Thursday, April 10, 2008

Isthmus Article

David Medaris gets it right in his Isthmus article "Remembering Bob 'Cosmo' Hicks". Medaris notes how many people’s stories about Cosmo follow a particular formula:
Among all the Cosmo stories, there is a subcategory of tales that begin with intimidated first impressions but soon yield to appreciation for his compassion and generosity.
Indeed. This is the same dynamic that provided so much of the drama of Cosmo’s sudden entrances at places like Steep ‘n Brew on State.

I barista'd there for a couple years and witnessed it many times. Cosmo would come in dressed all in black leather, declaring something at the top of his lungs, maybe something like:
“Where is that fucking Monkey Butt? He’s lucky I didn’t have my boys take care of him already. Time to face the music, ya hear me? Baaaahhh-hhhaaahhhh-hhhhaaaaahhhh!
In the cafe would be the people who knew him well, who’d smile and think to themselves, “Cosmo’s here.” But there were the others, those who’d never seen him before, maybe people in Madison for the first time, people just quietly standing at a coffee shop counter waiting to order a cappuccino. I remember in particular the look on many a customer’s face, the wide, worried eyes that said to me: “Should we call the police?”

I’d intentionally ratchet up the drama by not responding to those eyes, my deadpan mug leaving them at a loss. Is this guy dangerous or not? they'd wonder. I gave no indication one way or another. So they'd nervously look to others in the front of the cafe, trying to get an answer. And soon, when they finally saw that most of the people in the shop were taking this sudden presence in stride, they’d dare glance over and up at the Menace himself, standing a few feet away, who’d return the look and say: “How’s it goin’, honey?” Then he’d turn back to me, all business:
“Eric, I need an icy on the double. [An iced coffee.] And I want you to get that Monkey Butt out here. [One of my coworkers.] He’s been fucking putting barbiturates in my coffee again! Psssssh!
Of course “Monkey Butt” himself loved Cosmo, just as the frightened newbie from out of town would most likely learn to love him if he or she got to know him.

It's this same fear/affection dynamic that David Medaris gets at in his article, as do so many others who’ve taken the time to write something about the man during this past week.

But all this, while we're at it, gets me thinking again of those barista days. And I wonder: Was I--were we--maybe wrong to let Cosmo so dominate the place when he came in? Were we ourselves--we behind the counter I mean--maybe a little over the edge from drinking too much top grade coffee, maybe a little rough on customers who were either 1) actually scared, or 2) annoyed by such Cosmic volume?

In fact I remember at times flatly saying "No" to people--newbies and decaf drinkers all--who'd asked me to do something about the Man and his Diatribe. Was I perhaps wrong to have such an attitude? I'm sorry, but I don't think so. And the reason is simple. There are more than enough shopping malls out there for such people to chat and page through their catalogs. Truth be told, there are far too many shopping malls and catalogs. My idea then and my idea now is simple: a good cafe in a city center will occasionally be a place of flash and conflict; it's a place for debate and drifting from table to table; read when you can, certainly, chat quietly when you can, but when the scene changes you must accept what comes.

And as for the guy behind the counter--namely me in those days, the "barista"--I've always held to the same maxim: An espresso jerk is like a soda jerk, except more of a jerk.

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