3.25.2009

Peanuts and Rats, Curse to Blessing


Real estate used to be a business where you never had to buy lunch as long as you weren't picky. You could have leftover cake from some celebration or award, leftover food from catered open houses, leftover sushi from broker's tours, or if you were willing to sit through an hour seminar about legal issues of property boundaries, new, non-leftover spaghetti lunch courtesy of the title company.

When I worked for Prudential, I was new so I went to all the spaghetti lunch seminars. By the third one I was so sick of my loud talker colleagues that while they were talking up deals on their cell phones, I kept on walking and sat down at another table.

I'm pretty shy and not motivated to change, unless it's changing location or career. Changing tables is much too personal. I'd rather be uncomfortable than be pro-active.

I was kind of sick, too, so maybe that's why I did this odd thing of taking responsibility for my hearing. I figured I'm a realtor now; I need to stop fearing stupid things and grow up.

I picked a non-threatening table, one with two young quiet-looking women seated opposite each other and close to the water pitchers. One of the women had hair down to her ankles, so I figured she'd be interesting. If not, I can refill the water glasses for distraction.

The other woman was Brianne*, who just started at Coldwell Banker. She was quiet, interesting, and when she said something it was funny. I moved to Coldwell Banker the next day.

When you always want to do something, you'd better do it or you'll have regrets. I twice tried to be a realtor, took the classes and everything right up to the exams and fees. I'm happy I did it and I was happier when I quit doing it. Now I know what it's like, I did it, and I am free to do other things.

Brianne texted me and told me what I was missing. She went to our boss's birthday party where a 19 year-old realtor, one of the company's most successful, was entertaining by doing magic tricks. You can't be that successful at 19 without being entertaining, but not in an entirely good way. Especially when there's magic involved.

Brianne texted me again to tell me she also quit real estate'n. She has the job I always think I want, working at Starbucks. I've arranged interviews and cancelled them so many times, I can't count. I imagine myself doing that job but I can't follow through, even though I followed through on real estate. I'm scared to death of making someone's coffee wrong, as if that'd be worse than screwing up someone's home purchase. I'm excited she's doing it anyway. It seems like a forward step, since both of us didn't appear to be destined for real estate.

She tells me working at Starbucks isn't exactly a challenge. "A monkey could do it," she says. "You push a button." It isn't like the old days where you had to know all sorts of things to make espresso drinks. Still, I couldn’t do it. All those people standing in line, watching you, anxious for their caffeine. I get nervous thinking about it.

"It's just coffee," she says, "but it's hard to believe the way people act." I'm thinking back when I was super-picky about my Starbucks, back before the new machines when people could really ruin my decaf Americanos. I hope I didn't bother anyone. Customer service would be easy if it weren't for all the freakin' customers.

"People treat me like I'm their slave," she says. "I'm slaving over your coffee but I'm not your slave."

I've seen this behavior in people a lot lately. Is it the economy or is it just that people are that narcissistic?

She says, "Yelling at me because you’re late isn’t going to make any difference. It’s not my fault you’re late. You should have gotten up five minutes earlier.”

I realize she would make an excellent boss. The people she serves, the ones who yell at her, are probably somebody’s bosses. They should be the ones working at Starbucks. They should be getting the customer service crap they can give so easily. It's good I didn't follow through and work at Starbucks. Along with probably hating the smell of coffee by now, I'd probably hate most of humanity.

Since I'm always looking for career ideas, I ask her what's next. She doesn't sound like she's looking to be a professional Starbucker.

"When I was in high school, my friends told me I was going to be a health inspector. That was the joke. I am kind of OCD, so I always watch and notice things when it comes to germs."

"Like what?"

"I notice my co-workers and when they wash their hands."

"How bad can it be if they're just pressing buttons?" I ask. It's just coffee. The potential for rats and maggots and hair is pretty minimal, right?

"I don’t like it when someone touches the rim of the cup. Some people don’t mind, but I do. Also, some baristas, they hold the cup so their thumb touches the inside of the cup."

Thumb in your cup? That is one small step before finding a hair in your soup. Now I understand.

"It started as a joke but I’m actually thinking about doing it."

I don’t know much about health inspectors but I’ve watched a lot of Dirty Dining. I don’t go to restaurants because of seeing failed health inspection reports on TV and because of YouTube videos of people doing nasty things to other peoples’ food. I’m not sure I’d want to see what goes on in the kitchen. Or maybe I would. Maybe there'd be nothing to be scared of. It can’t all be rats and maggots, right?

"With the peanut scare, I think there might be opportunity," she says.

The peanut scare? That, to me, is a worry worse than bird flu. I know I ate rat feces from that factory. I'm convinced. I grew up on cheap toasty crackers filled with peanut butter-flavored rat feces and I ate them if I didn't have time for lunch. I ate cheap peanut butter products in the free real estate food because I'll eat anything if it contains peanut butter. I was picky but not picky enough. I'm getting OCD by proxy. Anything she can do to make the restaurant world a better place, anything she can do to make the country safe for us peanut butter-eaters, is a wonderful, benevolent, selfless thing

"It’s a way to use my OCD for good," she says.

I never thought about it that way. I hope all health inspectors have a touch of OCD. I might have more confidence when it comes to, say, peanut butter or free food. You can never be too vigilant when it comes to germs.

*Maybe her name, maybe not. Depends, doesn't it?