Frothing Milk

The boss had hung a rattling doorbell above the entrance to alert the baristas – should their backs be turned, frothing milk – when a customer walked into the café. This way, the boss said, they could work on their craft and still serve espresso efficiently.

An experienced barista learned to identify certain regular customers by the intensity of their doorbell rattles. One neurosurgeon in her forties, for example, who came every morning for a café au lait with a shot of hazelnut syrup, was rather sure-footed and so gave the bell a good shaking whenever she shoved through the door. Her sure-footedness notified the barista that hazelnut and skim milk needed to be prepared immediately, for the woman often commented on her habitual five-minutes-behindness. An unhurried café au lait might set her seven or even eight minutes further behind schedule, an inconvenience she would likely share with the boss the next time he worked the coffee counter.

Not every rattler rattled so sure-footedly. There was a meek undergraduate student who came round in the evenings whose entering rattle was shy and unintrusive – by everyone’s account a very light-footed fellow. If the doorbell chirped at all to announce his arrival it was embarrassing for the barista and the undergraduate alike, if only because they both knew that all he wanted was to pass silently by the coffee counter, drop his $1.75 next to the tip jar with a deferential smile, and proceed to the far corner of the sitting area where the lamplight was dim and ponderous. He often forgot to take his mug of drip coffee with him, then forgot that he had forgotten it, and so would leave it to cool on the counter until it was sour and undrinkable. The most important thing was for him to make his way to the back table quietly, and to remain quiet. And to pay for the coffee plus a little tip.

Among the regular patrons too was a stout tattooed man with Tea Party politics. When the doorbell clattered offensively enough that it might have cracked, the barista knew it was time for an iced coffee with two extra hot shots of espresso, to go. The barista might also prepare to listen to an aggressive summary of the local news modeled after a crime report. The stout gentleman liked a stout drink, and a stouter citizen police force, he said. A barista well-acquainted with the gentleman would hold the door for him on his way out, partly to protect the doorbell from a second shock, partly because the gentleman had come to expect it, but mostly to ensure that a customer entering from the outside would not be whacked with the door while the gentleman was exiting.

Should there be a lull in the ebb and flow of customers, the barista on duty would stay busy frothing milk. A well-rehearsed foam, by the very nature of its well-rehearsedness, could persuade most any customer into believing in the consistency of the establishment. In fact, a cappuccino served self-assuredly by the barista did all the necessary work to prepare the customer’s tongue for enjoyment, regardless of texturing, layering, or froth-milk-espresso ratios. “At heart, a cappuccino is just a frothy latté,” the boss said, “Keep frothing, assertively.” Thus, although there were many ways to froth, each barista developed his or her preferred method. Some steeped the steam wand deep into the milk and then raised it carefully back to the surface, the idea being that hot milk foamed foamier than cold milk. Another barista, however, might lower the steam wand just below the surface and let the spitting begin while the milk was still cold, the idea being that sustained spitting spat a speedier spume. Each experienced barista believed that he or she employed the correct method, and so there was much debate surrounding the froth issue. Baristas-in-training were wisest in taking the position of their nearest superior, for there was no way to reduce so many frothing techniques to a single one, lest he or she be satisfied with wet or
tepid foam, which was the most common result when one frothed ambivalently. It was necessary to take a position on the issue, and to practice one’s position. Hence the boss, who wisely intuited that there would be discordant frothings, had hung the doorbell in place to ensure that the customers were still being served espresso in a timely fashion.

Of course there were those customers with sensitive tongues who claimed to know the frothing difference. A lanky man with thin, electrified hair and a Teddy Roosevelt moustache was among these
sensorially-gifted patrons. His doorbell rattle was recognizably tremulous, owing to his shaky
hands and feet. To enter the establishment he would press his upper body against the door until it
was slightly ajar, whereupon he would wrap his fingers, white-knuckled, around the door’s edge. He
would then drag himself across the threshold, as if supported entirely by the strength of his
fingers, and lurch, like an oblong boulder, into the café. During this process his grip on the door
grew so tense that his body shook all over, and so shook the door, and so rattled the doorbell in
the way particular to him. Having heard the rattle, the barista on duty would know that the lanky
man had arrived and that he wanted a triple “mochaccino” with white chocolate, Hershey’s chocolate,
and lots of fluffy foam. However, the barista on duty would not necessarily know how to go about
realizing the drink, as the lanky man’s preferences tended more erratic each time he ordered. For
the barista on duty, the tremulous rattle signified the coming of a scolding, either for too
little espresso, too much wet milk, or an imprecise balance between white and dark chocolate. There
was nothing to be done about a man who could tell the difference.

