Living the Dream by Jack Godoy

1. This may not be the promised land

The Coffee Haus was exactly what you’d expect. It was old, sort of ugly, and smelled like burnt coffee pretty much all the time. There wasn’t anything immediately offending about it, but it was unpleasant, which was kind of a good thing. There wasn’t any new job magic to wear off, no sudden realization that this was a nine to five and not some extended spa vacation. It was a shitty coffee place with slightly less than average coffee and service, so when they offered me nights and a paycheck, I said yes.

There wasn’t much to write home about. I made coffee at night. Sometimes I cleaned tables two or three times because it was slow. I hadn’t been there long enough to know if we had regulars or to form a lasting impression of my coworkers. Bria managed most nights and was allegedly only a few years older than me. She took everything extremely seriously. Every drink I made, customer I had rung up, and table I pretended to clean was done under her watchful eye. I don’t know if she thought that I was the stupidest person alive and needed constant supervision or if everyone else who worked there was just that bad at their jobs. Time would tell, I guess. From my brief experience with her, Bria took immense pride in the playlist she used during her shifts. It was mostly generic pop with a few throwbacks to the early 2000s. She really liked Ed Sheeran. Like really, really liked him. I heard “Shape of You” at least once a night, usually more. And as much fun as that wasn’t, it never failed to put the spring back in Bria’s step. 

I counted out at 2 in the morning each night. The trickle of customers ceased around midnight which meant the last hours of my shift were spent inventing fake jobs to do. I usually left by myself. I was at least tangentially aware that the dark parking lot near downtown Phoenix was not the safest place to walk out into each night, but most of my coworkers worked shifts that got out before or after mine. Bria and I held the distinguished 7 to 2 shift, coveted by no one. Driving back to my dorm each night was almost an out of body experience. I was exhausted in a way that I wasn’t sure I’d ever get used to. The radio and A/C blasting wasn’t enough to keep me awake, so I started inventing stories for the cars and people I passed. It was stupid, and maybe juvenile, but I looked forward to it at the end of every shift. 

2. You can only really fool yourself

The longer I worked at Coffee Haus, the more I marveled at its continued operation. My new theory was that Bria watched me so closely because I had experience and it was evident that no one else did. Charlie, another late shift regular, voided purchases like it was his job. And while there wasn’t a true “rush” because not many people want coffee at the same time after 5 pm, he was agonizingly slow and struggled to juggle multiple orders. This was probably because he smoked more weed than any singular person I had ever met. I dreaded shifts with Charlie. He seemed to be nice enough but was endlessly frustrating. 

Marian was the other night shift regular. She was only a few inches shorter than me, putting her around six feet. She was good on drinks and decent with customers. The real marvel was how closely she toed the line of acceptable dress code. Marian’s style icon seemed to be Dracula and the distilled essence of an MCR song. I respected the hustle, Bria did not. Unfortunately for Bria, Marian was more than prepared to go to bat on this and they grudgingly came to a truce of no ear spikes and one necklace. Shifts with Bria and Marian were very efficient but fraught with simmering disapproval from Bria. 

With Charlie’s drug abuse and Marian’s one woman crusade to make goth great again, it was no small wonder that the Coffee Haus functioned like it did. But it wasn’t my problem to solve and I was busy being consumed by school. I spent my breaks in the stockroom doing my readings. Stockroom is a bit generous. There was precisely enough room for me to sit against one wall and all our other stuff to be in the room and absolutely nothing else. Bria was a talker so breaking anywhere in her line of sight meant pretending to have a conversation with her. So I’d set a timer and put in some headphones and read every fifth page, hoping that it would be a good substitute for actual studying. 

