I learned to love music working as a barista.
My first real exposure to great music, and full albums in particular, happened on bar at a coffee shop. Growing up in Tennessee we’d listen to Top 40 on the radio; I worked in movie theaters before falling into coffee and would be serenaded each day to the corporate soundtrack in the lobbies and hallways. You know the style: 10 or so songs by artists you’d mostly never heard of who were just close enough to making it big, or about to blow up. This is why I know the lyrics to Taylor Swift’s “Tim McGraw” by heart—she was once the caliber of artist that plagued ushers, concessionists, and ticket sellers on MovieTunes.
When I moved to New York City and became a barista, I gained a power over a communal space that I had never had before. And with that came the responsibility of creating and maintaining a positive vibe, welcoming guests through the speakers. I often worked solo shifts behind a tiny bar with just two small speakers attached to a CD player collecting dust above the FETCO. It was in this setting that albums became more than time fillers, but rather works to share with patrons with whom I may have otherwise had nothing in common.
The complete album I played most frequently during these early days was Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Most people—or at least a lot of people—go through some kind of phase with this record; mine came in the middle of making coffee as it was one of the few physical CDs that lived in the space. I had vaguely known most of the songs, or at least the ones that would play on the radio, but there is no substitute for listening to this record as a cohesive work. Rumours became my go-to repeat play during afternoon shifts. It helped me understand and appreciate the concept of an album, and it was popular with our regulars, from the newly minted dream job workers with East Village apartments to Joanna, who had lived next door since the 1970s, and used to work with the Hell’s Angels to keep the neighborhood safe at night.
Side A of Rumours has most of the hits—”Dreams”, “Don’t Stop”, “Go Your Own Way”—but the b-side has my favorite pop song, Christine McVie’s perfect, timeless “You Make Loving Fun”. You should have seen me behind the bar, at any stage of beverage preparation, when those gentle drums came in. The inner warmth I get from that tune feels like it belongs solely to me, although I know that’s not true. (Rumours is among the best selling albums of all time.) It has kept me romantic in a way that I’ve been able to share from lover to lover and husband to husband, never letting it be permanently associated with happiness I can’t get back or the decaying of relationships that went on too long.
Music was the job when you worked solo or with one other person. I opened while listening to Carly Rae Jepsen, and most days I would sing “Cut To The Feeling” loudly to my espresso as I dialed in, convinced it made the coffee taste better and thankful for the gates that muffled the sound of the streets outside. My friend and colleague Summer gave me a CD of Purple Rain, another album (technically a soundtrack) I came to later than most might have. I learned there’s something delicious about playing “Darling Nikki” in a crowded cafe; it felt naughtier but just slightly less of what you would read in many employee handbooks as “inappropriate”… as long as you didn’t listen too closely to any of the lyrics.
I had great fun making playlists without committing to genres and rather finding tenuous connections between two or more artists. I let albums play on repeat, doubling down on obsessive listening by sharing them with a captive audience for whom the music played soundtrack to the rhythmic tapping of their laptop keys or friendly conversations or meditative alone time. Those listeners, many of whom were cafe regulars until being robbed of the ritual by our present circumstances, may have occasionally grown exasperated with my selections. Over and over again I’d play records like Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, Beyonce’s Beyonce, or Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel. I bagged their croissants and passed off their lattes guided by maximalist rap and pop that I almost certainly played a little too loud for my own enjoyment.
For the past six weeks, I have spent 23-24 hours a day in my apartment in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn with surprisingly little cabin fever. Over the weekend, however, a new album had me longing for an escape. I lounged on my couch, donned an eye mask, put on noise-canceling headphones, and listened to Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters, for the fifth time since its release just a day before. I haven’t worked as a barista in around three years, and the particular sensory recall I wanted to have with this listen was imagining playing it in a cafe. The album is peppered with sounds from Fiona’s house that clang and bark throughout; it was easy to incorporate the remembered hissing of a steam wand, the crinkling of wax paper, or the decanting of hot coffee in a way that made the music feel even more essential to me and my imagined work and the passing of time that has stretched longer for the past few months.
Of course, I’m romanticizing work that was physically and emotionally straining, but there is such romance in playing DJ at a coffee shop. The communal enjoyment of music and coffee will always be connected to me, and will also always symbolize the city of New York to me, even long after I’ve left.
At the conclusion of the album, I wasn’t ready to stop reliving the grinding, tamping, and dancing. I queued up a playlist that was a constant throughout my years on bar. I kept on pulling shots in my head, plating pastries, and washing dishes in a fantasy, projected to the logical point of conclusion in which a puzzled customer returned his empty coffee cup to the bar and asked, furtively, “Is this playlist really all Neil Young and Britney Spears?”
Eric J. Grimm (@ericjgrimm) writes about pop culture and coffee for Sprudge Media Network, and lives in New York City. Read more Eric J. Grimm on Sprudge.