“Isn’t it all just milk, anyway?” a barista-in-training once asked a superior after an encounter
with the lanky man. “Isn’t it all just ‘fluffed’ milk? We could reduce it to the same substance. I
mean, people put half-n-half in their coffee. That’s liquid milk, basically. Well, liquid
milk and cream, basically.”

“Yes, basically,” the boss interjected. “Keep frothing.”

No one ever asked the lanky man when or by whom he was served the standard mochaccino against
which he measured all succeeding mochaccinos. Those who had been frothing at the café since prior to
the lanky man’s patronage strained their memories for a time when he was not unhappy with them. But
no such memory came. He must have ordered it elsewhere.

“Irregardless,” said the boss, “keep trying to please the man. Keep,” he said with a quick, hot
breath, “ hhh frothing.”

But a customer who can’t be pleased is a customer who can’t be still for long. The lanky man
began causing problems for others who liked to sit inside the café. One rainy autumn evening, when
the weather was too unpleasant to even make one’s way home under cover of an umbrella, the lanky
man entered the establishment, tremulously.

“Welcome, sir,” said the barista on duty, whose back was turned. “We’ll call your mochaccino
when it’s ready. It’ll be just a moment while we prepare the milk.”

“Fine. Yes, that’s fine,” the lanky man grunted. “There a restroom around here?”

The barista smiled, “In the back, as always, sir,” and continued his deft manipulation of the
milk and syrups.

“Oh, right. In the back. I knew that.”

“Likely you did, sir,” the barista said. “By the way, our boss says hello. He’s sorry he wasn’t
here to greet you himself this evening.”

At this the lanky man guffawed wheezily. “Did he now? Well, ha! You tell your boss next time you
see him that unless this mochaccino is to my liking, I’ll have to have a talk with him about the
hired help around here. It’s not that you kids are incompetent.” He raised a wobbly hand, his voice
trailing off. “Well now, hm. Yes. It is .” He grunted. “Well, I’ll be right back.”

And so the lanky man disappeared to the restroom in the rear. When he returned he found his
mochaccino stewing sweetly on the coffee counter.

“I prepared it for you in a mug,” the barista yelled over the shrill of the steam wand. (He had
by this time returned to frothing milk.) “I thought you might like to enjoy your beverage inside,
given the state of the weather. I hope you don’t mind that I added whipped cream. Oh, and a pocky
stick, too.”

“A hockey stick? What the…? Oh, I see. This thing here.” With his thumb and forefinger he
wiggled at the twiggy biscuit that had been staked into the whipped cream like a flagpole. “Well, I
suppose it’s fine.”

“PARDON?” the barista yelled, straining to listen above the steamy shrilling of the milk.

“IT’S FINE,” the lanky man yelled in reply. Then, more calmly, “I’m more worried about the
balance of ingredients.”

Although he had leaned in closer to the lanky man in order to hear him, the barista still could
not make out a single word over the noise. He had no choice but to keep his eyes on the espresso
machine, lest he risk spitting up milk, such that he could not directly look at the lanky man in
order to read his lips, which probably would have been the best way to ascertain what had been
said, in lieu of the screaming steamer. The barista offered a smile and a half-wave, hoping that
would suffice for a response. Yet even that gesture turned out to be superfluous; the lanky man had
already taken a seat at a rickety table with mismatched chairs.

A few minutes after this exchange, the meek undergraduate student who sat at the back corner
table approached the coffee counter. The barista, being rather occupied with the milk, took no note
of the student’s presence. Anxious, and unable to compete with the throaty call of the steam wand,
the student made timidly for the front door and gave it a little shake. The doorbell ring,
pitifully though it resounded, drew the barista’s attention away from his task.

