Cafe du France is in Los Angeles. In the basement of the student center on a college campus: the cranny of academia and Francophilian culture. Baristas are to wear berets. I wear a visor cause I’m not French and like to feel my ponytail swing all over. We call the sink La Seine, the garbage la merde, due to the smell it leaves unemptied. We’re to announce change as Francs even though the French use the Euro. The French theme mostly ends there.
Our classmates are in Lisbon and at authentic Parisian cafes. At their grandparents’ condos in Boca Raton, their parents’ apartments in Manhattan. It’s winter break and we baristas are back to school early. For RETURN TO CAMPUS! training, to receive our federally allotted Work-Study funding. BONJOUR and COUCOU our managers holler at us through the raptured dining commons. It’s only us and the athletes, L’équipe Football Américain. The college started calling them that, to distract from the concussions and Allegations. L’équipe Football Américain sock into college supplied slides and wag their tongues as I pass them. Un café s’il vous plaît, they heckle. I speak no French at all.
I stand behind the counter, sticky with vanilla and mango and hazelnut syrup. The counter is two miles long. I’m wearing my best visor: red colored and white threaded. Eagle Rock, it reads. From the local CVS Pharmacy. From a distance, people think it says something different, as it’s 2016, election season. This doesn’t occur to me until I’m here, until I’m standing behind the counter with simulated customers lined and angry, with nothing to change into.
The line snakes: blue hair and pierced faces. Clomped boots and witch tutus, gray sweatpants and lacrosse stick backpacks. Acne scars, beginning to weave and to fade. Students. But not students, actors. Hired before the semester starts, before the students return full throttle. Blueberry macchiato, an adult teen orders, carrying a skateboard. Blueberry? I ask him.
I lean the counter to look closely. Beneath the adult teen’s backward cap, thick-stitched with the college’s letters, behind his bushy brown sideburns: shards of gray. Like mowed grass poking. Crow’s feet ring eager eyes. A Hello Kitty pimple patch covers nothing. Yeah, with like, a shit ton of caramel, the adult teen says. And like, extra foam? The middle-aged eighteen-year-old’s sentences trail up.
I don’t know how to make this. I add salt to pronounce flavor. I look at the adult teen closer and recognize him as the disgraced pro-skater. Whose platinum boards I watched stripped from his walls by surgical-gloved men on live television. After his appointment as Celeb Guest Sk8r at Shred Skool, a Los Angeles skate camp for children in Carhartt. After he called a five-year-old with leprosy a ‘lying whore’ when she claimed to have landed an Ollie. It may not have been leprosy.
Au revoir? the adult teen skater asks but it isn’t a question. I curtsy as he goes. A manager nods. A professor approaches.
A professor who isn’t one, who wears lots of linen. Qwasson? the professor orders instead of croissant because this is how professors say it. Emm, je suis an, how you say, macchiato…without, blu ber ee? I now know what a macchiato is and I’m certain she means the caramel kind from Starbucks. From the script, I answer: Yes you can — a macchiato is espresso with a tiny bit of milk. There isn’t any caramel. Is this what you’d like? The professor who isn’t one says I can’t drink, em how you say, turmeric, for em tooth reasons. English is the professor who isn’t one’s first language. There’s no turmeric in a macchiato, I say and the professor who isn’t one rolls her eyes and walks away in her linen. I see the managers pencil in their notepads. Turmeric Concerns are to be answered in French. A customer lost, a point deduced.
The managers of Cafe du France are American. They too are college students and bad at making coffee. The managers hire their friends as employees. I have sex with Manager JT who sleeps on a twin mattress, smack in his living room. I have a bedroom but we ditch it. Before opening, we fuck on Cafe du France’s pastry-staging area. My ass scrunches butcher’s paper. Look at my ass print! I say. I’m coming/ I’m thrumming, Manager JT announces. Manager JT only speaks in rhyme. I watch the sun coming as he does. I place a pastry over my print.
Malcolm Gladwell uses the college gym’s elliptical. He often stops at Cafe du France for his post-workout beverage: an Americano with mango syrup. He nears the counter, wearing tevas over his socks. Is this a burger, he asks, pointing at a black raspberry scone. The black raspberry scone looks like black raspberry scone, not a burger. Malcolm Gladwell pronounces ‘burger’ like Inspector Clousseau. I’m sorry what, I ask, all polite, cause he’s Malcolm Gladwell and has a proclivity for suing. That burger, Malcolm Gladwell says, this time all French. Can it come hot?
At Cafe Du France, we throw ourselves parties. Often, we flip the Tip Fish so its guts spill. Palm its dollar remains. The cash goes towards liquor; Manager Seth whistles his fingers. We switch off machines and push out our patrons. We side-step from behind the two mile counter, blenders sandwiched in our armpits. We file into the blue-bright street in a stream of visors and berets.
