Invisible men: why you will never have your coffee served by a middle-aged bloke

You do not see men my age serving people any more - unless it is in the haberdashery department of John Lewis.

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This column does not, on the whole, suffer from insomnia. If it has a sleep-related complaint, it is the opposite condition, hypersomnia; but the other night, the still watches of the night were haunted by your correspondent, reading, listening to Bach, counting Mousies: indeed, anything short of work to try and nod off.

What was keeping me awake was the wording of a notice planted outside the Baker Street branch of a well-known chain of coffee shops. (Not that one; the other one.) “Our baristas,” ran the sign’s slogan, “are only ever perfectly happy when you are.”

This started off a long procession of internal philosophical inquiries, many of which were still bothering me later that night between the hours of 3am and 6am. The first feeling was a kind of helpless guilt, as hitherto I’d not realised that the happiness of a coffee outlet’s front-line staff was so dependent on my own mood. I’ve been in what we may as well call a bad place lately, what with one thing and another, but had I known that my low spirits were having a knock-on effect, observable to the point where the shop’s manager was feeling compelled to make a public announcement about it, I’d have made more of an effort to count my blessings and generally pull my socks up.

After a while, it dawned on me that actually what the sign might have meant was that the shop’s baristas were only truly happy if you – that is, the customer – were completely happy with the coffee you’d ordered. In the days when I frequented coffee shops, which were called cafés and pronounced “caffs”, and mainly chosen as places you could smoke in with impunity while bunking off school, you had a choice of coffee with something a bit like milk in it, or coffee without; whether you put sugar in it was, of course, up to you. Oh, OK, you could order a cappuccino, and that was what we truants did, in order to look sophisticated, but we didn’t know at the time that the Italians who were serving us did so with either pity or contempt, because we were drinking it in the afternoon. Our happiness, perfect or otherwise, was not an important consideration for them, beyond the matter of giving us more or less what we wanted. As for their happiness – well, all we thought about the matter was that they were getting our money and that should be enough for them, and besides, as schoolboys in uniform who were also smoking, we were pretty used to dirty looks anyway, so they were as the water off a duck’s back to us.

Now, of course, it is impossible to go into a coffee shop and simply order “a coffee”. This observation has been made by many others before me, so I will dwell on the term “barista” instead. For some reason, when I see the word I don’t muse on its teasing distance from the differently stressed word “barrister” but instead think of how, should I need to earn more money, it would be impossible for me to get a job as one. Or in any of the other service industries. And it is this which keeps me awake at night: my superfluity to the economic motion of the country.

Imagine if the person serving you behind a bar, whether licensed or not, is a man in his early to mid-fifties who looks as though he has pretty much seen it all, and yet who’s been chewed up and spat out by life. You do not see men my age serving people any more, unless it is in the haberdashery department of John Lewis. (In which case, one is disconcerted not to be served by a man in the autumn of his life.) You might, in the summer, get a man in middle age serving ice cream out of a van; but these men usually look as though they’re regretting it.

However, I continued. (This is now about 5am.) Imagine, for the purposes of argument, that I do manage to convince the manager of a coffee shop that my presence behind the bar serving caffeine addicts’ ridiculous drinks will lend the establishment gravity. Do I then find that I have, finally, found my way to perfect happiness? Being lonely and miserable, I would consider imperfect happiness to be a Christmas and birthday present rolled into one. But perfect happiness? I’m not sure I could handle it. “Call no man happy until he is dead,” as the saying goes. Call no man perfectly happy until he is perfectly dead.

At which point I finally drift off, and dream of a horribly embarrassing debut on Just a Minute. There is no refuge, even in sleep.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 22 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister