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It was a summer of lattes. Every morning I woke at the crack of dawn, donned black pants and a green apron and drove in the semidarkness to a day full of coffee, sweet syrup, steamed milk and customers. These were good mornings, really. I liked the eerie quiet of my house at 5 a.m., the empty stillness of my neighborhood, the relative calm with a few semitrucks accompanying me on the six-lane highway.

I liked walking into the travel plaza where I worked when only one other restaurant was open, when half of the lights remained unlit, when a few travelers and the night cleaning crew occupied the building. I liked to turn on the espresso machines, to set up the pastry display case, to make a gallon of mocha syrup to be used throughout the day. I liked welcoming those first few customers, who were grateful for the early morning caffeine, who were friendly and willing to ask how I was, to tell me they were off to work or headed to the cottage for a weekend getaway. Peaceful moments.

Moments that didn’t last. Soon enough, the day would really begin: highway filled with cars and trucks and the plaza filled with people ready for bathroom breaks the and coffee, food and gas. The other shops and restaurants opened: more people, more employees, more lines and more noise. More frequent, more abundant and more complicated orders were the norm: three different frappucinos and seven different cappuccinos. Muffins and sandwiches and “Oh, I don’t know, what would you recommend?” More baristas meant we bumped around each other, both helpful and in the way.

When we’d run out of something – mocha or coffee or cups – go to we’d scurry to make more or dash across the plaza to find cups and lids in the building’s chaotic storage – just when every customer wanted exactly what we didn’t have. At that moment, inspectors would arrive to review us. At that moment, the plaza manager would stroll into the back room. And at that moment, we wanted to cry.

It was a good job, though. I liked my mornings and the people I worked with, and I really didn’t mind the work or the customers most of the time. I learned the difference between a cappuccino and a latte – and an Americano – and a Misto – and a frappucino – and a dopio espresso – and a London Fog.

Until this point, coffee was just strong, black, hot coffee. Why would anybody want to drink anything else? Lattes didn’t make sense to me. A latte doesn’t even stay.  It’s like beginner’s coffee. Almost coffee.

Along with the coffee, I encountered people: a guy my age majoring in musical theater and as open and flamboyant as anything. A young woman who talked incessantly about the multiple men who were attracted to her or who had cheated on her – and the only one she wanted was in prison. An addict who spent more time high than sober., A pregnant girl. Another obsessed with Harry Potter. A third who was married and in the military. A student working on his PhD. in biology – Alzheimer’s research. An idiot who couldn’t brew a normal cup of coffee. And a mom who had a beer-pong table in her backyard, so that her kids could throw the best parties.

For the most part, I just listened. It was clear pretty quickly that I was different – what kind of college girl doesn’t have crazy party stories to share? But they still asked about my life, and where I lived and why I went to school in Iowa. They shared their dreams about life outside the coffee shop At times, it seemed a little like they were ashamed.

But the thing is, I was ashamed, too. I didn’t wish for their lives, but I laughed along with their stories –    one of the crowd. They knew I went to church because I didn’t work on Sundays. They asked me about it, but I never said much.

The Harry-Potter-obsessed co-worker was Catholic – and open about it. She talked often about what she believed. She knew how people thought of Catholics, and she was going to change their minds. I admired her openness, but I didn’t want to be her – and I didn’t want people to think I was like her.

So I missed multiple opportunities. They asked me why I didn’t work on Sundays, and I just told them it was because I went to church. They asked why I went to church, and I said something noncommittal about my dad being a pastor. They asked why I didn’t party, whether I was a virgin, and I answered vaguely. They told me that they used to go to church but had quit at the earliest opportunity. They told me about other people they knew who were Christians and were incredibly judgmental or said things like “swearing makes baby Jesus cry.” I just listened. I didn’t really respond, and I definitely didn’t defend.

I told myself that actions speak louder than words and that by simply being myself, I could still witness. I didn’t tell myself that while faith without actions is dead, so faith without the Word is meaningless. I did a lot of telling people I was a Christian without really meaning it. I did a lot of thinking I was a Christian without really doing it. I tried my best to blend in and hoped that was enough. And I steamed some lactose-free milk.

It was a summer of lattes.





Photo Credit: Linh H. Nguyen