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Ladies First…

February 13, 2008

I have, thus far, had stellar luck with customers. I just don’t have gnarly stories about the people I’ve served in my employment at cafés across the country. I seem to have a calming influence on wierdos, and a placating effect on the irate. I handle people well. However, I can’t always.

Sometimes a customer is just so cantankerous as to be immune to my charms, so hell-bent on making a nuisance of themselves that their desires can’t be quelled by mere body language and artful management. Not to imply, in the faintest, that such people get up in the morning, think “I think I’ll be an ornery bitch today!” and set out in pursuit of a suitable victim. That approach is indeed rare, and such people are easily put off. As simple a strategy as cold politeness often puts them off and sends them in search of more suitable, higher-strung, targets.

No, the true walking disasters are the ignorant; those unfortunate souls with a giant chip out of one shoulder, who are just dim enough that placation slips right by them, and too damn stubborn to resist more overt methods of putting them off. These are the stupid, self-important folks that have given coffee shop partons worldwide a bad name, the ones that pitch fits over things they don’t understand, demand unreasonable things from bar staff, and expect the unfortunate souls standing against their tempestuous squallings of inanity to bear such unfortunate slings and arrows with a smile and a nod, to merely take the abuse like … well, the only metaphor I have there involves pretty inmates, so we’ll leave that alone.

Sadly, despite my golden luck, I had a run-in with such a customer today. I was working till & machine at the time, my co-worker was busy with other things. When they wandered up, they seemed for all the world like they would be a perfectly normal pair of customers. I took her order; double cappuccino, and then took his – large coffee and a scone. Oh, and she wanted a muffin. Quickly assessing the whole order, I grabbed the coffee and to food while the man dug out his money, and came back to the till with that much to be greeted by a foul glare from the woman. Before the man could pay, she cut in with “That’s not very polite!” as I set the coffee and the two plates on the counter. I looked at her, confused, while she stood there glaring balefully at me across the till. The man looked puzzled, but held his piece. …If only I’d taken his example to heart… I merely held her glance, knowing full well that there was more coming, not faintly interested in inviting trouble by asking about her complaint.

Unsure if my silence was obstinance or stupidity, she plunged forward. “I don’t think that it’s very polite that you get his order before mine!” she exclaimed, acerbically. I hadn’t thought of it as such, really, unless … “You are together, right?” I asked, just in case I’d somehow gotten confused and plugged two unrelated customer’s orders together. This question puzzled her. A person like this is generally aware that they’re intellectually sub-par, and tend to attempt to cover any hint of this with aggression and bluster. Typically, predictably, she rallied. I could see the look of confusion slowly creep across her face, to be quickly crushed and swept aside as that same face folded itself into an escher-like semblance of a glare as she shied away from this painfully confusing new development back to her earlier, more understandable train of thought. For God only knows what reason, she was attempting to take the “reasonable objector” character, and played it up to full; “It just seems that you should serve the lady first, that’s polite, after all, isn’t it?” This conversational non-sequitur briefly knocked me back, metaphorically, and I simply played up my confusion to her benefit. There was no way I was going to verbally joust with someone who I’m paid to be nice to, and admitting I knew what she was talking about, no matter how unreasonable, would have gotten me into the very confrontation I was trying to avoid.

…Somehow, she didn’t get that putting food on plates and pouring a coffee takes all of thirty seconds; and making a cappuccino would take a few minutes, given that there was no one on the machine at the time. Even if I left the second she asked for it, they would have waited for three or four minutes while I went over, made the drink, did presentation, then brought it back to them. And that’s time that feels very long while you’re standing at a till. Given her reaction the last time I made her feel a little dense, there was no way I was inclined to weather the bilious outpouring liable to result in directly pointing out her ignorance in front of an audience. That’s the kind of exchange that would likely involve me or my coworker just giving her her money back and telling her to leave, likely after she runs through every curse word she knows while simultaneously impugning my ancestry and threatening my current employment and general continued existence. …Not worth the effort, as much fun as it would have been. ‘Sides, I’m pretty sure my employers would prefer if I directly alienate as few customers as possible.

So, I glossed over her ignorance and played dumb; replying with a simple “I’ll bring the cappuccino out to you when it’s ready, m’am.” and was rewarded for my efforts and admirable self-restraint with “Hmmpf. You’re certainly not earning your tip today! Where’s my cappuccino?” … I couldn’t resist. I grinned and replied with “Well, no one’s made it yet!” And turned, as dismissively as I could without being excessive, to collect the order of the only other person in line. Irate old woman or not, I’m damn well going to be efficient, and I’m not hitting the machine without a batch of slips waiting. I took his order, collected the slip, and set to making the drinks. The woman, as predicable as they all are, shouldered her way through the people standing, conversing in the area, to push up to the counter by the machine. “Is someone finally going to make my drink?” she squalled in my direction, plainly hoping that my co-worker would do that and relieve her of my presence. No such luck. “I’ll bring it out to you once it’s done, m’am.”, I replied, before pointedly turning my back on her to set to work. I hear that familiar dreadful, telltale, in-drawn breath behind me, determined to ignore her, I continue working. She holds it briefly, plainly wondering if she’d failed to get my attention, before launching into “No, no, I’m going to wait right here, I don’t want to have to wait twenty minutes for my coffee. You’d just let it sit and do other things or something and my coffee would be cold and ruined!”

I finished her drink with no more or less effort to presentation, speed, or quality – I’m not petty enough to impugn my pride in the coffee I make over a stupid thing like this, and equally not willing to put extra effort and make her think she’d “won” in some way or another. I set it on the counter, nodded at her, and turned to make the next drink. I was halfway through making the gent who’d been behind her’s latté when I noticed that she’d not picked it up. “That one’s yours, m’am,” I called over. I just wanted this atrocious woman out of my hair and not watching me anymore. She came over, picked up her coffee, and stared at me. Attempting to emulate a basilisk’s freezing glare, she stood, motionless, attempting to stare down a moving target. When I finished the next drink, she was still there, rooted to the spot, drilling me with that hateful, expectant glare. I called over the owner of the next drink, and mentioned to the woman that her cappuccino was getting cold, sitting there. This was not what she’d expected to hear. Again, the unexpected threw her off, and she needed a few moments to re-collect herself. Whatever it was she’d been hoping for, she realized she wasn’t going to get it, and she collected her coffee and joined her companion in the back, muttering all the while about “…tips…” and “…rude…” and “…ladies first…”

On her way out, she loitered by the art on the wall, furthest from where we were at the till. She left, and said something about “….back!” on her way out; I rather hope it was a threat to not return. It really isn’t the loss to us that she thinks it is. Anyone who could turn a fantastic morning into something that bilious and tainted really isn’t needed. Just that one stupid temper tantrum left me feeling irate and pissy for most of the rest of the morning, I only really got centered and civil again when I sat down, grabbed a coffee, and heard from the guys at the bar how unreasonable they thought she’d been.

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