My headphones had migrated just south of usable. I had to keep using them because I couldn’t justify buying a new pair unless some really rich, distant relative died and willed me a small fortune. If I turned them up to hearing-damage-inducing levels, I could almost believe they still worked. With the amount of noise they bled, I was astounded that I was the one who caught Marian stealing coffee grounds and not that she heard my Rilo Kiley playlist at terminal volume from behind the stockroom door. But there she was, filling a rather large mason jar with tomorrow’s ground coffee. It’s weird what life chooses to confront you with. It’s not like I cared that she was stealing, I barely cared about this job. Really, I struggled to determine how I felt. Whether I cared or not, I needed the job if I didn’t want to learn how to be homeless. But I couldn’t come up with any solution that allowed us both to walk away without anything annoying happening. My pen rolled off my lap and Marian spun around. She was every bit as scary as her outfits suggested she might be. “The Execution of All Things” was still blaring from my headphones as we held eye contact. I tried to make a neutral positive expression as I stood up slowly. I had settled on shrugging awkwardly and leaving and hoping that Marian would never mention it again. 

3. Some days are too long (in perspective) 

My life was a plane crash and Coffee Haus was the rapidly approaching earth. The man who owned the business had decided that it needed the full HGTV treatment. Of course, he expected us to remain open during this process. Unfortunately for me, Marian was deathly allergic to something in walls, I guess, which meant back to back shifts with Charlie and Bria. Predictably, Bria did not handle stress well. And wow, was there a lot of new stress. I don’t know who wrote the Yelp review that put us on the map but I hope they are burning in hell. Thankfully no construction was happening at night, but a good third of the space was unusable. Charlie had also decided that he was going to stop smoking weed. Any secret hopes I had harbored that sober Charlie would be better at his job than high Charlie were quickly dashed. 

The early evening produced a new rush. It was mostly people meeting to start or finish up a date which was endlessly annoying. I don’t know if it was the asbestos I’m sure was in the air or if everyone decided to fall in love in November, but it seemed like every date that started here lasted for hours. Which of course meant frustrated couples who expected me to throw on a tool belt and finish the renovations myself so they could send back their drinks from the comfort of an ugly table—and send drinks back they did. I remain unconvinced that Charlie and Bria actually understand English and do not instead rely on a small pool of memorized words and phrases. If we had more than three drinks working, at least one was coming back. 

Bria was useless on drinks when she was overwhelmed so it fell to me and Charlie. So really it fell to me. 

My stockroom study space was no more, so I had to take breaks elsewhere. There was an old chair and table out the backdoor that Charlie used to monopolize. It was cold and I was pissed because I’d burned myself remaking a drink. I’d never been one for drugs or cigarettes but I wanted a smoke for the poetic cinema of it all. Whatever. Instead I had to make do with Russian poets and my left headphone that still worked. I was really getting into my groove when I noticed Charlie lounging away from the glow of the street light. I mentally apologized to Marian and made a note to get new headphones. I could barely make out his wave, and I gave a stiff wave in response. He walked over and I regretted my extension of civility. 

Charlie needed someone to talk to, and for better or worse, that was me. I wasn’t finishing this reading, and maybe if I knew him better I wouldn’t commit a homicide the next time I had to remake one of his drinks twice. Charlie was pretty obsessed with doing drugs and doing other stupid things for money. He had transitioned from coke to weed when he started his elementary education classes. I wasn’t entirely sure of the logic behind that but a life without coke is vastly preferable, I imagine. I was super out of my depth. Less graciously, I didn’t care. But I assumed since I was basically a stranger, Charlie probably had very few people in his life he could bring this up to. So I listened and then felt terrible for him the rest of the shift. 

In my non-work life, I was already a full-time stabilizing influence so I really didn’t want to continue that in my work life. And Bria was possibly the largest source of stress in the western hemisphere, which is to say work was going great. I sat in my car for ten minutes and seriously considered just phoning it in and sleeping in my backseat. There was no way it was legal for me to drive home as tired as I was. But I guess if Charlie can do crack I can drive recklessly. I only kissed the edge of a median once. I got home to my roommates still awake and watching Netflix. I smiled and flung my crap under my bed and flopped on top. I don’t think I can say that I’ve ever felt envy so acutely. Tears actually started coming out of my eyes. There was no fairness in the universe, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from having a meltdown. There was so much that I wanted out of college, and I wasn’t going to compromise on any of it. But it seemed that the universe was not interested in letting me have what I wanted. I was balancing school and work by jettisoning my sleep and social life but it still wasn’t enough.

I had to quit this job.

