit card, but he shook his head. “This one’s on me.” I did my best to keep from grinning and thanked him. I sat down on the far side of the cafe with my self-help book, feeling incredibly special. This day kept getting better and better. Free checking account, free cappuccino. I was on a roll, and it was all due to the awesomeness I was evidently exuding.

After reading for an hour or so, my concentration was interrupted when I heard Preston say, “It’s on me.” My back was to the counter, so I couldn’t see who he was gifting a free coffee drink to. Needless to say, that put me back in my place. Still, a free coffee is a free coffee, regardless of whether or not validation of your existence comes with it.

 

September 4: The Party

It was not a party for single, witty, intelligent male models roughly my age. Instead, when I arrived at the gym Saturday night, I learned that the party was for Tomás, an eight-year-old boy. This meant that the bulk of the party-goers were Tomás’ peers, seven and eight-year-old boys. My first task was to get the early arrivals suited up in harnesses. I was a little tentative about how best to harness the children. I tried to remember if, at seven or eight, I would have wanted a stranger to come over and manhandle me. Would I have found it demeaning? Would I have been capable of doing it on my own? Von, one of the people who works behind the desk, suggested I take them over to the stairs where they could sit. From this I gathered that the kids were not expected to put on their own harnesses. I would be the one sliding the harness over their feet and cinching it around their tiny waists. I selected my first victim, a cute little girl with long, blonde curls. Her style of dress reminded me of how I would have dressed at that age–cargo shorts and a boy’s t-shirt. I guided her over to the stairs. I felt a little awkward tightening straps in silence. Recognizing that I was the adult and would have to begin the conversation, I asked her what her name was. She said, “Milo.”

Thus I learned my first lesson of the evening: it is easy to mistake eight-year-old boys with long hair for girls. As I moved around, pulling kids aside to put on harnesses, I developed a script for my interactions. I would ask the kids or their parents if the kid was climbing at the party. I would then ask what the kid’s name was. While putting on the harness, I’d ask if the kid had climbed before, and regardless of the answer, I’d ask if they were excited. As I made my rounds, I was introduced to a wide range of eight-year-old temperaments. There were the ones who knew everything. They’d climbed before and were really good at it and could put on their own harnesses. There were the ones who were scared. One boy was so tearful, his mom had to sign an observer waiver so she could stay with her son during the party. The worst, though, were the ones who wouldn’t talk. I went up to this one boy and asked if he was climbing. His eyes got really big, and he took a step back. He wouldn’t answer me, which I found very distressing. I don’t think of myself as a frightening person (though one of my childhood nicknames was, in fact, Scary Ceri). I was the only female belayer for the party, which I (mistakenly) thought would give me automatic points with kids. I had to remind myself that this kid was eight, at most, and it likely wasn’t personal. If an adult were giving me the silent treatment, that would be an indication that he hated me or that there was something very wrong with him. This behavior in an eight-year-old, however, probably just meant that he was shy.

Once the kids were all suited up, they were released into the gym. One person supervised the auto-belay area (an auto-belay is like giant automatic dog leashes which takes in slack as a person moves up the wall, and then slowly lowers the person to the ground as soon as they let go) while the rest of us belayed kids on the slab walls. The kids would run up to us, and we would tie them in using a figure eight knot. I got a lot of questions about the safety systems in place.

Kid 1: “Why don’t you have those things (indicating the auto-belays) everywhere in the gym?”

Me: “Because then I wouldn’t have a job.”

Kid 2: “Which is stronger? This knot or (again indicating the auto-belay)?”

Me: “That’s a good question. I don’t know. They’re both really strong.”

Kid 3: “What happens if the knot comes untied?”

Me: “The knot doesn’t come untied.”

One lovely little girl who I’m pretty sure was the older sister of the party boy, Tomás, introduced herself in this manner:

Me: “What’s your name?”

Her: “Lucia. Don’t call me Lucia (pronouncing it with a ch sound) because I’m not Italian!

It wouldn’t have occurred to me to call her Lucia (ch) if she hadn’t brought it up. But, as a result of her comment, I spent the rest of the evening mentally correcting myself before saying her name. Another little boy wanted to know when the gym had been built. I told him I wasn’t sure, but the gym had been around when I was 9, which made it at least thirteen years old. That made me feel old. These kids weren’t even 9. They’d all been born in 2009 or 2010! The kids didn’t seem particularly interested in reaching the top of the wall. Most would climb about half way up and then ask to be lowered. The hardest part of the job, in my opinion, is trying to instruct an eight-year-old boy how to be lowered safely. Many were simply incapable of internalizing the idea that you needed to stop holding onto the wall with your hands.

