Behind the Counter

The problem I could have never foreseen with perfect weather nine months out of the year is that it gives you just three months to write that novel you’ve always thought about pursuing (and nine to look out the window, at your computer, and back out the window). Today though, all of Davis is questioning an upcoming apocalypse as it is scheduled to rain. And I am here, writing again.

There is something unusual about knowing the next month’s weather in advance (with today as an exception). There is no day in February that requires a weather app. You grab some pants and a rain jacket and find the sunshine in your heart to keep you warm. It seems that June is no different. Shorts, no sleeves, water bottle: check. In South Carolina, on the other hand, it’s a wonder anyone ever dressed successfully without the weather channel. Muggy morning, midday rain, sunny afternoon, comfortable evening—the weather is as dynamic as human emotion itself. 

I often imagine what kind of people cities would be. Davis would be a woman. She would have her masters in some science-related area and would be working on her doctorate. She’d enjoy reading global news, wearing Toms, doing pottery on the weekends, and drinking fair trade organic coffee. She would love her coffee. She’d shop local and not coupon cut. She would most definitely be a runner, and while she would not run fast she would run very long. She wouldn’t have cellulite and if she did she would ensure it remained unseen. If her clothes required it, they would be ironed. She’d be fashionable, but not daring. She’d hike but not cliff jump, date but not love, give but not fully. She would wear a little makeup at the gym. When a cashier or the doctor or a friend or her mother would ask how she is doing, she is good, she would answer without the realization that she could be any other way. She would support a child from Tanzania for $32 a month. She would never actually go to Tanzania.

Working behind a counter in Davis is a revealing place to be. I often wonder how it would be different if we sold lunch or coffee, our customers coming to us hungry and under-caffeinated. Rather, people come to me with full bellies ready for sweets to appease their happy mouths. They come excited for birthdays and parties. They come in the spirit of exploration. And occasionally they come looking for something we don’t sell: sugar-free ice cream, hot coffee, bubble gum flavor, happiness itself. Many come in looking for the latter.Image

“How’s it going?” I ask, even making eye contact. A few look uncomfortable, but most recover without hiccup: “Good.” Occasionally one will crack: “Good—I guess. Long day already.” Sometimes, even, break: “Awful,” “I hate my boss,”  “Are there any good guys out there?” You hear a lot of things from behind a counter, particularly when you’re hunched over with tongs arranging cupcakes, disappearing into the background. “Ladies, this one’s on me,” this one middle-aged woman said, pulling out her credit card, “this is the one he doesn’t know about!” She sported a glistening left ring finger and it’s difficult to imagine how much money she’s allowed to spend, no less how much she spends in secret. “It’s up to $900,” she giggled. “That’s not too bad!” one of her friends commented. It’s amazing how many women comment on how they would like cupcakes to be on the credit card their husbands can’t see. There’s shamelessness of all different kinds in the shop: the lactose intolerant customers who can’t stay away from our ice cream, the high school love affair manifesting itself in the shared tasting spoon, the office employee who wants to “slaughter” her boss with kindness, the weight-lifter who loves his small cone of cupcake-flavored ice cream (with sprinkles).

A group of my friends were recently discussing the needs of our city. “Does Davis have needs?” was the general question. You don’t exactly write a monthly check to provide clean drinking water and an education to the PHD student who loves fair trade coffee and pottery. Somehow working behind the counter provides a glimpse into the idea that needs do not have to be physiological to be important (and desperate). Jake, a friend in said discussion, works with international students at the university. No matter the country or culture, it is without fail that at some point during the school year each and every student will complain to him about one thing: the inability of locals to pursue deeper relationships. International students continually find that despite the friendliness of locals, there is a distinct social boundary that inhibits the making of real friends. It’s fascinating and true. 

It’s fun and difficult developing a relationship with a city with no vulnerability, a city that is always doing “good.” Being behind the counter lets me catch glimpses of her when she forgets her makeup at the gym or missed a spot while ironing. It’s kind of nice. 

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