The first thing you need to know is that I was a terrible barista. And the afternoon of the robbery was especially busy. As the throngs of shoppers lined up for iced lattes and taxing frappuccinos, I struggled to keep up. Finally, around three o’clock, the crowd lightened. I had just stepped back from the register when the slim man in the baseball cap shuffled to the counter. Sunglasses, a pullover, something tentative about his gait. Oh, I thought, preparing to offer extra courtesy, he must be blind. The man placed a note on the counter. This too, was common enough. Folks often arrived at the Starbucks with orders for officemates. As I lifted the note, permutations of probable orders unfolded, all of which I was bound to get wrong.
THIS IS A ROBBERY. The words leapt from the yellowed scrap. I HAVE A PARTNER OUTSIDE WITH A GUN. GIVE ME ALL THE MONEY IN YOUR REGISTER.
The command was simple. But as the man in the sunglasses stood there, I couldn’t remember how to open the drawer to my register – I couldn’t think how to do anything at all. There was no button; the drawer always just shot out automatically when a cash transaction was rung. A fake order would have been perfectly appropriate, but as the robber flung another nervous glance over his shoulder and made a gun-like gesture in the pocket of his pullover, the molten panic surging through me destroyed any chance I might improvise.
Panic, I should add, was a constant of my work life at Starbucks. I operated in a fog of alarm even when I wasn’t being robbed. I couldn’t remember orders. My hands shook – a terrible quality in someone handling lots of hot beverages. I often tripped on the non-slip mat. There behind the counter, I did little but get in the way, burdening my already busy co-workers.
And confronted with a robbery, I couldn’t manage even my usual fumbling disruptions. All I could do was stand there slack-jawed, frozen by all the possible disasters that might unfold in the coffee shop. At any moment, another customer might line up. At any moment, the gun in the robber’s pocket might go off, no matter that its shape indicated it was almost certainly nothing more than the man’s fingertip. So while the robber waited and I stood there immobilized, I resorted to the only option I could think of: I called my manager.
‘Tanya,’ I croaked. ‘Tanya, I need you.’
Tanya’s voice was as stern as it was beleaguered. ‘Andrew, you can handle it.’
Of course, Tanya doubted she needed me: I often struggled with tasks as simple as sealing bags of ground coffee. But this time, as it happened, I truly was stuck.
‘Tanya.’ I said it louder this time, as the robber made another hurried motion. ‘Tanya, I really need you.’
And so finally, with a heavy sigh and a toss of her bob-cut, my put-upon manager strode to the counter. As soon as she reached the register, I leapt back, bumping into the towering urns of coffee, which were, mercifully, bolted to the wall. By this point, no more than thirty seconds must have elapsed since the note had first been thrust across the counter, but the robber was becoming truly agitated. His gaze swung back and forth from door to counter, door to counter. Another mob demanding lattes could descend at any time.
‘You’re robbing us?’ Tanya gasped, putting the note back down on the counter beside the tip jar.
By way of answer, the robber only gestured for her to hurry, so my manager fumbled for her key. She opened the register, and then she, too, did something peculiar: instead of grabbing a wad of bills and thrusting them at the robber, she counted the bills out one by one, as if the cash in the drawer was all hers and she could hardly bear to part with it.
Once more, the robber glanced over his shoulder. Once more, he gestured for Tanya to hurry. And while she slowly counted the bills, my disbelief, and then my scorn, multiplied. For here was a mistake more grievous than any spilled cappuccino, any mixed-up order, even worse that stumbling into a co-worker in the midst of a busy shift. The instant Tanya handed the robber the stack of bills, he turned for the door and she lunged across the counter to grab his arm, and I gaped, already beginning to see how I would tell this story. ‘Don’t you want the twenties?’ Tanya cried, just before the robber fled onto Copeland Street. This final question became my punchline.
Over and over, I repeated this story, sitting on the floor with my friends on campus and around the table at family dinners back on my parents’ farm: how it came to be that I was robbed as a barista at Starbucks. How absurd it all was. How my clueless manager tried to slow the robber by grabbing his arm. And when the police arrived and dusted the counter for fingerprints, customers peered over the officers uncertainly or shouted out orders for lattes – as if the robbery hadn’t happened, because that sort of thing simply couldn’t have transpired while they zoned out on their phones at a Starbucks. How Tanya and I went down to the station with a pair of detectives and scrutinized a computerized list of mugshots and recognized no one. And always, always, as I told and retold the story, I ended with Tanya’s line, which elicited the same snorts and gasps of disbelief: ‘Don’t you want the twenties?’
The tale became so popular extended family asked me to repeat it at just about every holiday gathering. Happy not to give an account of why I was working nights for a janitorial service, I complied. And as I moved through the familiar beats, my family chortled and nodded in disbelief at Tanya’s antics, for they were also grateful for respite from the vexing question of how the boy they’d had such hopes for had turned into such an incompetent.
This is what so many stories do. They distract us, divert us, at least for a few moments, from the often quite difficult conditions of our bodies and our lives. And we praise art for this, for relieving us, however briefly, from the burdens of family and commute and job (or three). And it can be a relief to be distracted from our routines. We do need these breaks. The trouble is, diverted, we often fail to look closely at the humanity of those around us. We often fail to see ourselves clearly.
It took me years to recognize how completely each eager retelling of the story of my manager’s “antics” during the robbery allowed me to ignore how ridiculous I was that afternoon – and during that whole season of my life: how panicked I was, how wounded. And lost as I was, I did what so many of us do: I looked around for someone equally befuddled (even if just temporarily), and spun a story about her fuckups.
In the aftermath of that robbery, I stumbled through several more miserable jobs before finally landing in the (comparative) safety of the English Department. And what strikes me now is how often I’ve seen my pattern of artful scapegoating repeated. In these cases, the other is usually another student, the one in the cohort whose “pratfalls” can be spun most easily into “crazy,” hilarious stories. And yet the distance between the plight of the butt of the joke and that of the storyteller is usually one of vanishingly slim degrees – if there is any distance at all.
It’s been over a decade since I’ve lived in Pittsburgh. I’ve lost touch with everyone I worked with at that Starbucks on Copeland Street. I have no idea where Tanya is now. Maybe she’s still managing a coffee shop somewhere and doing the singer-songwriter stuff on the side. But what I will tell her, if I ever bump into her, is that I am grateful for the help she gave me the day of the robbery. That her lack of composure only made the aid she gave me more meaningful. And I would not mention all the times I retold the story of her “antics,” at least not right away. Instead, I think, I would start with some of what was going on with me back when we worked together at the Starbucks. And then, together, in the fullness of our “adult-ish” knowledge of the complications of life, maybe we could laugh quietly at my antics. And here, perhaps, I’d dare to tell Tanya about the stories I told at her expense about the robbery. Probably, she’d rebuke me. She’d certainly have a right to. But maybe – this is my hope – maybe if I told her, she would understand. And we would talk some more – about the strangeness of that day, and the hazy charms of Pittsburgh – and I would recount a little more about my life now, how at department parties I often overhear “crazy stories” about people standing five feet away, and see myself reflected in the ravenous gaze of the storyteller, and the hapless face of the butt of the joke, alike.
 The name has been changed to protect my manager’s privacy