“Oh, you’ve left and come back!” the barista said, a little embarrassed.

“No, no. I’ve been here all along.” The student’s shoulders sagged.

“Ah, of course. I must have been occupied at the counter. What can I do for you?”

“The wireless internet connection seems to have failed,” the student said, meekly.

“Has it now?” said the barista. “I’ve never heard of that happening before. Our connection is
usually so steady.”

The student nodded. “Yes, I rather depend upon it. This is the first time I’ve ever had problems
with it of any kind. Usually so reliable. And speedy.”

“Yes. Speedy,” the barista said. By this time his eyes had turned towards the lanky man, who,
as it were, was staring fixedly at the coffee counter scene. Once noticed, however, he scooped his
mochaccino off the tabletop, slurping round the rim (gathering whipped cream into his moustache as
he did so) and pretending to read an automobile magazine that lay open in front of him. One of his
eyebrows was twitching.

“Speedy…” the barista repeated meditatively, still eyeing the lanky man. “Perhaps I should call
the boss and see if he knows how best to fix this problem.”

“Of course,” said the student. “And while I’m here, at the counter, I ought to mention too that
several flies have flown into the lamp near my table and extinguished the light bulb. Smells
faintly of burnt insect matter. Just thought I’d bring it to your attention.”

“Ah, thank you.”

“And the toilet in the men’s bathroom was clogged just a few minutes ago, I believe after that
fellow over there” – he gestured towards the lanky man – “emerged.”

“Ah. But when did you…?”

“And – ” the student began, but he censored himself. He was perfectly capable of straightening
out the painting into which the lanky man had bumped en route to his seat and which now hung
slightly crookedly from the wall. He hurried back to his own table, satisfied with having notified
the barista of these several matters, and, in the ensuing minutes, forgot altogether about the
painting and the dead flies.

A modest, even-tempered rattle punctuated the downbeat of Miles Davis’s trumpet crooning over
the café’s sound system. It announced the boss’s arrival.

“Good evening, my little froth-makers!” he exclaimed.

“Just me frothing this evening, just a single froth-maker,” the barista on duty reminded
him, as if alluding to an absent froth maestro who ought also to have been present.

The boss’s eyebrows lurched in surprise. “Just one!” he exclaimed, not asking a
question but rather confirming emphatically what he must have already known to be the case, having
drafted the schedule himself, and also, quite likely, feeling put off that the barista on duty had,
only by allusion and yet so directly, expressed his discontent with the understaffing situation.
“Your voice is hoarse,” the boss said, changing the subject.

“Oh? Yes, well I was talking with that mochaccino man earlier. Actually, shouting at him above
the roar of the machine. You know the man. Well, I gave him your regards earlier. Still unhappy
with his mochaccino, I’d wager, probably wants to talk with you.” There was a pause. “By the way,
the wireless internet is down. That student who is always here told me. Seemed pretty worked up
about it.”

“Keep frothing!” the boss sang.

“I shall,” the barista on duty said. “Meantime, cappuccino for you, sir? I heard the rain when
you came inside...”

But the boss had already fled into the seating area of the café, apparently to give the lanky
man his regards, rainsoaked shoes eeking squeaky footprints as he stepped.

“Hello there, my fond regards, sir. But it has come to my attention that you’ve disrupted the
wireless internet,” the boss accused.

The lanky man tried, without looking up from the automobile magazine that he had been using as a
prop for his guise, to feign coolness before the boss’s cool accusation.

“Well,” he mumbled with his head down, “That goes without saying.”

The boss didn’t miss a beat, although he did miss a ringing of the bell as another customer
entered the establishment. The barista, ever on duty, hailed the customer and took her drink order,
while the boss replied: “Indeed. It does. You hack computers. I’ve seen you.”

The hacking man replied sarcastically: “I daresay these aren’t your usual manners, boss. Usually
you are so warm and patronizing. In fact, the hospitality of this establishment used to compensate
for the terrible mochaccinos. But now that we are being honest with each other, the white chocolate
is always a little too heavy, and you’ve conditioned all of your coffeemakers to skimp on the
triple espresso. How is it that your establishment manages to be excessive and stingy at the same
time? It just amazes me.”

