In Which Birthday Gifts Always Disappoint When You’re A Coffee Jerk In The Not Too Distant Past

from Alien Loves Predator

Stocking Baristas

by Lucas Stangl

Maybe I was destined to become a coffee-jerk. From 1997 to 2005, in more than one establishment, I was a barista. But not of the apron-wearing, often-smirking Starbucks variety. I pulled espresso shots and frothed milk for a couple mom-and-pop shops and then at a Borders Books Music Café.

The groundwork for my 8 years of coffee jockeying was laid in high school. I did two types of stocking my senior year: grocery shelves and baristas. The former was to put gas in my car; the latter was more fun.

Most of my free time, when not placing Cheerios or jars of pickles on shelves, was spent at The Acoustic Café. A nice little coffee/sandwich/live music venue. Two of the walls were windows that looked out at a fourway stop; one wall was red brick, perfect for leaning against.

It was my hang of choice. I had this idea that if I looked cool enough, seemed interesting enough, that some cool and interesting looking chick would come up and talk to me. I was shy, timid and intimidated by the opposite sex.

I preferred to sit in their booths, leaning against that warm brick wall. Where I drank coffee and lemonade, ate hoagies and chocolate cookies that were the consistency of brownies and had frosting like a piece of cake. These cookies were perfect for a desolate high school boy.

Each weekend, various bands hit the ‘Coustic stage. My favorite was the local group Tuna Zen Trio. Folk singers from the Twin Cities and Eau Claire often played there. I would sit in my booth, scribble poems in my notebook and hope I looked intriguing.

Since I was there all the time anyway, I befriended the night manager Jen. Because she was already engaged, already somebody’s baby, I wasn’t nervous around her. I could crack jokes and share my poems. She was like a big sister.

Jen would let me help her close up for the night. Put the chairs on the tables. Empty the trash in the bathrooms. Sweep. Mop. Odd jobs like that. When I was done with my tasks, I would hang in the office while she counted the cash register.

“If There’s Love” — Citizen Cope (mp3)

“The Commander Thinks Aloud” — The Long Winters (mp3)

“The Commander Thinks Aloud (acoustic)” — The Long Winters (mp3)

live performance of this track

lead singer of The Long Winters, John Roderick.

I relished these back office meetings for two reasons:

a) I got to watch a master money counter throw down ones, fives, tens and twenties like it was nobody’s business. Jen could rattle thru the draw faster than I could count to 50.

b) I was able to sneak peaks at the Acoustic work schedule.

See, there was an employee there named Sport, or at least that was what she went by. Sport was a college girl who worked the counter at The Acoustic. She was fit as a fiddle. Friendly. Smiled all the time. I had a crush on Sport something fierce. Turns out she smiled at everyone and not just me.

While Jen hit her stride – “twenty, sixty, eighty, two hundred” – I would see when Sport worked next. I would know that Great Uncle Earl was playing Friday night, and even though I couldn’t stand their music, I would show up to see Sport.

In my mind, Sport played beach volleyball. She had that tall, lanky physique of Gabrielle Reece. Her dark ponytail was often found poking out of the back of a baseball cap. She was subdued in her demeanor. Not quite shy but certainly not an extravert.


I would memorize her work days, often Monday evenings, Tuesday lunches and Friday closing shifts. I would make excuses to my parents for heading down to the ‘Coustic on a Monday to see her smiling face behind the counter, to eat a frosted chocolate cookie.

“I’m meeting the rest of my senior project group there.”

“Tim and I need to cover over set list for next week’s open mic.”

If it wasn’t Sport’s schedule I was peeking at, it was Brier. Brier was the additive inverse of Sport. Short, blond, rotund and crass. Brier told me that joke, the one about the woman giving highway head to her husband. The one where the car crashes and she bites off her hubby’s penis. The one where the doctor doesn’t believe the woman but she is set on convincing him. The one where Brier rubs her throat a few times and spits and the floor.

That’s the punch line. There is something about a feisty blonde not afraid to be tactless. She filled the gap when Sport wasn’t working.

The last time I remember seeing Sport was Martin Luther King Day, which fell on my birthday. Schools were closed. I went downtown to see Sport, to eat a hoagie. And maybe, finally ask her out.

I ordered my sandwich and took a seat at a table by the front window. All the booths were taken. The day was dreary, chilly, damp. Typical January day in Minnesota. Steam from the mug of Kenya coffee billowed up to the neon “Acoustic Café” sign. I ate the sandwich watching cars run the four way stop sign.

After my meal, I approached the counter. Sport smiled as usual. I mention it was my 18th birthday. She smiled larger.

This was my window, I thought. Now or never!

“Hey, any chance… I could… get a dish of Peanut Butter Swirl and a chocolate cookie?” I folded like a cheap unbleached napkin.

“You bet.”

She dished the ice cream and slid the cookie in on the edge. When I extended my cash to pay, she waved it away.

“Happy birthday,” she smiled.

“Box Elder” — Pavement (mp3)

“Maybe Maybe” — Pavement (mp3)

I retreated to my table happy for the present, happy for the kindness from Sport but heavyhearted by my cowardice. The dessert was bittersweet.

Sport disappeared after that day. Maybe she dropped out of Winona State or her class schedule got too heavy to study and work. Maybe she figured out my obsession and quit. Whatever the reason, my Sport days were over.

Maybe I pursued the job of a barista to feel closer to the one that got away. Maybe I picked up the espresso tamper and milk frothing wand because I had once fantasized about pulling shots and whipping up sandwiches next to Sport.

Lucas Stangl’s coffee-jerk days are over. These days you can find him reviewing music for The Late Greats MP3 blog ( He lives in Pennsylvania but still roots for the Minnesota Vikings.


Beard season brought out the bears of fall.

Jess vs. boys.

We engaged the enemy on its own soil.

2 thoughts on “In Which Birthday Gifts Always Disappoint When You’re A Coffee Jerk In The Not Too Distant Past

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