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Tales from the Oxford service industry: Uptown Coffee

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Introducing a semi-regular series by someone who’s worked a lot of food & bev jobs.

32nd Deauville Film Festival : - 'Come Early Morning' Premiere Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

I can say with some confidence that I was the only guy at Ole Miss who rolled out of bed at a fraternity house, then pedalled to the Square to serve coffee for a living. Uptown Coffee was still called Uptown Coffee (“High Point” still sounds stupid), and I mostly worked slow weeknights and weekends.

If you’ve ever been to a really good coffee shop, you’ve probably noticed the workers fussing and obsessing over the littlest details, all geared towards making a really perfect cup of coffee that’s actually worth what you pay for it. High Point has never been that coffee shop; sorry if this offends. Still, the multitasking and manual dexterity required of the job was really satisfying. I loved working at the whims of this clunky mass of Italian-made metal, trying to extract good espresso from its many hissing, steam-filled tubes. My skin and clothes became saturated with that unctuous espresso dust, and I still miss that smell following me around everywhere.

Minimum wage was still $5.15 at the time, and management was keen to pay me exactly that and never more. So I did what most people in the business do, and pilfered things here and there to make myself feel better. I ate my weight in those little chocolate covered espresso beans, made ridiculous sweet concoctions in the blender, and usually brought my then-girlfriend a giant coffee at the end of my shift.

Petty theft aside, I really did care about that place; did my own research into how to make better coffee (the manager didn’t give a shit), cleaned like company was coming over, obsessed over how to bake the best muffins and scones ... School was a waking nightmare at that point, so it felt good to pour some effort into something that felt like a part of the real world.

The customers at Uptown were pretty cool, as far as customers went. Coffee shops are a magnet for people who just want to go somewhere and not be alone; I wish I’d recognized that at the time, and maybe reached out a little more to some of the folks there. We also hosted giant study groups around finals, and after football games we had to shoo away drunken children who’d try to sneak in while we were closing shop to go take a shit or throw up in the bathrooms. And not to brag overmuch, but one time, Joey Lauren Adams told me that my shirt was handsome.

I had some amazing coworkers who manned that night shift with me. There was Vera, the Russian lady who would go to Cooters shows after we closed the shop (The Cooters, I just learned, ARE STILL PLAYING GIGS IN OXFORD HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE?!?!?!). I told her stuff that I wouldn’t tell my mom, and once or twice she invited me over for pierogies.

Sebastian, who was quiet, but effortlessly hip in a time where I felt like I was trying really, really hard to be. A lot of the “cool” people in Oxford look down their nose at everybody, but Sebastian didn’t need to make anybody else feel shitty like that.

Caitlin was one of the sweetest people I’d ever meet, but fiercely independent. I would end up fleeing to Jackson a couple years later, where I actually worked with Caitlin again at another coffee shop. I don’t see Caitlin enough anymore, but she’s one of those people who’s your best friend again the second you see her. She played drums on a mediocre folk song that I recorded.

For a couple of weeks, I got sent to work at the High Point roastery, down highway 7. I don’t know if they tried to stick me with some manual labor in an attempt to get rid of me, but it didn’t work; I loved that shit. I unloaded pallets, unboxed chocolate syrup and paper cups, bagged coffee beans, got shipments ready, that kind of stuff.

One day, I kept hearing little cries coming from one of the pallets in the warehouse. I found a kitten holed up inside, a little calico no more than 8-10 weeks old. Once I moved some stuff around, she bolted. I chased her around a little bit, but she skittered into the parking lot and crawled up into the undercarriage of one of our cars. I managed to scoot up under there enough to scoop her up, hissing and spitting hysterically, and put her in a big cardboard box to chill. She looked alright, but had a wound on her upper lip; I figured she’d gotten to the roastery by crawling up inside someone’s engine compartment, and maybe burned herself

Anyways, I drove her to the nearest vet, and they told me that they’d need to do surgery on her lip in order for her to ever eat normally. They quoted me some entirely reasonable amount of money for the surgery ($200?), but it was so completely out of reach for me at the time; I literally just did not possess that much money. They said they’d have to put her down if she didn’t get the surgery, and maybe I was crazy, but they seemed pretty eager to get on with it one way or the other. Panicking, I got in touch with a cat rescue organization in Oxford (9 Lives, which has since closed), who agreed to help me out with the surgery. I paid about $50 out of pocket to have the little girl sewn up and also spayed. I was so wound up that I just sat in my car and wept for a while when it was all over. Make fun of me if you must, I do not give a shit.

Eventually, I got bored at Uptown. Management was overbearing, a couple of people left, I got hung up on a girl who worked there ... so I walked down the street, picked up an application at L&M’s Kitchen, and put in my notice. The L&M’s job would teach me a lot about food and the people who make it, and would put me in the position to really slum it up alongside some Oxford townie fixtures.

Until next time, WW.