Down Eagle Rock Boulevard and to the tall pink house. Palm fronds wave me bonjour. We mix drinks in the café’s blenders: dump in ice and pirate rum and Malibu and gin. Sloshed-off with stolen syrups, hazelnut, strawberry, coconut. Stick lime umbrellas on top. I puke the drink into the turquoise, tear-shaped pool, my vomit the color of grass, sun-drying. Australian flu, I say and we all laugh because that’s some place else that isn’t France. Dry air tumbles and forgets the smell. In the bathroom, us girls snort ket from the lip of the gigantic peach bathtub. We congratulate each other on all the good work that we’re doing. No, really, Barista of the Month should go to you, we tell each other but want it for ourselves. Barista Du Mois, a girl named Onyx corrects, and that’s why she always gets it.
I cannon ball into the puke pool with Sally. Her tits slap the water and ring ripples with their landing. Sally knows which customers to keep. Which polos belong to fraternities, whose fathers work in The Industry. I see an opportunity and swim close to ask her secret. Breast milk, she says and winks, all conspiratorial. Lattes topped with her juice, all frothy and melon. The French way, says Sally and I tell her I produce no breast milk as I tread my legs hard. She says: You must have missed that day of training. Throws her head back to laugh like a witch in a movie, but it’s different ’cause her tits wiggle. Once squirted, Sally traces milky shapes with an erect nipple, scrapes foam lines into dicks and the Virgin. Sally is complicated, because not only is she busty, but she is also religious. She tucks a gold cross between her knockers. Somedays, when she’s feeling sanctimonious, she’ll lift the sweaty cross to kiss it.
There’s a Feminist on staff who’s from Nebraska. She looks sort of French in her armpit hair and jumpsuits. In her pin-strewn beret. She’s always lunging cause she can. Have you no shame! the Feminist hollers at Sally for both the dicks and the Virgins. Sally is Catholic and trust her, she’s got plenty. I side with Sally because once the Feminist free-bled on shift and I slipped on her blood behind the counter.
The bougainvillea has bedded/ it’s time we were headed, Manager JT says. The bougainvillea are out in crimson. When drunk, Manager JT takes liberties in his rhyming. We head back to Cafe du France and rinse the blenders in warm water. We blend mochas, sell smoothies, from them the next morning.
Part two of RETURN TO CAMPUS! training is an instructional video that everyone wants to be in. Everyone wants to see their face projected across the staff lounge’s molding.
I’m not in the video. I watch from my cushion as the four chosen baristas relay the cafe’s ethos of sustainability and student engagement with choreographed hand gestures. They twine their legs and spin around all at once, COMPOST, they holler, spidering fingers alongside their faces.
Manager JT has the largest speaking role. Manager JT is big into pamphlets. He printed a bunch for the mayor’s office this summer, then got a photo of the two of them hand-shaking. Now, Manger JT is on pamphlets, the college’s, their donor campaigns. We all smile at Manager JT because, really, he does it all. Make sure to look neat/ don’t forget to complete/ the weekly time-sheet, Manager JT recites while hooked to a taser. His speech is halted, his rhymes lose their rhythm, but Manager JT never gives way to the zappings. The taser adds drama to the video for engagement reasons.
Halfway through the video, a quick cut: Manager JT is swapped for normal barista River, whose dangley star earrings swing with electric currents. We all feel relieved. Manager JT’s got the story, the pamphlets with the mayor. He hasn’t got It. No, je ne se quais. We’re all ready for River and his beady gaze. His shellac blue thumbnail lifted to his teeth without ever nibbling. For me, River says, in his fake southern accent, it’s about more than the paycheck. River is from Los Angeles. River’s got a dad, big in Hollywood. He doesn’t get Work Study so is paid in Content Opportunity. Each shift stalls twice as River takes out his phone, films his self-facing videos. He’s almost definitely been to France. Manager JT, we’re not so sure. They both wanted the speaking part, so us baristas agreed they could split it.
Sometimes, after parties, when the students are back and we tire of instructional videos, we return to Cafe du France and reopen. Everyone’s either too excited or too groggy. I’m all wet from the peach tub and the turquoise pool. My hair leaks fat puddles on the counter.
A kid called Ghost does whippits behind the counter, covered by the curtain of his hair. From the empty cream canisters used on hot chocolates: he sucks the nozzle like a teet. Ghost doesn’t say much, cause he’s busy with his sucking. On shifts without empties, Ghost sprays whipped cream out and into the dish sink. I watch it turn liquid, curdle, clump into corners.
