Vignettes of connections: The barista

Behind the counter of a café in Cape Town, a barista is making my coffee. Black Americano.

His motions are crab-like. Elbows remain close to his body as he shifts sideways between the grinding, brewing, frothing and plating sections of his station. He never reaches far for a piece of equipment and the positions needed to produce a variety of coffees are close together, requiring only small, lateral shuffles. Even the more delicate task of pouring a hot espresso shot over milk and ice takes him only a single step beyond his territory.

With his back turned to the rest of us, the barista holds it all together. He might be the only human connected to every other person here.

It’s a sticky summer’s day in the city. The dark pavement, absence of greenery, thick-walled high-rises and constant flow of cars make outside uncomfortable. But inside the air conditioning is cranked high, on the brim of too-cold. Regardless of the weather, most have a coffee in front of them. All of which come from that one machine, operated by one set of hands.

The café is full, but the barista doesn’t rush. Steady and methodically he makes one after the other and another after that. No one waits long for their drink.

Waiters appear by his side to carry off trays to the floor behind him. There doesn’t seem to be any request for new orders. From where I sit it seems he simply knows what to brew next.

The espresso machine is far from discrete. First the shrill grinder. Then the banging of the grinds against the counter. The buzzing as it pours a shot. The loud spewing of the steamer.

Yet we’re never bothered by these noises. In fact, they somehow fade into the ambient sound of a typical a coffee shop. It’s a sound that helps some of us concentrate. We’ve even created streaming services that reproduce this sound into our headphones when we’re working in a too-quiet office. Remove all the obnoxious sounds of an espresso machine and you’re somewhere else completely.

The barista, back turned, crab-like, is the life-giver of this space. Through the passing of drinks, the sounds gushing from his station, even the smell wafting onto the street to draw us in, he is the sole connector of the coffee shop.

The barista
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