Time passed pretty quickly, and before I knew it, we were already an hour into the party which meant it was time for food. My favorite kid at the party, a very inquisitive boy with dark curly hair and fingerless gloves, wanted to know what they were serving. I told him I thought it was pizza. “Why is it always pizza?” he wanted to know. I thought this was an excellent question. “I think because it’s easy to divide and cheap,” I told him before sending him off to wash his hands.

The 20 minutes during which they ate pizza were the scariest moments of the evening. I was left alone with my fellow staff members, which meant that I had to be on my best human behavior. I was introduced to Guy, a tall lanky dude with a man bun, who works as a masseuse and fitness instructor at the gym when not belaying children at birthday parties. He told me birthday parties are the best events to belay for because of the tips. From him I also learned that, contrary to popular belief, cake cutting is a specialty skill that involves extensive training and discipline.

During the second climbing session, I managed the auto-belay area, which translated to running between four belay stations, trying to clip in/unclip the kids before they attempted to do so on their own. I had one close call where I got to Milo just as he was about to let go of the tether, which would have stranded the auto-belay at the top of the wall. Once again, I marveled at the complete lack of interest the kids seemed to have in reaching the top of the wall. What were they getting out of the experience, other than a forearm pump? There’s probably an epiphany somewhere in that observation, waiting to be had, about my personal climbing philosophy, but so far I haven’t taken the time to figure out what it is.

While Guy doled out cake (in this case, cherry pie from a fancy west LA bakery), I watched this little girl with blond ringlets (I’m absolutely certain she was a girl) repeatedly fall on one section of a traverse. Her father was standing next to me, eating a slice of cherry pie, and started talking to me about his daughter. She’s five years old and just started doing gymnastics as part of a competitive team. Before that, she was self taught. I had trouble imagining what this would look like, but from the way he repeated it a second time, I could tell it was impressive. At first, I thought we were having the type of conversation that causes me anxiety, the type where the other person is expected to contribute to the exchange of words in some way, so I started trying to prepare an anecdote about my sister and her career as a gymnast. As I tried to come up with one that didn’t end in a trip to the hospital, the man informed me that his daughter has very good upper body strength. I observed the way she was pulling herself up the wall and nodded. The man went on to tell me that he has crazy good upper body strength. He’s always been some one who could crank out the pull ups and push ups, but he has weak legs. He doesn’t think his daughter has weak legs, but his son does. His son is a very advanced tennis player for his age but struggles to change direction quickly. This is how his father has diagnosed him with weak legs. It was right around the time when the father started demonstrating effective tennis technique that I realized no response was required or expected of me in this conversation. My role was as an audience member. I smiled and nodded and made noises that suggested interest until, mercifully, it was time to help Guy clean up.

As I drove home, I wondered if something about being a parent gave ordinary people the urge to share detailed accounts of their children’s exploits with strangers, or if this was the kind of trait that manifested itself in certain people regardless of whether or not they had any progeny.

September 1: Day Job

They talk about coffee in terms of waves (kind of like feminism). There’s first wave coffee, which is the approach you find in diners–they brew a pot of coffee with faint turpentine undertones and leave it on a heating pad until it evaporates. Then in the 60s you get places like Peet’s and Starbucks opening. These nationwide chains are the second wave of coffee. Third wave coffee consists of the small, artisanal shops that talk about roast flavor profiles using terms like “floral” and “peach cobbler.” I know this info thanks to “Barista,” a documentary I watched with my aunt about the national barista competition. Apparently, there are no limits to what can be made into a competitive sport.

After a google search titled “how to become a barista,” I concluded that if I was going to get a job in coffee without ever having held a job in the field, it would likely be at one of the second wave places. I got really excited when, last week, I received an email from a manager at Peet’s saying he’d like to interview me. We agreed on a time for the phone interview, 12pm last Friday. I trained for the interview. I rode my bike to the local Peet’s and sampled their offerings (on a total side note, putting condensed milk in coffee seems to be a new fad in the commercial world. I’ve been visiting coffee shops all over LA in recent weeks, and many, including Peet’s, are offering beverages with names like “Havana Cappuccino” or “Cuban Coffee” that contain a mixture of regular and sweetened condensed milk. It kinda seems like the antithesis of the almond/soy/coconut milk fad). The soy cappuccino I had at Peet’s was not too sweet. I was confident that, if asked, I’d be able to list Peet’s beverages I liked and what I liked about them. I rehearsed my answer about why I wanted to work at Peet’s, a combination of loving coffee and needing a job. Despite Urth Caffe’s rejection, I was hopeful that this would be my break. The Peet’s manager would realize that I was a levelheaded, diligent person with a sincere love of coffee, and would hire me on the spot.

