My first job was as a barista at a major chain coffee shop. I made minimum wage making specialty espresso drinks for upper middle class and wealthy folks and teenagers who wanted to seem older by drinking snooty coffee sweetened up with chocolate syrup and diluted with milk in the late 1990s. I liked the job. In fact, other than my current job (writer, whose pay is well below minimum wage…full time parent and homemaker whose pay is ZILCH…), it was the happiest I’ve ever been at work. To be fair here, J is a really high earner and I am blessed with the privilege of living my current life. I’m not saying I’ve been the happiest making the least amount of money for my work. I’ve been the happiest at work when I didn’t have to constantly worry about the amount of money I made. There is a HUGE difference. Minimum wage has barely increased in the 25 years since I worked that job, and no one has ever really been able to live off a full time minimum wage job in my lifetime. Hell, you can barely survive off a job that pays double minimum wage full time, or two minimum wage jobs. But unfair wages is a WHOLE other post. I’m talking about my experience at my makin’ coffee job.
I liked the people I worked with. Two of them are still my friends 25 years later. It was a fun job…not so serious that mistakes were crucial to someone’s survival or livelihood…there was room for forgiveness…but not so monotonous and dull that I wanted to fall asleep on the job either. I served people. I made things that were these combinations of art and skill that made people happy when they got them, even if it was for only the minutes it took to finish the drink, or maybe even for just that first sip. But I got something out of that job. The only part that kinda bugged me as a teenager who was privileged enough to not have to try and support myself and/or someone else off minimum wage was that I don’t like coffee. Like…I don’t like it. At all. (I know. How do I even LIVE?)
And my friends at work, and even my supervisor to a degree, desperately wanted me to like coffee. They diluted it with water (that’s an Americano). They diluted it with milk (latte, cafe au lait, cappuccino). They did that stuff plus sweetened it up with chocolate…hazelnut…caramel…vanilla…almond…straight sugar…artificial sweeteners…ALL of it. Nope. I still made a face after every sip. ‘It’s an acquired taste,’ they said. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t like it…it leads to displeasure for me…and I’d have to keep repeatedly exposing myself to it to lessen the displeasure, but I don’t LIKE it, so why would I keep trying to…?’
I didn’t understand how anyone acquired a taste for something they didn’t initially like.
When I turned 21, I had a couple of slightly older friends (I was always the baby of my friend group…the handful of friends I made in youth who are younger than me are only months to DAYS younger than me…seriously) and slightly naughty friends (see those months to days younger folks) who were really into experimenting with alcohol. I got a bunch of liquor. Bottle of tequila (I used it to cook chicken and stuff). Bottle of amaretto (I didn’t finish that bottle until well into my relationship with J…five to six years after my 21st birthday…and he finished it, not me). Bottle of bourbon (also used to cook). Bottle each of red and white wine (also used to cook). Several kinds of beer.
My friends ended up drinking all the beer. Because I don’t like alcohol. I mean, I CAN drink it…if you add bourbon to Coke or sweet iced tea or lemonade or punch…or you really fruit up some rum or tequila…or you put it into a milkshake…or something. But…I’d honestly just rather have plain Coke or a virgin smoothie or milkshake. It doesn’t do anything for me. And I don’t LIKE alcohol without it being sweetened and diluted. I have friends who are beer and wine and bourbon and tequila GOURMETS. And coffee too. For real.
They’re REALLY into it. It’s a hobby…a passion. But I don’t get it. I’ve never acquired a taste for coffee or alcohol, which I realize makes me strange as a human being in general and a writer in particular. And until very recently, I struggled with the phrase ‘acquired taste,’ because I mean…J likes coffee AND beer and sometimes bourbon and other whiskey too. I’m around coffee all the time and not NOT around alcohol. My friends both close and far away still dig it. So I’ve had ample opportunity to acquire a taste for them. I haven’t. And I think I’ve finally discovered why.
First, coffee, and alcohol, and caviar, and dark chocolate, and stinky cheese, and cilantro, and yogurt, and avocado, habanero peppers, and whatever else people tend to either love or hate (or at least be totally disinterested in) aren’t tastes just anyone can acquire with enough exposure. They’re *specific* tastes. A person either starts out liking it and always does…or doesn’t like it, but then their tastes evolve independently of their exposure to whatever it is, and they like it at some subsequent sampling (like I didn’t used to be thrilled with tomatoes or pickles, but now I like them)…or…and here’s where I think ‘acquired taste’ comes from…a person decides that the benefits they can get from whatever it is outweigh their distaste for it, until they are a regular consumer and can claim (honestly, at least in a way) that they like it.
Coffee makes/keeps me alert and productive. I like this about coffee. I didn’t really like the taste in the beginning, but I could doctor it enough to tolerate it and I like what coffee does for me, so I like it. Then once we were out of milk and sugar and I had to drink it black to stay awake for <some big deal> and I drank it black and found I could also tolerate that because I like what coffee does for me that much. Yeah, I like coffee.
Alcohol helps me loosen up socially/relax after a hard day of being keyed up. I like this about alcohol. I didn’t really like the taste at first, but I could doctor it enough to tolerate it and I like what alcohol does for me, so I like it. Then once we were out of ice cream and fruit juice and pop and I had to drink whiskey/rum/tequila straight and found I could also tolerate that because I like what alcohol does for me that much. Did you know X brand of beer tastes kind of like hard lemon/lime/orange pop…tastes kind of like hard root beer…tastes kind of like hard cola…tastes kind of like cold sweet carbonated coffee? Did you know <style of wine> isn’t really THAT different than grape juice? Yeah, I like alcohol/beer/wine.
I’m not criticizing any person’s specific tastes. If you really love bourbon or beer or wine or coffee or whatever…you do you. But I’ve never been one to have a ‘taste’ for something because it was useful to me. That’s a useful thing; not a thing I’m fond of/like/love. Like…I love music. But it’s not really useful. I use my car every day…super useful…some people definitely love their cars…J does…but I wouldn’t say I like or love mine. I don’t assign affection to things or people based on what they can do for me. And J? He does love cars. He loves HIS cars. (He does.) But that feeling of enjoyment for him goes beyond their use, or else he’d love all cars that ran equally, and he doesn’t.
And I’ve heard a lot of folks refer to ME as an acquired taste. I’ve even referred to myself that way. I know I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. Overwhelming evidence. Lots of people adding lots of milk and sugar and still making a face, you know what I’m saying? But I don’t want to be an acquired taste. I don’t want to be someone who’s tolerated in someone’s life because of what I can do for them. I don’t want to be measured by the useful benefits I bring into a person’s life. I don’t want the people in my life to choke me down so they can stay awake or fall asleep at night. I want to be a *specific* taste. So yeah…maybe I’m not pizza or ice cream…something virtually everyone can and does like. Maybe I’m avocado or cilantro. I accept that I’m not for everybody. But I don’t want to be anybody’s coffee or alcohol. I don’t want to be an acquired taste. And I’m glad J and a few other folks out there just like me and have from their first tries. I know I’m a specific taste. I actually like being a specific taste. I just don’t want to be an acquired one.