Sunday, March 05, 2006

Buyer's Market.

When I decided to move from New York back home to the D.C. area, it was a precarious situation: I had neither a job nor any apparent prospects. But I did have a sister who was partnered in an upstart coffee company. So I offered to help out.

My sister’s company participated in “road shows,” where they took up weekend-long residence in kiosks at Costco stores and sold as much coffee as they could, earning stock space on the shelves. I found myself, not unhappily at first, standing on the concrete floors of various Costcos in the sub-suburbs, brewing and handing out little cups of coffee to shoppers.

Working those road shows made me feel a new tenderness for humanity. You see people who are disintegrating before your eyes: old people who haven't washed in a very long time; women with skewed wigs; trucker types who don't give a shit about your damn coffee because Folgers wakes them up just as good and costs a lot less. Lots of unspoken spousal weariness. Nobody is looking at one another. In fact, everybody is actively endeavoring not to look at each other. Why bother with other humans when there are so many vast shelves of product that you never knew you needed, until you found that it was larger and cheaper than you ever imagined it could be? It is disconcertingly impossible for anything in Costco to look alive, unless it is stuffed.

Samples of all kinds are plentiful at Costco. Food demonstrators -- mostly older, pillowy, lunch-lady types in hairnets -- distribute mushroom ravioli, mozzarella sticks, chicken taquitos, juice, chocolates, anything from the aisles they populate. After awhile, you develop your own sampler peeves. For my sister, it was foreigners who motioned at the pots and grunted but would not pick a specific coffee to sample. For me, it was people who openly grimaced or made disparaging remarks after drinking it. It was also both frustrating and saddening to watch the same person making the sample rounds without a shopping cart, multiple times in one weekend.

Here are my top 10 least favorite things people would say when they would approach our kiosk, which usually offered four different types of coffee for sampling.

You got cognac to put in that?
I'll have a tall half-caf latte with hazelnut syrup!
Which one is the best?
Gimme sumthin that'll put hair on my chest.
I'll try the Mo-tscha.
Is this grounded? Can you ground this for me?
This tastes bitter.
This tastes like Starbucks.
I want to try the expensive one!
Yes, regular please.

In the warehouse, I felt more tied to the word "worker" than I ever had in my life. When I got home I was literally sick from the smell of coffee. I don't think I had spent that many consecutive hours on my feet in many years, if ever. I slept a better sleep than I had ever slept. It seemed, after working in a series of offices at sending messages into a vacuum called the Internet, like the most honest work I had done in a long time. It also felt even more invisible.

It became very important to me that the person I was serving at least acknowledged my existence: gave me some eye contact, ideally said thank you, maybe even asked an intelligent question. The low occurrence of this behavior became excruciating, to the point where I began saying snarky things to those who failed my courtesy standards, as they were walking away. Often they were still dangerously within earshot. But of course, they never heard me.

A year later, when I was back to being gainfully employed by the Internet, I asked my sister if her company needed any help with the holiday road shows. "Are you insane?" she said, and certified me as such by not entertaining the offer for a second longer. Sure, the question had some validity. Why on earth would I want to repeat, again, the experience of being on my feet for 12 hours in a drafty warehouse, giving away coffee shots to harried masses? I don't know why. But I really did.


  1. Anonymous9:59 AM

    on the internets you don't get down among the people

  2. Anonymous9:09 AM

    At least you weren't asked to clean up any half-dead rats in the alley out back -- and no one asked if they could get their beverage as a Frappucino!


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