An Essential Smile

by Kathleen Burns

Three dollars. That is how much my life is worth to me.

As I stood for hours at a Starbucks drive-thru window, I had to remind myself that I had volunteered for this. Not because I cared whether people could still get their Starbucks, but because Corporate had just sent out an email declaring that all employees would be paid three dollars an hour extra for working during a global pandemic. I did the math: if I get three dollars extra, then I get paid fifteen dollars an hour, which means that if I work a seven-hour shift, I get paid a little over one hundred dollars. Sure, I might catch a virus with a death-count over 60,000, but what is a plague to a poor college kid desperate for even three dollars more? So when my manager texted to ask if I wanted some hours, I said yes.

On Fridays and Saturdays, I drove the family van to my local drive-thru Starbucks. When I walked in the first day, I didn’t recognize anybody: all of these workers were from a dozen other cafe stores that had closed. All of them were here for the extra three dollars.

My job was simple. I greeted each car cheerfully, rang up the order, and directed them to my window where I could provide essential coffees. The new rule was that cashiers had to wash our hands after every single transaction on top of the scheduled hand-washing. My hands quickly became red and chapped; flexing them etched a spider web of pain into my skin. Customers didn’t seem to notice my winces as I took their cash and handed off drink after drink. They did notice my smile and friendly small talk, and compliments came in faster than the tips: “Thank you for working.” “I’m so glad you’re here.” One woman paused after her white mocha. She told me that this was her only excuse to leave her house and see other people.

In a weird way, I was happy to feel needed. All of these people came seeking some semblance of stability and routine, so many craving even a moment of human interaction. Even the pickiest customers didn’t complain as much as usual.            

I was told my job was essential, that I needed to work despite everything. The real essential workers were the people I saw from my little window. Nurses in their scrubs with dull, heavy eyes. Delivery workers with braces on their arms and masks over their faces. Technicians and plumbers and construction workers. For every bored, white-collar executive and retiree, there were a dozen essential workers, each as scared and desperate as me. Every time I locked eyes with another exhausted worker, I wondered what I was doing. Why, during a crisis, I was sitting in a window, smiling happily as I passed out drinks, acting as if nothing was wrong, as if the whole world were normal just because someone could have an iced coffee.

Copyright Kathleen Burns. Used by Permission.

Kathleen Burns is a third year student majoring in anthropology and political science, and a member of the undergraduate mock trial team. When she isn’t frantically making coffee as a barista, she can be found spending time with her family and friends. Her hobbies include writing, drawing, and complaining loudly about the news.

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