Berkeley: Through a barista’s eyes

Photo of Vivian Stacy

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A rich, golden brown layer of crema incandesces, resting lightly on top of the espresso shot that waits in a square of midmorning sunlight, steam curling up in wisps before evaporating. It is the result of my nearly flawless pour, one I am still perfecting, even after my seven months as a barista.

Nestled unassumingly between bustling Bancroft Way businesses, Cafe Milano has long been a central element to UC Berkeley culture, offering 36 years of coffee-curated community and chocolate croissants. Its floor is scored by the sunlight streaming in through a skylight, which douses the tall, living trees that rise up to the high ceilings in radiance. Music filters through the space, backed by the vibrant soundtrack of the busy street outside, Sproul Plaza a mere glance away.

I had happened upon the cafe one September morning while dawdling between classes. Those first few weeks of my sophomore year, I had not yet been disillusioned with the prospect of in-person class — having spent a year on Zoom, I was hungry for human interaction, and I still regularly attended all of my lectures with falsified fervor that I fail to replicate now. But that day, Berkeley felt brand new and enticing. I was curious what joy I could find lurking in the nooks and crannies where city and campus blurred together.

It took me more than a few moments to find; the lack of a sign limits Milano’s reach to those already aware of its existence, unintentionally curating a locals-only vibe. Initially, I was drawn in by the wide, open windows, spilling trendy indie music and pleasant chatter onto the sidewalk — and by a friend’s recommendation who’d appraised it as a decent study spot with relatively cheap coffee.

It wasn’t until I’d sunk against the well worn couch facing Bancroft’s eternal bustle nursing a chai latte, that I noticed a “Help Wanted” sign taped to the inside of the window. “Learn Spanish and meet interesting people,” the description read, a phone number appended to the bottom. Intrigued by this promise and the cafe’s quaint charm, I texted the number.

As a college student, especially one who had not experienced a single year in person, my interactions with the Berkeley community prior to my first shift at Cafe Milano were largely limited to other students my age. It wasn’t until I donned an apron and took my place behind the worn marble counter that my view of the city began to take on a different and more unique shape.

Its incomparable location right across the street from campus has also given me a scope for how small Berkeley can feel despite its immense size on paper. I frequently recognize customers; some of my regulars have even begun to crop up in social circles elsewhere. Milano is the great connector. Its strands of people constantly coming and going all ultimately connect back to one point of convergence: coffee.

Our culture’s celebration of caffeine has also given me the opportunity to meet members of the Berkeley community who are not students. I’ve become well acquainted with a diverse group of regulars, many of whom are familiar faces I look forward to exchanging pleasantries with.

I often hear snippets of their thoughts or the latest news on local affairs in the 15 seconds it takes for me to pour their cold brew and have begun to recognize with fondness some of the older Berkeley hippies who frequent Southside. It is certainly a strange relationship dynamic, to interact with someone every day but never know more aside from their name and plant-based milk preferences.

My job has guided me toward a quiet romanticization of Berkeley. Contributors to my insufferable movie-character syndrome include the customer who gave me a small ornate pin in the shape of a bear, the customer who brought us chocolates and the one who was once witness to my Red Hot Chili Peppers illiteracy (and now refers to me as “Red Hot Chili Peppers girl”).

The best of humanity often shines through in these small, slightly irrelevant interactions — paying for a stranger’s meal, leaving an exorbitant tip — the function of my job bestowing me the lucky opportunity to witness them.

Not all of the customers I interact with are so friendly; the clattering of cups hitting the floor in anger echoes through my mind, backed by other memorable incidents of displeasure. But these experiences, too, have shown me Berkeley unvarnished by the gloss of a college brochure.

Since its birth in 1986, the cafe has remained in the same location, employing mostly the same people. The long-term employees are jovial and friendly, their staunch loyalty over the years a clear sign of their care for Milano. The pastries, all baked fresh each morning and carted down Bancroft in a waft of sweet, doughy air, are made with love and appreciation, as is the coffee. Smiley faces and bear cartoons adorn the foamy tops of lattes, which call customers back, even years after leaving Berkeley — it is not infrequent to witness groups of alumni paying homage to their old stomping grounds, recalling youthful days lounging on couches or sipping the same frosted lattes as the students of my generation.

When I texted the sign’s number that September morning, I never imagined that a part-time barista job would change the way I viewed the city I now call home. However, upon witnessing how coffee brings people together, forging relationships over its rich bitterness, I have a newfound appreciation for Berkeley’s sundry, breathtaking pull. Over the past seven months, I have come to see the city for what it truly is: well-rounded, imperfect, cohesive, diverse and ultimately arresting in its beauty.

Contact Vivian Stacy at [email protected]