Café Chronicles

[Allahummabārik. May Allah bless my writing endeavours, as well as you, the reader. Ameen]

Today, I am a barista and a waitress. I take orders, prepare hot drinks, heat up pies and spray tables clean. A new kind of experience, a new means through which I can collect some more stories…

It is a bit strange, being on the receiving end of coffee orders: I am used to sauntering into cafés, greeting the barista, ordering my drink. Now I am the one who takes the orders; I am the one whose humanity is momentarily detracted from, so it would seem, every time some obnoxious customer waves a menu in my face, or frustratedly tells me their order – no “please”, no “thank you” – just an order. I wonder if they think my waitress uniform renders me unworthy of kind words – or of any words at all, at times. I wonder if the professionals who mosey in and paint their words with a particular sort of condescending insolence think that their lanyards and titles render them superior, somehow.

I wonder if they would think to treat me any differently, if I were to tell them I am a lawyer, or a doctor, or a professor. But if they wish to treat me in this manner in my current occupational role, I would want for them to treat me in the exact same manner once I go on to do other things. Roles, titles, qualifications – these things will not alter the core of me. I hope they will not take from my humanity, from the fact that I and the person from whom I may order a cup of coffee both eat, both think, both use the toilet on a daily basis. And we both love coffee.

Another thing I have noticed, in the short time that I have been in this role, is just how much goes on behind the scenes at even the smallest of eateries; how much packaging and wasted food is emptied into industrial-sized bins; how much food is cooked altogether, at once.

There are some students who, I suppose, are wealthy enough to dine here every day. Some of them do not even look me in the eye when they ask for things. And this is okay: they do not get to decide how much I am worth as a human, and besides, I am only in this waitressing role for a few hours a day. But I do worry immensely at the state of things when I am forced to witness their repeated insolence: given the nature of the professional roles these students will go on to occupy, I wonder why they seem to lack basic human decency. I wonder if they think certain uniforms are worth more human dignity than others. I wonder if the people they will go on to care for will be worth their compassion and kindness, in their own eyes.

I make myself a hot drink – a masala chai, no less – and proceed to sip at it, at the till. I try to pick up a book for a few minutes, but I am disturbed by a new swarm of customers. They sit down, eat ravenously, take dozens of pictures for their social media accounts, and somehow end up leaving so much mess in their wake, it would seem as though they had eaten double the amount they really did.

I think the essence of humanity can more or less be seen at meal tables. When people eat, they satisfy a base biological need; when they eat together, there is such beauty. There is beauty in friends who get together after months for some tea and desserts; beauty in businessmen who gather around a table so as to discuss, at great length, the state of Pakistan’s economy; beauty in a couple bickering over who is going to cover the bill this time. I secretly love it when the guy wins: male chivalry is not yet dead.

Something I reckon I have mastered the art of is doing things in silence and solitude; I find great peace in it. Wiping tables can be a therapeutic art, and so too can observing people from behind the till. I never really used to be able to eat alone at restaurants in comfort, but I guess I can now. I care not if people may think I am a loner or whatnot. I watch as some people come to this café alone and dine alone. I think they are pretty cool: the art of being alone, existing contentedly in solitude, is one that I have always longed to master.

Whitechapel is a great location to have a café, methinks. People with Cockney accents and Bengali accents walk through its doors each day; people in nurse scrubs; people in prayer gowns and business attire. Nothing brings people together quite like food does, and what better way is there to directly and subtly observe the human condition, than through a part-time role as a waitress?

Sadia Ahmed, 2020

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