4. Some days are longer than others (with even more perspective)

The majority of the renovation was over and Marian had returned to work. I’d cycled from Lorde back to Rilo Kiley and hoped that that and having a competent coworker again would prevent me from having a ridiculous meltdown again. The updates did little to make the space better. It was bigger, and the estate sale furniture was gone but it still seemed to be decorated with ugly in mind. Apparently more decor was on its way, but I was still dubious about the finished product. Charlie had called out sick so I was working on a night I usually had off. Bria had started to go feral with stress. Maybe Charlie could hook her up with his old dealer and get her to calm down. 

Marian and I hadn’t really talked since the coffee ground incident. I’m not sure if she thought I was going to hold that over her in some capacity, although I’m pretty unsure how I would do that. Still, I was hoping that we could skip out on the heart to heart until Bria either snapped or learned to take a chill pill. The stockroom had been significantly updated and I once again claimed that space as my study room. I felt a little better about not studying in a back alley, but my breaks were hardly sufficient for the level of work these classes demanded. But I tried not to think about that and find the desire to read Metamorphosis again. To my immense satisfaction, Marian did not return to steal coffee and we did not talk about our feelings. That’s exactly what I look for in a work relationship. I returned to my register, Bria left for her smoke break and Marian was quietly cleaning some dishes. There was one man sitting in corner wearing a large trench coat, which was odd because a Phoenix winter hardly warranted something that heavy duty. Marian left to gather more dishes and I found a rag to start cleaning tables. This was the most normal a night had been in a really long time. 

I heard mug meet its end on the polished concrete floor. I jumped a little and looked over to Marian. Her face read fear which was really concerning given that I’m pretty sure she moonlighted as the monster under little kids’ beds. I turned my head slowly like I was in a horror movie. I was half expecting to see a literal serial killer in the literal act of serial killing but instead it was the man in the trench coat. There was a moment of calm as my brain and eyes scrambled to figure out what the offending agent was. And then I saw the table in front of him. There were bats on the table. I wasn’t sure if they were alive or dead, but there they were. Bats. In Coffee Haus. But it wasn’t just bats, two very large lizards were also beginning to unfurl themselves from the menagerie on his table. 

My brain settled on a shaky “uh, sir” as a response to this situation. He looked up smiling at his creatures. Marian ditched the dishes she was holding and vaulted out of the seating area leaving me alone with the world’s worst zookeeper. He was reaching into his coat to extract what I can only imagine was another animal that should never be in a place that serves food. But I only had a rag. He, presumably, was replete with things that I had no desire to see or touch. Frankly, he owned this cafe for all I cared. I turned to follow Marian on her break to freedom to see an incensed Bria. She was brandishing our broom and flew passed me, a woman on a mission. I’d like to say I stayed to watch the Herculean battle of near-feral Bria and crazy trench coat man but I dipped. Hard. An embarrassingly large part of my brain was convinced that, when confronted, trench coat man would dissolve into a sea of vermin and I didn’t want to stick around to see that primal fear realized. 

On my mad dash to my egress I nearly collided with Marian. Our almost-crash prevented us both from seeing what I’m sure was a spectacular display of Bria and trench coat man facing off. I could hear the string of expletives and yelling, so I assumed she was winning. When the commotion had finally died down, Bria had called the cops and successfully hurled every unwelcome guest out into the night. I thought the police might have been a bit excessive, but I definitely didn’t want him to come back either. I was hoping that Bria tapping into her primal urges would calm her down but my hopes weren’t high. 

I drove home from that shift sure of two things: 1) I definitely was never studying outside again and 2) this job was unequivocally the strangest thing happening in my life, maybe ever. But I had two months of the semester left and I seriously doubted I’d be able to find anything else; I’d have to figure out how to deal. 

5. Close to an ending that isn’t mine

Bria decided to have a baby. More importantly, Bria was pregnant and was going to be leaving soon. We apparently were all close enough to her to receive invites to her baby shower. I had zero intention of attending until I found out it would be at Coffee Haus because I’m the universe’s favorite screw. Which of course meant I had to come, because I also had zero intention of being a dick. 

