Exact Change Cafe

by Eric Baysinger

 18 January 2019

It’s been a slow week here at the Exact Change Café. January is dark and has nothing to recommend it. It’s just the month that Christmas and New Year’s dumps us into after it’s done with us, like an alley after we’ve been mugged. The days are supposedly getting longer, but not in the AM. Here it’s pitch black and rainy, like even the sun can’t be bothered to get up before at least eight o’clock. I put out the red wrought-iron table and chairs when I get here at 5:45, but I’ve never found sidewalk seating an attractive option here in Pittsburgh. Too close to traffic, noise, bugs (in summer), dogs (in heat), and panhandlers. The boss demands it, however. He grew up in “the Czech” where everybody expects to sit on the plaza and smoke while they drink demitasses and consume confections named after medieval cities or euphemisms for venereal disease.
The boss goes by “Kevin,” but that can hardly be his first name considering his last name is nine letters long without a single vowel. It means ‘old order Knight of Pullovers’ or something. He tried to explain it to me once in his shattered English. I swear his words are like Legos strewn about on the floor; most of them are four-lettered and they’re all painful to encounter. He snaps them together haphazardly; they’re never the same color and never build anything more complex than a tent. I know a tent should be impossible to build with rectangular blocks but his are deformed. They probably melted on account of their proximity to the ovens we use to make our own croissants, muffins, and coconut-covered dough slugs. We have a couple clear-glass garage doors at the front of the café and I open both when I’m baking. Otherwise I pass out from the heat. Kevin probably scrounged our ovens out of a decommissioned steel foundry somewhere in the Mon Valley.
Pittsburghers are about half Midwesterners, half Easterners. You can never tell whether they’ll be friendly or gruff until they open their mouths. My plumber is a nice guy but a real Yinzer. He told me about working for some old guy in my neighborhood that had terrible sores. I felt real sympathy for this unknown neighbor until I figured out my plumber meant terrible ‘sewers’, so that’s the state of confusion I live in here. Kevin at least is foreign born and has an excuse.
I saw a woman sporting an Iowa sweatshirt in the parking lot of the nearest Jiggle (Giant Eagle, a chain of grocery stores) and I yelled at her, “Go Hawks!” She smiled and waved. It almost brought a tear to my eye, honestly. First time I went back to Iowa City after moving here I had a whole conversation with the cashier at Hy-Vee where I was buying a Mountain Dew. It was $1.74 and every penny came with a free dose of friendly banter. I went home last winter so I could get some Anderson Erickson eggnog, but ended up cowering in my hotel room ‘cause the weather was so bad. Eggnog in western PA is thin or tastes like gooey Diet Coke so I generally do without, but a little boutique grocery store opened up just a few doors down from Exact Change and they carry eggnog from a company called Trickle Springs. It’s 95% as good as AE so no more twelve-hour drives to Iowa in the dead of winter for me. Just diabetes, close to home.
They also carry $12 Reubens, but I’ve only had one because that’s more than I can steal out of our tip jar without Kevin noticing. The store is called Oh, Heavens or Clutch My Pearls or something. It’s run by the same women that also run a fantastically popular breakfast spot at the other end of the business district here in Regent Square. They hang art on the walls and all their body-modified employees identify as Q, but you have to get there early or be in a group of at least three. Otherwise they seat you at tables where you non-metaphorically rub elbows with strangers. I get way too inhibited by that. Last time that happened I had to keep drinking unbalanced mugs of coffee until the couple next to me left because I’m not skinny enough to squeeze between our tables without my butt knocking over their salt and pepper shakers. I also wanted to hear how the man’s affair with the woman’s sister turned out.
Something similar happened to me on a transatlantic flight once. I was in the very last row of seats, number three of five, with two huge guys on either side of me. I went to the bathroom whenever one of them did. In the middle of the night, the old guy sitting right in front of me became unresponsive and his wife panicked. They were a Polish couple out of Chicago and the wife turned to me to help her with her husband, but what could I do? Sure, he was leaned back so far in my lap that I could’ve extracted his wisdom teeth without craning my neck but I’m no doctor. Physicians were found among the passengers and he eventually came to, but I swear it was like being buried alive for me except with very burly company.
I don’t know why Kevin insists on exact change. It’s a Czech thing? It’s a pain in the butt for his employees. We have three quarters, a dime, two nickels, and four pennies sealed under plastic next to our cash register so we can show customers the coins they need to bring with them to satisfy any price from one cent to ninety-nine but they rarely learn. Mostly they just forego the change they have coming to them and we round up (rarely down) to the nearest dollar. I think that’s the attraction for Kevin. He pays scut wages and often tries to get me and Gert to take leftover pastries instead. He tells us he’ll “spin a dead cornea” on what we stuff into our pockets, purses, or backpacks, but really, how much phyllo dough can one person usefully digest?
Okay, one of the regulars, Large In-house Light Roast, just came in so I’d better sign off. Until next time, this has been Pittsburgh Missive number 192. Go Hawks.

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Eric Baysinger is an Iowan transplanted to Pittsburgh. His previous works include the novels: Nine Attempts; Brother-out-law; Beck and Caul, Spring 1919; Your Middle Finger's Sense of I.