Survival jobs. I haz them.
By Alisha Giampola (Actor)
The best health insurance I've ever had kicked in once I got my Equity card, but the best money I've ever made has, unfortunately, not been in the theatre.
Like most artists, my past employment history is a bizarre tapestry of work that would make a career counselor click her tongue in disappointment. Few of the jobs I've had are connected in any way, and none of them are part of the same field. I have had upwards of 5 jobs simultaneously, and spent as little as a single day and as long as five years (off and on) doing them.
I see all you fellow actor/writer/artist/musician survival jobbers out there nodding your heads. I know you can commiserate with me about what a nightmare filing your taxes is and how complicated procuring any kind of reliable benefits can be. And I know you all have stories.
The Making Coffee For Tourists Job.
When I first moved to the city, I used my connections from having worked part time at a Starbucks while in high school and college to procure a barista position at a Starbucks in New York. My manager in Gainesville had loved me, and honestly, I had found my job as a barista to be pretty pleasing. I like the way coffee smells, the people were always super nice, the atmosphere peaceful (I worked at a store in an upscale part of town and most of the clientele were well-kept, Ralph Lauren-wearing women on their way to the mall), and the pay was quite fair.
The Starbucks I was transferred to in NYC? Let's just say it was on the mezzanine level of Macy's in Herald Square. Less than a week after starting there I became convinced that there was a direct flight from Moscow that landed directly outside of Macy's and contained only incredibly angry, under-caffeinated Russian tourists whose only vacation plans consisted of screaming at me in Russian because I didn't speak Russian.
I was also, at 23, one of the oldest employees and the only female without a baby at home. Starbucks in New York was a whole different kind of job than the one I had worked during college. It was easy to see why the demographic shift was so dramatic. The hourly pay came in at a little under twelve dollars and I quickly realized that while such a sum seemed doable in my mind before moving, it was actually completely impossible. I was the only employee who did not work a second job, and also the only one with a commute shorter than an hour and a half. Working a second job and trying to audition seemed impossible, so I knew my days at Starbucks were numbered. While scouting for a new opportunity, I went every day to the employee entrance of Macy's, checked in with the guard and followed the mouse-dropping filled maze of back hallways stuffed with mannequins and merchandise until I arrived at the dark mezzanine level where the only light came from a dimly glowing green mermaid with a smile like the Mona Lisa. What a bitch.
Flashes from the cameras of Japanese tourists filled the darkened store as I set up the coffee brewer for the first rush of the day. I would have to rebrew the coffee only minutes after we opened, and so I would take my time...savoring the only minutes of total silence that I would experience for the next six or eight hours. And that was if I was lucky; if I was unlucky, the first rush wouldn't be drip coffee at all, it would be twenty-five teenagers on a band trip who would all want differently flavored frappucinos.
Image source: Angry Barista on Twitter @BaristasHateYou
Making coffee drinks for these people was similar to what I imagine the experience of being an animal in a zoo would be. I'm stuck behind this counter as crowds of people who don't understand where the line begins or ends because they can't read the green sign that says "Line forms here", reach their hands through the bars of my cage and phonate sounds that seem demanding, but I can't process, because none of them are speaking giraffe. And I, the silent giraffe in a green apron, write abbreviations on disposable cups that will never ever be disposed of in the garbage can. No, they will instead be left on tables, or on the floor next to a chair- because people from other countries apparently don't understand that unless there is a server to be tipped, no one is going to throw away your trash. But I will. I will occasionally leave my spot behind the counter and go through the area where the tables are and collect all the sticky napkins and straws and lids with piles of whipped cream stuck to them and will throw them away very dramatically- if only to call everyone's attention to the garbage can, which is located, conveniently, right next to the "Line forms here" sign.
I had gotten used to the idea that the worst possible customers at a Starbucks were the whiny, high maintenence Real Housewives types who were following the Atkins diet. At Macy's however, those women were a relief. At least they ordered in English consistently, and had a vague grasp of American currency. On a weekend, you could be facing a line of 78 Chinese tourists, all of whom had learned two words in English: "Please" and "Tea" and who would pour bags of dimes and quarters out in front of the register and make me fish $3.89 out of the pile. Only after you had rung up their order and made their drink would it become clear that they actually just wanted a cup of hot water. Which would never be hot enough. And a fresh lemon wedge. Which doesn't exist at Starbucks. Sorry. I'm not Howard Schultz. It's not my fault that we don't have fresh lemons in the back. And no I can't leave and go buy some and cut them up for you. Please stop screaming at me.
It was weird working at a place where you knew almost no one except your fellow co-workers was going to understand anything you were saying at any given time. One of the guys I worked with, Raphael, utilized the language barrier to comic effect. After a particularly frustrating interaction, he would make eye contact with me and would smile charmingly as he called out the drink, "I just had to remake this NON-FAT DOUBLE CHOCOLATEY CHIP FRAPPUCINO three times for this crazy lady!" And as said non-English-speaking lady came up to snatch the drink wordlessly from his hand, he would add: "Thank you! Have an absolutely wonderful day!" He was very funny. But sometimes things got too busy, or too emotionally dark, for even Raphael to cheer us up. Sometimes you just got yelled at one too many times. And that was when I decided it was time to step up the job search because if I wanted to spend my whole day surrounded by frustrated angry people, I would have worked at the DMV.
Stay tuned for more in this series of Tales From Jobs That Weren't Acting, including such fascinating episodes as: The Perfume Spraying Job, The Wine-Label Copy Writing Job, The Cater Waiter Job, The Freezing Secretary Job, and The Horrible Child Wrangling Job.
ALISHA GIAMPOLA is an NYC based actor/teacher/writer whose Starbucks order used to be a Grande, two-pump Chai latte, but now just gets a black tea.
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