I walked into my coffee shop after three days in Pittsburgh. I left my coat upstairs, not needing it for the three strides it took to cross from my front door to theirs.
Lu and Marc were working the cash register. If I had to associate one word with either of them, it would be home. They were the first two baristas to learn my name. They were probably the first “neighbors” I met when I moved into the apartment upstairs. And I’m 80% sure Marc told all trainees this made-up rule that they weren’t to charge me for coffee.
The two looked at each other, “Ohhhh, it’s going,” Marc said.
“The system broke again!” Lu said (the credit card system always failed when Lu or Marc were working). “It is always us! And we had to write down each and every order this morning, and we couldn’t make drinks very fast, and—“
“—People were being assholes?” I guessed.
“Yes!” she said. “And it is like, I am trying my best here. It is not my fault.”
I truly believe your mood is your choice, and some people just choose to be mad.
I felt weirdly protective of Lu. The girl must work eighty hour weeks—splitting her time between this shop and another in Georgetown. Every dime she made went to lawyer fees for her citizenship, having immigrated to the US from Eritrea.
I know exactly three things about Eritrea: It’s above Ethiopia, Lu was born there, and all dogs are wild, not house pets. [I knew this last piece only because Lu is deathly afraid of every dog that walks into the shop, even when they’re on the other side of the bar and roughly the size of a gerbil.]
Every last spot in the shop was filled, sans the third barstool in within a row of five. It was like the middle airplane seat. Literally the only difference was briefcases and overcoats overflowed into the center in place of elbows or toddlers (thank God).
I can’t really tell you what triggered the next three seconds, but somehow the combo between two, two-person meetings within five barstools, and me asking, “Hey! Is anyone sitting here?” [the nicest way I could ask everyone to move their shit], caused not one, but two coffees to get knocked over, spilling half a pot over the sides of the bar.
There are two ways to react to any situation.
As two grown-ass men in suits blamed the whole ordeal on me, I just stared at Lu—who, quite honestly, looked like she would gladly board the next flight home.
I’m soooooooooo sorry, I mouthed.
I wanted to punch the two guys who, most likely, made more money in one month than either Lu or Marc made in a year. In contrast, Lu assured them everything was fine. She cleared a four-foot long area beneath the bar, pulling out coffee-soaked cardboard boxes filled with filters, utensils, and bakery treats. She tossed me a bag of candied pecans with a stained label, and laid everything else out to dry.
I wondered if Lu ever got angry. For the amount of bullshit she puts up with, and for as little thanks she gets for working her ass off each day; never once have I seen her mad.*
*She told me she hated something once. But that “thing” was Trump, and frankly I’m just not sure if that counts.
Lu’s ability to let a sea of bullshit roll off her shoulder reminds me of my friend Annie’s mom, Mary.
The neighborhood “fun mom” while growing up, Mary went through more traumatic life events in her first thirty years than most people see in a lifetime.
Once, when I got the nerve, I called Mary and asked her how she stayed so happy through all that had happened. Her response was this:
“And exactly what was my alternative? To be mad and angry at the world?”
The way she said it made it sound like it was the single most idiotic thing she’d heard in her life.
I think about Mary’s phrase, Exactly what is my alternative? a lot. I’m horrible at it. I usually take the alternative and get angry anyway—because let’s face it, being angry is the easier option.
But being aware of it—that my bad mood will grant me exactly zero favors—makes me the slightest bit better at it. Or at least I like to think so.
I feel like people like Lu and Mary follow the same mentality. While I sat there getting pissed off on Lu’s behalf, she didn’t see the point. Becoming angry or annoyed wouldn’t clean up the mess behind the counter or unspill the large coffees dripping over the sides. It was, at best, a waste of energy—energy better spent pulling her next double shift.
When you get mad or angry at trivial shit (like spilled coffee), exactly what good do you expect to come of it?
What problems do you expect your godawful mood to solve? Lu’s ability to maintain a smile—even through one of the worst morning shifts in recent memory—at least won her a solid tip from the men in suits.
Smiling might not be your thing. You might not be the world’s greatest optimist. But the next time you feel bad energy boiling up for no reason, just quietly ask yourself where it will get you. It helps just the slightest bit, I promise.
And remember to tip your baristas today.