Like most of my fantasies, it didn’t play out this way in real life.

12pm last Friday came and went, and the manager never called. I sent a follow up email, and we rescheduled for 12pm the following Monday. 12pm Monday came and went, and I received no call. At this point, I had to conclude it wasn’t an accident. What perplexes me is that the manager reached out to me presumably to fill a position that needed filling. Isn’t he interested in filling that position? Has he already filled it but has some social phobia that prevents him from telling me that this is the case? If not, what’s going on? I sent him an email asking if the position was still available and am waiting to hear back.

I’m not naive. Like any person who aspires to something lofty, difficult, and creative, I’ve come up with a backup plan in case my caffeine-laden dreams never come to fruition. In other words, I have a day job. Though Yale didn’t prepare me for the world of professional coffee, it turns out there’s one thing my time at that institution prepared me for exceedingly well–belaying children at birthday parties. I’ve applied to over 20 different barista jobs and one climbing gym, and it’s the climbing gym that called me back and offered me a job. The manager remembered me from eight years ago when I was last on the youth team at the gym. I was mildly flattered until my mom said it was likely the manager remembered me because I’d been dropped off the top of a climbing wall while at practice.

I showed up at the gym for training yesterday and was directed to Cameron, a bubbly dude who excelled at word play. I asked for some paper for note-taking purposes, and he handed me two sheets of yellow-orange paper, which he said were “bright like me.” I was caught by surprise and unable to come up with a suitably self-deprecating reply. My typical policy for new situations is don’t display personality until you’re confident this is a permanent thing (I don’t think my roommates in college realized how deeply weird I was until our sophomore year), so I wasn’t in a joke-making frame of mind.

The bulk of training involved going through a checklist of do’s and dont’s–do be kind and courteous to the people you are belaying, don’t let kids do anything that looks unsafe like running on concrete or whipping each other with ropes… I’m sure there’s no end to the imaginatively unsafe things kids can do for fun in a climbing gym. We briefly made sure I was comfortable with the safety procedures required of a belayer:

Cameron: “Can you tie a figure eight knot? You can tie a figure eight knot. What’s next on the checklist?”

Me: “Uhh…”

I was toured around the birthday cake distribution area, which also doubles as a yoga studio for all the yoga classes the gym offers, the supply closet, the dumpster out back, and the area behind the desk. Cameron then took me through the typical schedule for a party at the gym. Parties run two hours. The first hour consists of climbing. There’s then a break for food. It’s easiest if the pizza and cake are served at the same time for hand washing purposes, but if the parents insist, there can be a second break for cake. If the kids are tired, the second 30-45 minute climbing session can consists of games like simon says. The max ratio of kids to belayers is 5:1, so at any given party, there’re at least two belayers. One belayer is the “party lead” and is responsible for communicating with the “party parent” about all things party.

We had just gotten to the part of training where Cameron was describing what to do if an accident report needed to be filed–turn over responsibility to the people who work the desk (this was the answer for most complicated issues)–when we heard someone cry out. Cameron rushed over to a woman who appeared to have collapsed at the base of the wall. It turned out she’d fallen with too much slack in the system, so she’d hit the ground, rolling forward onto her foot. She was in enough pain that Aric, a coach for the youth team, ended up carrying her to her car. They looked like bride and groom as they crossed the gym’s air conditioned threshold and emerged into the parking lot beyond.

Training ended soon after, and I signed up for my first shift, an after hours birthday party on Saturday. I asked what age the birthday partiers would be but whoever had booked the event hadn’t noted it. Personally, I’m hoping for an event populated by attractive, single men roughly my age. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to hope for this. If it turns out the laws of professionalism preclude this hope, then I take it back.

August 23: Fat Lizards and Free Soloing

My next climbing partner was my aunt’s personal trainer’s longtime boyfriend, David. Heading into this experience, all I knew about him was that he’d been climbing for a long time and was super into it. I think he had even less info about me and was worried that he had someone who might prove a total liability on his hands, at least this is what I surmised from the slow, careful way he explained everything on the phone. He asked me if I was comfortable leading sport. I felt bad for him because he was probably doing this as a favor to Kirschen, my aunt’s trainer, being kind to her employer’s niece.

