I owe a great debt of gratitude to the most amazing coffee stop in Pennsylvania. This particular cafe wasn't one of the "dash in, grab your latte and go" espresso stands that seem to breed here in Washington, but rather it was a place of true, unadulterated enjoyment, where the attitude was "take time and smell the coffee!"
The university town where this jewel among shops is located is deep in the heart of backwoods PA. One has to drive nearly two hours to get to a major urban center, the local population doubles when school is in session, and the first day of hunting season is a major holiday. I began college as a product of this locale: the idea was that I could do my "music major" type activites during the week, then drive an hour back to my parents to spend time with the family and play for church on Sundays. Despite my painful shyness I decided that I would take full advantage of the benefits afforded me in a college town. I'd developed a taste for coffee-drinks due to the influence of a dear friend while a senior in high school, and I was delighted to hear that there was an "honest to goodness" coffee shop only blocks away from my dorm room. So, after several days of beating down self-consciousness and saving pocket change, I finally took myself to town to have a real cuppa.
That first trip to Michelle's Cafe was marked by terror, awe, and pure ecstasy (in that order). My first instinct was to look around at (what I thought was) the crowd filling the room. (I laugh now when I realize it was actually a very slow night for them-I just wasn't used to being around groups of people!) There was a moment of panic when I realized that most of the patrons were older than me and terribly sophisticated-looking, and then another when I had no idea how to order. The fellow behind the counter was at least seven inches taller than I and looked bored as I shrank into myself while carefully studying the menu hanging above the counter. I finally squeaked out my request for a tall mocha (tall being small, you know) and waited anxiously while the tall gent did magic with espresso and whipped cream. (This particular fellow's name was Dana, and he eventually ended up teaching me most of what I know now about the coffee biz, as well as introducing me to the magic that is jazz music. Thank you a million times, my friend.)
With cup in hand I slipped to the back of the room and took a seat at one of the small wood tables against the wall. I spent a full hour at that table, nursing my drink and trying to take in everything I could about the place. I watched everything: the tables of people laughing and chatting in low tones, the ease with which the baristas served up drinks and bantered with the customers, the paintings on the walls of swirled clouds lit up by teapot-shaped light fixtures and strings of white Christmas lights... I was utterly enchanted.
I never had quite enough spare change to be a regular, but occasionally a friend and I would treat ourselves by making the walk downtown and having a chat over a steaming cup. I always watched the place carefully to see if a Help Wanted sign had appeared in the window, but always my dreams of working at that magic place were dashed...Until one summer, when my boyfriend at the time rushed into my apartment and grabbed me by the arm. "We have to go RIGHT NOW,"he urged as he dragged me towards the door..."They're hiring down at Michelle's, but nobody really knows about it yet. C'mon!"
I didn't need any more urging. As it happened, Michelle's never put up signs because they'd always had such an influx of applications from young hopefuls looking for the "cool" job in town. I had an interview within ten minutes of filling out the application, and a week later I was the girl behind the counter, turning out drinks as quickly as I could and grinning from ear to ear.
The influence that working at Michelle's had on me was spectacular. The clientele were a varied and amazing group, and after a month or so I'd begun to remember the regulars, and they knew me. People would come in to chat about politics and art, literature and music, and enjoy the best coffee available for miles around. The people who worked there became some of my closest friends, though we didn't spend much time together outside the shop: Andrea, Marcus, Dana, Jenny- all of them had their particular quirks, and I enjoyed them all thoroughly.
It also turned out that every weekend I worked with the same woman, and she became like a second mother to me. Jen taught me about meditation and Buddhism, cooking and massage, and ultimately,about friendship, relationships, and love. Despite the fact that we had to be at work by 6am on those Saturdays, I never had a better time. (Jen, you're an amazing woman and you've touched me very deeply. May you always have that sunshine in your heart, Mama-san.)
I eventually had to leave the Cafe to move on with my life (which ended up taking me from one coast to the other), but it will always have a place in my heart as being the best employment I ever had.
Thank you, Michelle's Cafe.