Tomato soup, chewy croutons floating on top, dunked below the surface by the force of my spoon.
Creamy mac 'n cheese, scooped in (almost) drippy heaps to my mouth, where it slams my palate with vague yet contented memories of happy childhood, and autumn.
Not one, but two hunks of baguette, gently ripped in pieces and used for dipping mostly in the soup but occasionally in the cheese for a little bonus treat.
Iced tea, poured from a spigot over a hundred ice cubes, cubes that hunker atop no more and no less than four lemon wedges, pressed down in their harmonious igloo-y home at the bottom of the cup.
This is the meal I consume at least once, sometimes twice, a week.
My waistline is not diminishing.
Nor is my affection for Panera.
Truth be told, I have dreams of working for Panera. Not as a past, that-would-have-been-fun job to earn some spending money in college.
As my current, go-to-every-day job.
Not because I want to abandon my goals as a writer, or as if I don't want to work my current job anymore.
But because it's peaceful. And because I think that, aside from being hovered over my keyboard, food and coffee service jobs are maybe where I fit best as a member of the workforce.
I'm not actually being snarky.
I worked at Starbucks for nearly two years, before I began my journalism journey, and I still talk about it, with love.
I enjoyed it with genuine ease, and I was good at it. And with my living situation at the time, I got paid what I needed.
Isn't that what we all want in a job?
Now, sadly, I would not get paid what I would need in order to live the way I do now. Which is nothing overly luxurious, but it is comfortable, certainly. Instead of sleeping on a hide-a-bed in my parents' basement, I live 2,000 miles away in a city that makes me happy with a roommate who I love.
At the risk of sounding like a socialist, I do wish that food service jobs paid a living wage. Wait, maybe that doesn't make me sound like a socialist, maybe that just sounds fair.
Whoa, did I just get political on the Daily Bailey?
If I could make what I currently earn busing tables and running credit cards and slicing bagels, I would do it. I wouldn't argue that I need to "actually use" my master's degree somehow else, more carefully, in a more targeted manner, more masterfully.
Because as I see it, I would be using my journalism degree if I worked at Panera.
I would get off the clock and I would get myself a steaming cup of tea, a crumbly cookie that sheds sugar crystals on a plate, and set up shop with my laptop and work on my book.
When I needed a break, I would shoot the breeze with a coworker walking by, picking up straw wrappers off a nearby table.
If writing a freelance article, I could conduct interviews there at my in-café office.
I would use my writing skills, I would use my creativity to craft artful sentences and plot out characters' lives, and I would use my other God-given talents -- people skills, namely -- during my midday shift at Panera. I would do it with a smile and I would not complain, because I would have nothing to complain about.
I loved working at Starbucks.
I found nothing tiresome or tedious about steaming milk, stirring chocolate powder into hot water to create a thick mocha sauce. About taking bills through a sliding window and flirting with babies in the backseats of their parent's car, on their way to daycare and then the office, or maybe just out taking a breather from their stay-at-home routine.
I enjoyed wiping counters with bleach, writing expiration dates on frozen pastry packages.
Whisking my apron strings into a knot behind my waist after each break, going back to the (coffee) grind.
I didn't even mind taking out the trash. I could be misremembering, but I really only recall one time, during which it was fuh-reezing outside, that I didn't exactly loooove visiting the dumpster.
But in general, there were a lot of good things about taking out the trash at Starbucks, a whole different experience than I have taking out the trash at home.
I'm not kidding.
There was a rhythm to it. A cycle, a start and a finish. Gather the trash from by the espresso bar, by the coffee filters, in the lobby, on the patio. 1, 2, 3, 4. Take out the full bag, tie it off, replace it with a fresh, empty one. Next!
There was a spirit of teamwork in it. Yes, in taking out the trash. My shift supervisor, who knew about my love life, my family, my cat, me, would ask me playfully to do him this favor, and because I respected and loved him I would hop to.
This may be the most romantic and only love letter you ever read regarding garbage, but I am just calling it as I experienced it.
There was something calming and reassuring, for me, about being a supposed cog in the machine. There was a rhythm not just in the task of trash removal, but in the whole thing, day in and out. The shop started out shiny and clean, fridges quietly whirring. Tea was made, machines switched on, money counted in. At the end of the day, it was all back to how it began.
When I sported the green apron, my life was, I would say, unstable. I had a routine -- work, exercise, read, time with friends -- but my brain was a terrified hamster on a wheel half the time. I was a slave to my anxiety, to my crippling irrational fears. But when I came to work I was strong. I was in my element. Perking people up with caffeine and compliments. Lending an ear to my coworkers, who were dealing with their own stuff. Sweeping that floor and making those counters shine.
For crying out loud, I was happy to take out the trash!
I don't look happy here, but I was just going for a snarky/sultry pose. How'd I do?
I hear many people complain about food service jobs, and hear others speak of them with disdain, as if it would be the most degrading job one could land in, or at least the biggest waste of a college degree, and a downright shame to the family name if one holds degrees, plural, and decided to call herself Barista instead of Barrister.
But when I ask around about this, I find I am not alone in warmly reminiscing about days of java dripping past. Not alone in wishing I could go back.
Maybe some of you are reading this and thinking of course I am not alone, I am just a more "practical" artist who is too afraid to walk away from her steady job with benefits, while there are thousands of people out there still slinging coffee, unwilling (or maybe on a deeply spiritual, emotional level, actually unable) to wrap their necks in ties and their waists in skirts and walk into an office building every day.
And if you're thinking that you may be right.
I just find it unfortunate, and disheartening, that the food service has to spend its time worrying about disgruntled employees who would rather be somewhere else, when there are people like me who would gladly jump in with a rag and wipe down counters if only it paid more.
I honestly think my novel might get written faster.
So when I'm in Panera slurping the soup that my stomach has come to expect, it's not just about the way the croutons perfectly soak up the creamy orange around them. It's about a sweet memory, and a wish for what could be.
Your turn: What do you think? Would you go back to your food service job, if you could? Why or why not? Let me know!
Thanks for reading. I hope you find that job that pays enough and makes you happy and uses your special Y-O-U skills, all rolled into one.