We met at the agreed upon time and location, and hiked to a secluded pink and gold sandstone spire overlooking Malibu Canyon and the ocean beyond. It turns out David is 57 and has been climbing since he was something like 10. He played a big role in the development of the LA outdoor climbing scene (the place we went climbing was a crag that he had found and almost singlehandedly bolted) and knows most of the famous climbers who’ve come out of Southern California over the past 4 decades (because I am a climbing history ignoramus, of the many names he listed, the only one I can recite for you here is Lynn Hill).

There was a wooden bench at the base of the crag which David himself had carried in and constructed. He toured me around (the crag had climbs ranging from 5.4 to 5.11), and asked me what I wanted to warm up on. I selected a 5.9 and offered to lead it, hoping to set the record straight about my climbing abilities. The 5.9 didn’t start from the ground, so David suggested we see if I was capable of completing a boulder problem that led up to the ledge where the 5.9 started. The problem involved one kind of reachy move that I completed with ease. I think this was the moment David began to trust me.

He suggested we continue to the top of the spire following a 5.4 route. We weren’t roped. I thought about what my mom would say, but then I remembered that I was 22 years old and allegedly capable of making my own decisions. I looked at the route. It looked like the kind of thing I would have scrambled up as a kid without a second thought. It was a ladder of ledges; there was no way I would pump out on it, and I knew I could complete every move, so I said yes. Perhaps, I was being foolish. I can’t really call it peer pressure because of the disparity in our age and experience, but I was definitely guided by a desire to prove myself. For those who are concerned, though I felt secure at every point on the route, it will not be the launching point for my career as a female Alex Honnold. I prefer climbing with the knowledge that if I fall, the worst injury I’m likely to sustain is a broken bone.

David was relieved to learn that I could belay (he must be a very kind/trusting person to take me out for the day without this knowledge). In between climbs, he told me stories about LA climbing history. At one point, he pulled out a bong and asked if I minded. I was amused more than anything. At the end of the day, David gave me some life advice. Unlike many of the people he grew up climbing with, he’d gone to college and gotten a day job (as a real estate agent). The people he knows who are his age and have been climbing bums their whole lives are miserable; they didn’t make plans for a future where their joints were stiff and their recovery time was slower and they couldn’t climb as hard as they had in their youth. He described 60-year-old men who’d lost most of their teeth and lived in vans parked on the side of the highway. I was ready to get on the career train then and there.

I stopped by the condo David and Kirschen are living in while they remodel their house. Kirschen’s also in her mid 50s and has the body of someone who’s been running seriously since she was 12. She was walking around their condo in small shorts and a bikini top. She greeted me warmly when I walked in and introduced me to their fat, paraplegic lizard, Miss Dinky Doinks, who they got instead of a dog. I held Miss Dinky Doinks using two hands and marveled at the way each breath rippled through her soft, enormous stomach. Dinky blinked at me and let her tongue hang out the side of her mouth. She is an utterly charming lizard.

Before I left, Kirschen insisted I take a plum and flavored Pellegrino with me for the drive, and David offered to introduce me to other climbers in the area. He mentioned a girl my age, which sounded promising. Below is me with Kirschen and Miss Dinky Doinks:

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August 21: In Which I Begin the Search for a New Climbing Partner

After almost two years of climbing with the same person, I’m having to find a new training partner, someone I get along with who has similar climbing goals and lives on this side of the country. I found a climbing partner once before, so I should be able to do it again, right? But it’s like every time you start a new school, you end up asking yourself, “how did I make friends last time?”

I began my search with what I thought was an easy target, my little sister, Remi. On the plus side, she lives near me (down the hall), we get along, and she has lots of free time. On the less positive side, she’s leaving in two weeks to go back to school and has only ever top roped. She claimed to prefer climbing outside to climbing inside, so I used this to leverage her into going with me. She beautifully summed up her reason for going as we walked out the door, “what else would I be doing today?” Her words reminded me of the woman in The Breakfast Club who attends detention out of boredom.