I wasn’t surprised that Charlie couldn’t make it, but I was surprised to see Marian. It was my understanding that she was pretty firmly on the Bria hate train. Maybe her heroics in the face of lizard man had swayed her. The baby shower was enjoying the full splendor of the Coffee Haus reborn. It was heavily industrial and the pale pastel balloons were monumentally out of place. It was still ugly, but now it seemed to be ugly on purpose. I also learned that Bria’s full name was Brittany. Marian and I were equally stunned. It was a marginally enjoyable experience, but tempered by the fact I’d be back in a few hours for my shift. 

I had been promoted to “shift lead” which sounded pretty fake to me since it came with no pay raise or discernible benefits. I got to co-manage the night shift with another poor sap that the term “shift leader” had been hoisted upon. It did come with more hours, which would have been nice if the days also came with additional hours for me to use. The transition of power was pretty smooth, Marian and Charlie remained Marian and Charlie and we basically functioned as a less stressed out version of how we were with Bria. 

I did have the added responsibility of taking out the 2 am cash and counting it into the safe each night. Which really only amounted to staying an extra ten minutes and transferring the cash when the safe opened. After the incident with trench coat man, we had taken to walking each other to our cars. Business had once again hit a lull making the night shift unimaginably boring again. 

With less time and more responsibility I had given up studying during my breaks. I took a hit academically but I was counting on my finals to rebound. Every time I was relieved by the other shift lead I felt a palpable sense of relief wash over me. I had started to look like I was rocking Marian’s eye make up due to lack of sleep. Every night I seriously considered quitting and eating ramen noodles for the last 37 days of the semester. It would be a lot of sodium but I felt like I could do it. Not to mention my caffeine intake which I had upped to levels that should have stopped me heart. I didn’t really sleep anymore. I blacked out and then got up and went to class or work. It wasn’t an effective, efficient, or intelligent system, but it’s what I had.

Driving home had ceased to be my favorite part of the job. The anxiety of dying by falling asleep at the wheel and a steady stream of caffeine were usually more than enough to keep me awake. There were 12 days before the end of the semester and I could see the finish line. I had four sick days I hadn’t used and I knew that I could get Charlie to cover at least one of my shifts. If I played my cards right, I might be able to have most of the week before my finals off. 

I woke up ten minutes later. I had put my emergency lights on and was mostly on the shoulder. I took my foot off the brake and my car slid forward. I quickly replaced it and felt my anxiety begin to spike. I checked my surroundings, and from what I could tell I hadn’t hit anything or run anyone off the road. I pulled more completely into the shoulder and got out. My car seemed fine, no damage or mangled limbs. I threw up. Several times. My entire body was shaking and I think I was crying. I’ve had my close calls before, but this one was unique. I don’t remember feeling tired or even closing my eyes. I’m not sure how close to death I really came but my body certainly felt like it was still in danger. 

I called several friends and got nothing but answering machines. It was still too early for there to be anything resembling traffic. I got back into my car and took a deep breath. Okay. I called my best friend, I knew her phone would go straight to voicemail. I shakily moved the car back onto the freeway and rambled about nothing the whole way back. I wasn’t used to being this shaken by something. There wasn’t an event for me to replay or analyze. I was just awake and then I wasn’t. I didn’t sleep that night.

6. I won’t stay (with some exceptions)

The Coffee Haus was exactly what it always was, the one true constant in all my time there. A year later, Bria had a baby, Charlie was in rehab, Marian had quit, and I had just finished my last week. Despite everything, I couldn’t trade a stable, constant job with reasonably flexible hours for the uncertainty of whatever else was out there. Every last straw turned out to be bearable if it meant a continued income, which was really kind of sad. All the standards I had set for myself about work evaporated when I watched my friends struggle to make it to the end of the month with whatever part-time hustles they could find. So I stayed. I thought I’d be sad, or at least have a fond memory to send off my time there, but I wasn’t. When I hung up my apron, I hung up everything else that the old, ugly, acrid coffee-smelling building had given me. 

Jack Godoy is a writer and poet from Southern Arizona currently pursuing an English Literature degree from the University of Arizona. You can follow him on Twitter @chaotic_pisces and Instagram @jack.godoy.