Phil, who’s a shift supervisor but no manager, drank a blender of ice and hazelnut and rum before reopening. He pours a pitcher of oat milk and twists the steam wand open. Wraps his whole hand around it. Doesn’t realize until Manger JT smells skin burning: And what’s that I smell/ The fires of hell?
Phil looks down at his hand. Clutched to the wand, radiating steam. Fuck, Phil says, looking at the hand like it isn’t his own. He unclenches, fist opens. Blood plunks from his fingers into the unsteamed oat milk. He pours it into a paper cup stamped with the baguette logo. We watch a first year place a lid atop the latte and sip, lick milky-blood off her lips in a spiral.
Mmm, the first year says.
Manger JT coughs, eyeing the sign laminated with his at-home machine. It hangs over the lid stack: TAKE A LID! AND ANOTHER! IF YOU DON’T FEAR OUR MOTHER… HER WRATH, FLAMING BATH. FIRE AND BRIMSTONE, THE EARTH’S FINAL TOMBSTONE….
The first year takes the lid off her latte and eats it. She chugs bloody oat milk while Manger JT watches, while I watch Manger JT watch her.
The final portion of RETURN TO CAMPUS! training is held on the Catalina Express. We ride it back and forth until finished. We fill the top deck, chop-water to all sides. I’m seasick and supine; I puke off the deck by head turning. River hovers over. Eat something, he says, southern, and hands me his lunch bag. It’s a Ziploc filled with pilled vitamins meant for swallowing. He chews them during meal times: Vitamin C and B12 and D3. I chomp and the vitamins turn to chalk on my tongue. Sour in saliva, I grin all my teeth up at River. They’re rimmed electric blue.
Salt-rocked and scraping, mist sprays as Manager Seth brings a karaoke machine from barista to barista. He sticks the mic close into our faces. Everyone stands and says the worst thing that has happened to them. There’s a lot of depression, death, divorce. Sally stands and says her worst thing is her triple D cup breasts, due to the back pain of it all. The Feminist says De patriarche. Manager JT sing-songs: My parents’ divorce/ they bought me a horse/ and then it died from leukemia. Leukemia is a hard word to rhyme with. I say my worst thing is my last relationship, which isn’t true. Manager JT and I are no longer speaking; he broke up with me via text message, occasionally slipping out of the rhyme scheme, so I know that he means it. He glares at me from the opposite end of the bench seating. River goes: The war in Ukraine, with his head bowed, his accent now Ukrainian. We look around at each other, trying to remember what side of all that France is on. River is right; everyone whoops. He wins Best Worst Thing, which seemed like the one thing he wouldn’t. RETURN TO CAMPUS! training is complete.
The students return and I stand behind the counter. In my second tier, apolitical visor. During RETURN TO CAMPUS! training, I learned nothing of wholesale coffee bean packaging. I learned only that Onyx’s large pet gecko ate her small one while she was looking. I’m éclectique, Onyx is always saying and she looks it. The girl had two geckos! She stands too close to me behind the two mile counter and she’s good at wholesale bean packaging. The seals of my bags won’t seal! A professor orders unpasteurized milk in French so I give it to him. I watch it gulp his throat, downed in a single chug. Qwasson, Onyx says while she hands him one. While she glares at me.
Cafe du France needs deep cleaning. I count cobwebs in its corners. An ant colony has formed: initially, we thought the ants were coffee grinds, but then they were moving. We can’t ask them to leave, due to the college and its politics. Same situation with local Boy Scout Troop 89. They sit in their circle in their khakis on Cafe du France’s floor. Manger JT hands them pamphlets, glossy with new locations, and River strums his ukulele and sings his original songs to the ants, songs that hint they should migrate, that the LA river is vacant with ample space for new colonies. Le fleuve, he corrects, but that only confuses them, because we’re in LA and they don’t get the French thing. River lowers his Croc to squash them. The ants, not the Boy Scouts. The Boy Scouts, we hand them rubber hot dogs in a show of hospitality. Extend our beef-preservative olive branch. Us baristas smell bad and it isn’t the French thing. Pee-eeew, the Boy Scouts say from under our armpits and hop up to find a new meeting location.
The beans that I’m packaging spill to the floor behind the counter. Where Ghost sits, sucks whippits. Beans rain on his head, crunch beneath the balls of his feet as he shifts, reaching for another can. Iced cappuccino, a French Literature grad student orders and I explain to him that there’s no such thing as an iced cappuccino. He takes his iced latte, hollers KOBE as he chucks it at the trashcan and misses. Ice and milk splat the floor. I stand there and I watch milk dripping. JE SUIS D’ACCORD, I holler back at the French Literature grad student so my points aren’t deducted. And really, I don’t care. Ghost hands me a whippit.