Sunday, August 26, 2012

the time i got hired at a famous coffee shop without applying

I worked a lot in college.  I wasn't really getting "spending money" per se, and New York is ridiculously expensive.  Sure, my meals were covered by a dining plan, and my boarding was covered by loans, but I had to earn whatever I wanted to throw at pitchers for beer pong or going to clubs when my best friend Amanda dragged me downtown. 

Among other things, I had:  an office job, two internships, a gig as a guide for Spring break high school workshops, a job at a creperie, and a job at a sandwich shop.  Also I helped Amanda one time doing a birthday party where we dressed up in fairy tale costumes.

At the beginning of junior year, my friend Matt told me they were looking for a counter girl at the sandwich shop where he worked.  It was called the P & W.  It was about four blocks from campus, right across from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

I went and spoke to Wendy, the owner, and found myself the proud owner of a P & W apron and 15 hours a week behind the long butcher block counter.  I fixed coffee, soup, bread, and took sandwich orders to give to our sandwich guys.  I also cashed people out at the antique register.  There is a lost art to cashing out.  P & W only took cash, no cards (much to most of the customers' consternation), and it wouldn't automatically tell you how much change to give a customer.  So you actually had to figure out how to count change back! 

P & W was also a specialty market, and Wendy would let us take old stuff home.  This job became a lifeline for me, as I was paid in cash and often arrived home with a paper sack full of baguettes, jams, leftover cold cuts, milk, cheese, and other fancy little things.

After a few weeks, I learned more of the history behind the place.  P & W stood for Paniotis and Wendy.  Paniotis Binioris, a Greek immigrant, had assumed ownership of the old and landmarky Hungarian Pastry Shop, next door to P & W, around 1980.  Wendy had taken a job as a waitress there, and they met, courted, etc etc.  They had four delightful kids who attended the Fieldston School.  The shops were connected by a passageway in the back.  Paniotis was a very kind man with a wicked tennis game and a soft spot for foreigners trying to make it in the city. 

That's Misrak in the photo!  Don't be fooled - it's a wig.  A very common practice among Ethiopian women:  shave your head and wear amazing wigs.
The women who worked at the Hungarian were gorgeous and intimidating.  They were almost all Ethiopian, with perfect bronze skin stretched over high cheekbones.  Their slender fingers worked the espresso machine and tied up boxes of sweets like second nature.  They talked a lot in Coptic, probably making fun of the dumpy white people like me.  While we were working our shifts next door, we could get snacks and drinks at the Hungarian, so I got to know a few of them pretty well.  I especially remember Misrak and Lili.  All the girls were somehow related, and they were almost all Coptic Christians.  Lili was about sixteen, and she was living with distant relatives after she had arrived from Ethiopia.  She was in high school, working full time, and also caring for a small sibling.  Her life could not have been further away from my heady college years of intellectual pursuit and partying. 

One night, the crowd at the Hungarian overwhelmed the ability of the waitstaff to keep up (this was common).  Paniotis came next door to the P & W, saw me absentmindedly reading the Spectator at the counter, and said, "You're coming next door."

"But . . . I.  I can't work the machine.  I don't know what anything costs."

"You'll figure it out."

"Um . . . okay."

Thus began my first night at the Hungarian.  Let me pause here to say that Columbia students apply to work at the bohemian, dimly lit Hungarian like college seniors apply for Teach for America these days.  It's practically a rite of passage.  The percentage who get hired is . . . none.  The Ethiopians really have a corner on the place.

But there I was, trying desperately to keep up as they shot each other disdainful looks over my head.  I burned the absolute crap out of myself on the milk steamer (they assured me that everyone did this at least once and that was how you remembered not to do it again).  I tangled myself in the spool of the drop-down pastry box tier-upper.  I mixed up orders.  I was slow.  It was awful.  But they still needed me the next night.  And then the next one.  And soon I was working there more than I was working at the sandwich shop.  The Ethiopians started letting me sit at their "staff only" table. 

I went through a hard time after my mom died (obviously), and had to quit some of my extracurriculars so I could focus on school.  I left P & W and the Hungarian then, never to return as an employee.  But whenever I visit the City, I make a stop there.  I buy some Branston pickle relish, eat some prune hamentaschen or a Linzer tart, and reminisce.  And Wendy is always there to say hello and inquire after me. 

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