With our terrified mother’s blessing, we drove to Malibu Creek State Park. This was my first time climbing outside in LA. I got us lost a total of four times on our way to the crag known as “Stumbling Blocks,” so our approach ended up taking an hour and a half. The first time we got lost (when I parked at the wrong intersection in my effort to avoid paying the $12 fee for a day pass), we followed a trail through some bushes and arrived at a parking lot filled with people and suitcases. They were lining up in front of other people with clipboards. It looked like some kind of summer camp check-in except for the fact that none of these people were children, and they were all dressed in expensive, urban-looking clothing. The people with clipboards were wearing shirts that said “Camp Mars.” Other people in Camp Mars shirts were tooling around in golf carts, speaking into walkie talkies. I thought that it might be a film set for a movie where they figure out how to grow plants on Mars and use this technology to exactly replicate the biome of Southern California. Then rich people with floral-printed roller bags start going to the planet for vacation.

An internet search many hours later proved me wrong. Apparently, Camp Mars is an event hosted by the band 30 Seconds to Mars for their fans. Fans over the age of 18 can pay $1,000 for the “tree huggin’ package” aka the privilege of spending two nights and three days camping in a tent (it’s bring your own tent, FYI). For those less into roughing it (or who don’t own tents), $2,500 will get them two nights spent in a yurt with AC and shared bathrooms. Days at Camp Mars are filled with activities like yoga and rock climbing, and evenings are spent making s’mores and attending concerts. Los Angeles is a truly amazing place.

The final part of the Stumbling Blocks approach involves an easy traverse along the edge of a deep green pool. It’s really stunning to walk up the dry creek bed and arrive at this large body of water (large by LA standards. In Louisiana, I doubt it qualifies as a puddle). When Remi and I arrived, people were gathered on the banks, laughing and jumping in the water. I was sweaty and ready to join them, until I spotted a curtain of lime green algae floating off shore. I then reflected on the fact that we’d just walked up a dry creek bed to reach this mysterious pool of water, so it clearly wasn’t draining anywhere. If other people are anything like me, the water’s probably half urea by now (perhaps the reason behind its pleasing green color).

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When we arrived at the crag, I gave Remi a brief tutorial on lead belaying. Instead of taking in rope, you’re feeding it out, never take your brake hand off the rope, etc. I think she absorbed it all and displayed good belaying technique, but I could never be sure because I couldn’t watch her while I was climbing. As a result, I was never fully at ease. Remi doesn’t know how to lead climb, so I would put up a route, and she would follow on top rope. She’d clean the climb if the method for cleaning the anchor was simple. If it required rappelling, I’d go up a second time. I was pretty beat by the end of the day, but happy that I’d had the chance to go outside and climb. As we walked back to the car, Remi announced that she preferred climbing indoors because outside “takes too much time–you have to drive and hike to the wall, and then you have to set everything up!” This was the beginning and end of our short time as climbing partners.

 

August 18: No Reply

Sent my sister an email with the subject line “hi” and had her send me one back to make sure my email address was working. It had been days and, after applying for jobs with 7 coffee companies (if you break it down by individual stores, it was more like 10 or 11 job openings) and 1 climbing gym, I’d received nothing beyond a few automated “your application has been received” emails. I knew going into this that it probably wouldn’t be as easy as handing over my resume and getting hired on the spot. I knew that a Yale degree wouldn’t impress someone looking to hire a barista, that if anything, my degree would make it seem like I was less serious about learning the barista arts. I knew all of this intellectually, but I don’t think it prepared me for the utter radio silence that followed my applications.

After about a week of nothing which felt much, much longer to my unemployed brain, I opened my inbox Tuesday morning to find I’d received a single email calling me in for an interview with Urth Caffe, a local chain devoted to organic, responsibly sourced coffee, tea, food, etc. “Do you have any questions?” the woman on the phone, who I spoke with to set up the interview, asked. “Uh,” I said, “Is there a dress code?” She assured me that casual attire was fine.

Hair washed (yes, you read that correctly), sporting a pair of dark jeans and a respectable sweater (black because I thought it made me look slightly edgier, and because it’s never a bad idea to do a subtle homage to Steve Jobs), I made my way to Urth Caffe’s downtown headquarters. The address took me to streets lined with warehouses on the south side of downtown LA. I got to the door a few minutes before 9am, joining a small group that had gathered outside the door. Urth Caffe was doing what they termed an open house interview. You could show up anytime between 9 and 10:30 am. They said to except a 45 minute wait. I thought I could get around this by being one of the first people there. My early bird companions consisted of a boy who looked even younger than me (not helped by his skinny frame and the backpack he was wearing) and a man who looked to be in his early 30s and was wearing slacks and a button down. The boy, in his hand, held an Urth Caffe to go cup. “Suck-up,” I thought, bitterly wishing it had occurred to me to rep my love for the product.

