Athlete in a coffee shop

It must have been early November when I was an injured athlete awaiting surgery. The surgeon had told me his earliest availability to operate on me was a few weeks from then. It was a long time to wait. Those weeks would mean the difference between making the national championships, or missing out. A shot at one more title, or not. I felt I had no choice. The guy was the best doctor in the world for the surgery I needed and I wasn’t going to settle for someone lesser skilled hacking away in my ankle joint.

The days before a surgery are dead days. It’s one of the few times in an athlete’s life that he’s neither improving nor recovering. Improving is worthless as you’re going to be sidelined for a long time in any case. But you’re not recovering either. Not yet, anyway.


One dead day morning I sat outside a local coffee shop and ordered a cappuccino. A small Colombian woman brought me the perfect cup. You could smell the beans through the foam. Foam which was perfect in volume and texture. ‘How do you make that?’ I asked her. ‘Why don’t you buy a couple of cartons of milk and come by tomorrow morning? Then I’ll show you’, she said.


The following morning, I find myself in a dogfight with a dual boiler Vibiemme Mercury espresso machine. Milk and coffee are flying around everywhere, landing on walls and ceilings. Hissing sounds are coming out of boilers and steam pipes I didn’t know were there. Two hours later I have yet to produce a drinkable cup of coffee when a customer walks in. ‘Why don’t you serve our client, LJ? Rosa says.


I’d never had any other job in my life than being a professional squash player. No internships at local companies, no summer jobs in neighborhood stores, and absolutely zero experience in hospitality. But how difficult could it be, right?


I walk up to the old man and ask him what he wants. The moment he sees me he frighteningly shrinks back and mumbles something incomprehensible. Wait, what just happened? I turn to Rosa. Apparently my body language had been kind of aggressive, one of an athlete in attacking mode, one of a predator about to pounce on its prey. It certainly wasn’t the body language of a humble waiter trying to serve a loyal customer.


For the first time in my life I work a normal day. Normal which isn’t normal to me at all. I’m used to cramped airplanes, different time zones, 180+ heartrates, and physical battles with the fittest guys in the world. I’m used to massive tournaments, small hotel rooms, and always leaving town after a week. I’m used to fighting for money, almost literally fighting for it, by trying to be fitter, stronger, smarter than everyone else. I’m used to taking care of myself, and only myself, as opposed to serving an old man a drink because he’s thirsty.


It’s a miracle, but Rosa invites me back the next day.


Next morning, I wake up at 6AM, go for a swim, and take a cold shower. ‘Proper preparation prevents piss poor performance,’ my coach always told me. The performance of serving people a coffee, a banana cake and having a chat. I arrive at the shop ten minutes early. My face tensed, hair neatly gelled-up, sneakers tightly laced.


I’ve got the energy of an athlete. It’s too high for normal life. It’s too high for this job. My car is first to drive off when the light turns green, I see gaps in grocery store lines before they appear, and my hyperactive brain wouldn’t mind if people talked faster. But hey, at least I realize. I tell myself to chill the fuck out. Relax. You’re going to make people a coffee and have a chat. That’s it. No big deal.


One moment later a big deal walks in. ‘The biggest distributor of coffee in the city’, Rosa whispers to me. ‘He always drinks a cappuccino. Go ahead, make one for him…’


As if all those years of performing under pressure suddenly counted for nothing, I completely fuck up Don Corleone’s cappuccino. ‘There you go, sir’, I utter while I serve his cup. ‘Too little foam,’ he responds while slipping something towards me. ‘Here’s my card. My barista course starts in January.’