Caffeine and Community Behind the Counter

By Erica Watson / Photography By Erica Watson | May 27, 2016
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Bakery work has turned me into someone who considers 6:30 am—when my shift at Tonglen Lake Lodge’s cafe usually starts—something other than early. In the weeks on either side of the summer solstice, the sun barely sets and by this hour looks well on its way to noon when I bike up the hill from home. By the end of August, foggy twilight has settled into the 6:00 hour, and by September, the days lose minutes at a time, and soon the whole operation shuts down and I forget such an hour as 6:30 even exists. Alaska summer: it passes while you’re busy doing other things. 

Scones and muffins cool under the oven. I arrange them in labeled baskets, make myself an espresso, count out the register, and catch up with my coworker over either NPR’s Morning Edition or Pandora’s classic rock station.  

Of course there’s always some variable: a moose blocking the driveway, derisively eying my bike before stepping out of the way, or the realization as I pull off my XtraTufs in the closet that I grabbed mismatched kitchen shoes in my rush out of the house, or jet-lagged guests who forgot to order an early breakfast before their Denali bus tour and anxiously await coffee and directions and a weather report before I’ve processed the fact that I’m awake. 

Most guests staying in the adjoining cabins filter in throughout the morning, before heading to the park for the day. I draw lop-sided ferns on their lattes, bag their lunches, and offer unexpectedly exuberant explanations of crepuscular mammals’ latitudinal adaptations; we’ve all worked as guides or naturalists, and as grateful as I am that it’s no longer up to get anyone anywhere, show them an animal, keep their feet warm and dry, there are some cues I can’t resist taking. 

Rather than information, I deal now in caffeine and calories: buttery scones and kale and bacon quiches, foamed milk and extra shots. I like the straightforward work.  

The tourists bring the money, but the neighbors keep it real. They wander up in twos and threes, stand too long at the counter and still somehow forget to pay: the National Park Service retirees, whose friendships have long transcended the jobs they once had, the pants-less toddlers whose moms sneak chocolate chunk cookies into their own bags, for later. An old neighbor we all undercharge when he rattles up the hill in his 1926 blue and yellow Ford, who helps himself to coffee refills when we’re too busy or distracted to get it for him. 

On one of many mornings the phones are down, a neighbor bursts in at 7:01 to ask what time it is. She thought it was two hours later and here she is, dressed, and all for nothing. I offer her coffee, since she’s here, clothed and everything, knowing she only drinks decaf, and only with company, knowing she’ll say no. She shakes her head and goes back home, either to take her clothes off or reset her clocks or I don’t know what. She lived here before phones, before power lines, before artisanal bacon date scones or Italian-style macchiatos, and now, like all of us, she’s swiping helplessly at a screen, rushing to the closest business for assurance that there are still other people out there. 

Another neighbor has taken great interest in my struggling pea crop; he never drops by to look at the stunted plants in person, but walks his two golden retrievers past my house and up the hill to the café almost daily to nurse a single cup of coffee and a scone, speculating about what went wrong with this year’s combination of heat, nitrogen, and microbes. “Go look,” I urge, but he says, “Nah, I just wanted to come up here and talk about it,” and slides his empty mug across the counter. 

Jane shares tidbits of wolf gossip, that cornerstone of Alaskan partisanship, and tells me who-said-what-ten-years-ago but don’t-tell-anyone-unless-the-legislature, etc. I leave cookies too long in the oven when Jane comes in, and forget to refill the creamer. 

I forget this isn’t my house, and neighbors’ kids aren’t my kids when I reach across the counter to wipe boogers from their noses and then plate a cookie with the same hand, and then we all remember that this is food service and there are rules, but this is also a small community and a cool climate and little noses need a lot of help. I wash my hands too much one day and too little the next. When the cell signal returns, I hide in the back of the kitchen, sending forbidden emails about wolves, water overflowing in the prep sink. I am inefficient. Three summers and half the time my latte art looks vaguely like genitals. I eat dropped cookies off the floor. We watch who comes in together, and Jane likes to hear about it too; she’s been around long enough to know it’s not just wolves that keep people around Denali. It’s the gossip. 

And the scones. 

We’re damn proud of our scones.

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