She handed me two dollars across the counter, smiled, pulling her lips back across her perfect teeth, and asked me if I was from here. I raised my eyebrows. “I’m from the next county to the south, but there are no jobs there. You?” She was from Long Island, but my asking wasn’t necessary. Everyone was either regulars or from New York or D.C. She commented on how pretty it was, quaint, but with culture, and the mountains so nearby. She was thinking about relocating. “If you could not do that, that would be great.” I smiled back nonchalantly.
Her eyes widened. How dare I? She could complain, but she wouldn’t. I didn’t matter that much, coffee-serving peon that I was.
It’s not a specific memory. It’s a collateral memory. Over and over again. Coffee. Smiles. Leave. Please leave. Visit. Get coffee. Just don’t stay.
This is not a post about how to best serve your customer base or keep business. Higher Grounds probably should have fired me. I was intentionally rude to customers about 5% of the time. There are staff who are just rough around the edges, who need support to be their best, and there was me. “Please go away.”
That was 2001. USA Today had named Charlottesville, “Best Place to Live in the USA.” I was nineteen, living in my car, showering at friends’ houses and serving coffee and as horrible as I was at customer service, I had a basic understanding of market demand. If people across the country believed Charlottesville was a great place to live the housing market would be flooded by demand and affordable housing, which might be needed by young people trying to move out of their cars (for example) would become scarce if not impossible to find.
And that transpired.
I moved away, went to college, eventually returned, my situation considerably different. I no longer live in my car. Nor am I intentionally rude to anyone. However, when I reflect on what is sometimes called the affordable housing crisis, I think of standing at the coffee counter and the many women from elsewhere with perfect teeth.