At that moment, a large man in a large teal shirt joined our group. He addressed his remarks to the man in slacks, who had an air of authority, likely because he was wearing slacks. The man in teal wanted to know if he had parked in the correct location. The man in slacks didn’t know because, in spite of what his clothes seemed to indicate, he was not in charge. We were joined by a man with torn jeans and blue dreads of a slightly more purple blue than the man in teal’s shirt. We stood in silence until the doors for Urth Caffe were thrown open. Everyone jockeyed for position in line. I ended up near the back by the kid with the backpack. One by one, we entered the building, signed in, and were ushered to a holding area with folding chairs. It was 10am before the first person was called in for an interview, and nearly 10:30 by the time I went into the small, brightly lit room where three managers were waiting.

Two of them sat in silence during the interview, and I wasn’t entirely sure they were paying attention. The third, the man, began his line of questioning, “You went to Yale?”

“Yes.”

“What are your longterm plans?” Jeeze, it’s like this guy was peering into the depths of my soul and drawing inspiration from my insecurities.

“Uh, I don’t really know right now.”

He asked a couple more questions about my availability, and then it was over. It had been less than five minutes. On my way out, I asked when I’d know if I got the job. He said I’d receive an email by 5pm that day if they wanted to bring me back for the second round of interviews.

I did not hear from them by 5pm that day. The day after, I kind of hoped I’d get a “whoops, sorry we didn’t send this sooner, but we still want to interview you!” email. After about three days, I gave up on that fantasy.

In the days following my Urth Caffe rejection, I got an email from Peet’s saying they’d like to interview me, and an email from the climbing gym. I responded with my availability, but have yet to hear back. I’m glad La La Land didn’t win best picture, but I’m also glad it exists because the film’s given me a way to conceptualize my situation. For those who’ve seen the movie, you know the montage where Emma Stone’s going out to all those auditions, and people aren’t even looking at her? I feel like that, expect that I’m auditioning for the job Emma Stone already has when the movie begins; I’m trying to get the job she has to make ends meet while she tries to realize her dreams. What I’m trying to say is that La La Land glosses over how she got her barista job to begin with, but there’s probably another movie in that story. Maybe it’ll be the prequel.

 

August 14: The Application Process

Applying to become a barista is much like applying to college. There are the big state schools, the small liberal arts colleges; the large, international chains, and the local boutique stores. You have your top choice, the coffee shop your heart’s set on; your mom wants you to apply to at least 9 others in case “things don’t work out.” Instead of asking for a resume and a cover letter, each shop has its own highly individualized method for separating the world’s future baristas from a lower order of human existence. Some are fairly basic, asking for the online form equivalent of a cover letter and resume, and remind me of schools like Middlebury which did not require any supplemental essays. Most coffee shops, however, like most colleges, come with their own arsenal of short answer questions. These questions range from the expected, “why do you want to work at (insert name of illustrious coffee shop here)?” to the anecdotal, “describe the best tasting coffee you’ve ever had and what made it so great?” to the cerebral, “how do you define a high-end offering and why?” One place asked me to list any relevant coffee-related experiences I’d had, including “awards, training certifications or other coffee-related accolades” I’d obtained or achieved. I had to leave that section blank. Another company refused to call the people who sell and make the coffee drinks “baristas,” choosing instead to refer to them as “retail associates.”

Of all the applications I’ve gone through (I’ve applied for positions with 6 different companies so far), the application I most enjoyed completing was the one for Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf goes a step beyond the short answer questions and asks you to complete two assessments. The first took me right back to junior year of high school. It gives you ten minutes to answer as many questions as possible. Though they’re not exactly the same, many of the questions bear strong resemblance to certain sections of the SAT. I’ve included some visual supplements below for those who wish to relive their glory years:

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Sadly, it has been many years since my standardized testing heyday, and the questions on the test itself were more difficult than the practice problems seemed to promise. Still, having to take a bastardized IQ test made me feel like they really were attempting to hire an elite group of baristas, that if chosen, I (and my resume) would forever more bear the mark of an elite institution.

The second test seemed to be an attempt to understand my character. It was much longer and more difficult.

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As you can see, they were not pulling their punches. I was thrilled by the challenge, but it also made me long for the much simpler character assessment I’d had to complete for a previous application with questions such as:

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I was fairly certain I nailed these questions.

I’m now waiting to hear back from my first round of applications. Some have taken the time to let me down easy in advance:

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