MuddyUm
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MuddyUm

PERSONAL HISTORY

When in Rome

Scary butcher barista, fish guts in coffee, and humility in the outback

Doodle by author

At a roadhouse along the Nullarbor, I ordered a cappuccino, a piccolo with skinny milk, and a flat white three-quarters topped-up.

“Eighteen bucks,” the barista, a.k.a servo attendant, said. You can get away with prices like that evidently when you’re the only cafe within 300km. I handed him a twenty.

He was huge, the barista. He towered over the bench and had a ginormous gut that folded over his leather belt. He snatched the note out of my hand and slapped my change on the bench. “Thanks,” I said, intimidated. But he didn’t say anything back. On scrap paper, he just wrote down “3 Lattes”.

‘Actually, I think I ordered a cappuccino, a piccolo with skinny milk, and a flat white three-quarters topped-up,’ I wanted to say. But he seemed like a man who wasn’t used to being corrected. Besides, I didn’t want to be presumptuous. The coffees might’ve been for another customer.

I waited in a plastic chair and watched him tie on an apron stained with what looked like espresso, grease and blood. This probably had something to do with the truck he filled up with diesel minutes before, and, after that, the slabs of red meat he hung in the kitchen using large hooks.

Halfway through making the coffees, the sound of an egg-timer resounded. He dropped the group handle, disappeared out the back and returned with a tray of hot chips which he then lowered into a glass cabinet.

If there was an advertisement for his job, the roadhouse would have to say something along the lines of: “Need a barista who can also fry potatoes, pump gas and, if possible, butcher cows.”

After an excruciatingly long time, he dropped three same-size coffees on the counter and nodded at me as if to say, “You come get your coffees now, boy.” Then he left for the exit.

By the look of things, he had in fact made, as his scrap paper promised, three lattes.

Perhaps he only knows how to make the one coffee, I wondered. I imagined the exchange he’d have with a larger group.

“Two soy cappuccinos, two long macs and three double espressos.”

“No worries,” he’d say. “Seven lattes comin’ right up.”

Back at the car, I handed the coffees to my friends. “What the hell is this?” one of them asked.

“A latte.”

“I didn’t order this,” he said.

“None of us did.”

I didn’t mind so much, though. After all, the stripped-back setting of the outback tends to hamper the hankering for refined dining. I discovered this when I spent Easter on a boat in the Abrolhos, a group of tiny islands eighty kilometres off Western Australia. Despite taking 250g of expensive single-origin coffee, I exclusively drank Nescafe’s Blend 43 instant coffee. I made this decision after I arrived on the boat and found out the toilet was broken.

Docked in the harbour, while placing my bags in the cabin, I eavesdropped on the plumber who was bent over the toilet — his crack showing, of course. “The thing’s buggered,” he grunted. “Bloody blocked like an Autumn gutter.”

So, before leaving the dock, the captain called a meeting with the crew and discussed the contingency plan. We could either crap in the:

a) ocean

b) a red crayfish bucket

Option b required you to take the bucket to the bathroom where you did your thing, then walk out into the kitchen, past the living room (where passengers perpetually sat) and, finally, to the back deck where you could throw it into the ocean — the contents, I mean, not the boat’s only bucket.

Hearing this, I stowed my expensive coffee beans away. Staying on a boat in the middle of the Indian where you are forced to only think about food and sleep and where you will squat next, the idea of hand-pouring a filter coffee, even as a barista, felt pretentious.

Even though we lived in close quarters, I thought I wouldn’t see a fellow passenger use the bucket until at least day two. After all, you need time to get comfortable with each other. But within four hours of setting sail, a passenger — let’s call him James — opened the bathroom door. I was on the back deck watching a pod of dolphins when the stench hit my nostrils. I turned to see a half-naked James rush through the cabin holding the bucket aloft. “Watch out. Hot cray. Hot cray,” he shouted, brushing fellow passengers playing Uno on the dining table. He then emptied the bucket — right next to another passenger, Sam, who had caught a fish and was now emptying its guts. Since the dolphins had now disappeared, along with the serenity, I decided to boil the kettle.

“Wanna coffee?” I said.

“Yep,” James said, scrubbing away.

“Yep,” Sam said, pulling out the heart.

“Sugar?”

“Are you gonna have some?” Sam said.

“Might today”

I made three instant coffees and brought them to the table with a bowl of sugar, which I did end up using, exactly half a teaspoon. Sam meanwhile tipped half the bowl in the mug and used a dirty fishing lure to stir it in.

“What are you doing?” I said. “There’s a teaspoon right there.”

“When in Rome, mate,” he said.

Even if the palate doesn’t become humbled in the country, I’ve found that complaining about the food or drink doesn’t work as well when venues are lightyears apart.

That’s what I told my friends, anyway, when they complained about the lattes at the roadhouse.

Overlooking the arid landscape, I huddled under blankets and picked up the latte to warm my hands. Frost still hung to the windscreen.

“Actually not that bad,” my friend said after taking her first sip. “For a roadhouse.”

I sipped too. “M-m-m. Not bad at all.”

Shortly after, we’d finished them. We sat in silence before my friend piped up again. “Might get another one,” she said.

“Might too,” my other friend said.

“When in Rome,” I said.

I marched back into the cafe, slapped $18 on the counter, held up three fingers to the barista and said, “Three more of your finest, please.”

Hi. I’m an author of one fun-sized book (Life’s a Batch), a freelance copywriter at Brew Copy, and sometimes I go on Twitter and Instagram. Oh, and I write a newsletter.

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Jayden O'Neil

Jayden O'Neil

304 Followers

Fiction, humor, essays, doodles. Author (Life’s a Batch), copywriter (Brew Copy), journalist (WA Today, SMH). Perth, Australia.