“Let me tell you something, sir,” the boss began, as the bell rang with the hazelnut café au
lait ring of the five-minutes behind neurosurgeon. “Hospitality is my first policy until it
jeopardizes my other customers’ enjoyment of the establishment. I’ll need you to untangle your
wicked wireless webs or else you leave me no other choice but to turn to the police in this matter.
Although that, as you say, goes without saying.” He brandished a cellular phone from his
pocket and readied his thumbs for dialing.

“What goes without saying,” the lanky hack replied, “is that I am leaving.”

“Now that,” the boss fired back, “is a matter worth discussing.”

The hacker’s ears perked. “Tell you what, boss. You tell your old boy up there, the one who
botched this mochaccino, and who put this awful hockey biscuit – ”

“Pocky stick,” the boss interjected. (The stout, tattooed, Tea Party-inclined man trainwrecked
through the door, lambasting the little bell. The barista on duty shuddered and began preparing the
usual order.)

“Whatever. This awful pocky stick. You tell your man that I want the whole drink remade. I want
the same thing, except this time I want to get what I order. Mochaccino with regular milk and
soy froth, and I want the agreed upon balance of white chocolate and Hershey’s,
no-more-no-less of either, all three shots of espresso, and I want a conical adornment of
whipped cream without the dog treat on top.”

“Without the pocky stick on top. That’s
what you mean.”

“I DON’T CARE WHAT I MEAN!” the slightly built hacker bellowed. “I ONLY WISH YOUR REFRESHMENTS

He exhaled gustily and rather crudely, projectiling flecks of saliva onto the boss’s neck. The
tantrum, which ended with an exasperated “I can tell the difference!”, had
alarmed the café’s other patrons, a few of whom rose from their seats and left.

“Is everything in order, boss?” the lone froth-maker, concerned by the exodus of customers,
inquired invisibly from behind the espresso machine.

“You know what I’m going to say,” the boss sang.

The crooning howl of the steam wand gave the barista’s reply.

“I hope you are taking my proposition seriously,” said the rail-thin hack artist, again rather
wetly and exasperatedly, and again toward the boss’s naked neck. “The drink made correctly
or my wireless webs wickedly woven wemain.”

“That’s not going to be possible,” the boss stated with stern conviction. “It’s not in my policy
to reward delinquents.”

“Then my continued patronization of your establishment is no longer possible. Nor is the
restoration of your wireless world wide web connection. I wish I could say that I’m sorry, but I’m
not sorry. So, I’ll say goodbye instead.” The lanky man waited a moment. “Goodbye.”

He rose from the table and stepped aggressively toward the boss with his right arm extended, as
if to stiff-arm him out of the way. The boss stepped aside, however, allowing him to pass, and
watched with distant indifference as the lanky man exited the door in his usual way, out into the

The barista on duty gave the boss a quizzical look, as if to ask with his eyes, “Are you just
going to let him leave without consequences?” And the boss, following the chosen medium of communication, responded with eye contact, reassuring his employee, “Just wait, for I anticipate an
auspicious incarnation of justice in the next few moments. In the meantime, get back to frothing

Following right behind the gangly computer bandit toward the exit was the tattooed Tea
Party-inclined gentleman, who also exited the door in his usual way, the only trouble being that
the gangly bandit had hardly advanced beyond the doorstep and so was whacked, rather mercilessly –
as everyone had always feared would happen to a customer, which is why someone always held the door
for the Tea gentleman whenever he exited – in the back of the cranium. He fell to the ground in a
heap of bones, embittered at his luck and visibly in pain.

The boss, having witnessed the cranium whacking, ran to survey the scene, shooting the barista a
wily grin as he passed the service counter, implying with his expression, “As you were frothing
milk, an auspicious incarnation of justice.” Then, kneeling down at the lanky man’s side, he
addressed the Tea Party-sympathizing body art exhibitionist. “What’s happened here? Is he

To the surprise of the two men kneeling at his side, the downed hacker spoke for himself. “In
spite of the pain and the rain, I am fine and will survive this.”

The door whacker’s cheeks turned pink with relief, although no one could perceive this
difference due to the darkness. “I’m just glad he’s alright! Sorry to have done that to you, sir.
I didn’t see you there! Really not my intention to harm!”

Irregardless of your intention,” the boss said, standing up and wiping the raindrops
away from his eyes and brow, “you stopped a delinquent. This man is responsible for the café’s
world-wide-weblessness. He hacked our wireless network, disabled it for the rest of the customers,
and was trying to leave without righting the wrong.”

“Of course! Of course I stopped him,” the small government-favoring, large military-advocating
door whacker said, tweaking his previous apology. “All the more reason for a well-trained citizen
police force to be roaming the streets, so that delinquents like him might be caught red-handed.
Yes, glad I could be of service. It’s like I always say: a stout drink, a stout national defense.
The two belong together.”

The undergraduate student, overhearing the raucous, had by this time come outside. He took
immediate interest in the Tea Partier’s comments and so addressed him, formally and respectfully:
“Really, sir, I find the case for a strong national defense to be far less compelling than a more
artistic orientation toward politics. Imagine a world of ‘paintbrushes before paintballs,’ if you
will, one in which we make peace with bristles instead of missiles. These days, the world being as
it is, I find it difficult to distinguish between art and politics; in fact, I have ceased to make
any distinction, as I feel the two belong together, perhaps in the way you pair stout beverages and
militarism. For it is precisely when weapons and law define the political space that justice gets
shorthanded. We are cut off from real, authentic experiences when we concede justice to mere
lawmaking, national security, or patriotic responsibility. There are certain experiences, aesthetic
experiences, I believe, that exceed the possibilities of politics as law. Thus I propose, in place
of the citizen police force you’re suggesting, an army of artists, artists who, perhaps unwittingly,
prepare a more heterogeneous space in their art for justice to take place. For it is only
in this, only in art’s apolitical gesture, that it becomes the stuff of politics;
similarly, politics, when it becomes able to experience beyond and apart from the law, becomes art.
Speaking of art,” he interjected, turning toward the boss, “I’ve adjusted the disheveled painting
that the gentleman there nearly knocked over earlier. Oh my god, he’s bleeding.” The student ran
back inside. (“Guess I’ll be on my way too, having done my duty here,” the coffee inclined Tea
Party ally announced, to the inconsequential reaction of the others present.)

The neurosurgeon happened to be exiting the establishment as the undergraduate student was
reentering. She, too, knelt down next to the rainsoaked body in order to assess the situation.
“The key is just to remain calm,” she said to no one in particular. Then to the fallen man:
“Lacerations to the cranium shock your brain into panic mode. Whatever you are feeling is probably
normal. If you feel dizzy, just remain lying down.” And then, after a moment: “By the way, boss, I
was seven minutes late to a surgery this morning, due to a café delay. On my café au lait.”

“The next one is on the house, then. I hope the surgery still went as planned,” the boss said to
her. He reached under the lanky man’s arms, helping him up to a seated position.

“Be careful,” the neurosurgeon said. “He might not be ready to sit up. And yes, the surgery went
as planned. The patient’s life was saved.”

“Marvelous,” said the boss, lifting the lanky man onto his feet and slinging his right arm over
his own shoulder. “Let’s guide this gentleman inside and get him some water.”

“Your hospitality is growing on me,” the gentleman said.

“I will hydrate you and then you will fix the wireless internet,” the boss informed him.

The boss threw the fallen man’s other arm over the neurosurgeon’s shoulder and the three of
them hobbled together into the establishment, ringing the bell in a way it had never been rung
before, no doubt causing confusion for the barista, who, unable to tear himself away from the
espresso machine to evaluate the circumstances of their re-entrance, began preparing, without fully
understanding whether something was being asked of him, a hazelnut café au lait for the
neurosurgeon and an additional mochaccino for the wounded gentleman. With admirable speed and
considerable skill, he placed the drinks on the counter before the others had even hobbled into the
seating area, applying the final touches two-fistedly, with one hand pouring the hazelnut syrup
into the café au lait and the other adorning the mochaccino with a conical mound of whipped cream.

“Drinks are ready!” he declared, at which point he returned to his post behind the espresso
machine and, without being asked, resumed his frothing.