Thursday, April 26, 2018

A Job at the Coffee Shop

You might not have known this when he was serving your breakfast order at Bridgeport Coffee, but Stephen Adzemovic has lived across the US and around the world, he’s lived longer in Chicago than he’s lived anywhere else in his life, and it might not be an exaggeration to say the coffee shop job helped keep him here.  “My life in Chicago is 90% Bridgeport,” he says.  And that is directly tied to connections he’s made at Bridgeport Coffee.

So when his other part time job told him they needed someone full time, Stephen wasn’t sure leaving the coffee shop was the right decision, even though the other job involves doing Computer Assisted Design work for Wayward Machine Co., a funky metal shop that builds custom furnishings for restaurants and other commercial interiors.  “My Dad is really glad I chose the metal shop,” he says. When he told his customers at Bridgeport Coffee he says they’d congratulate him like he was moving up in the world --“I was really surprised.”  His hesitation might make you think twice about what makes for meaningful work.

Stephen’s father was an immigrant who’d come to New York with his parents as a child, and who worked his way into a career in international banking.  Through a series of mergers and opportunities he’d moved his family all over the world, with especially long stints in the Middle East that started when Stephen was 12.

There were some things Stephen didn’t like about the Middle East.  He had that American itch to question received answers, which wasn’t common practice there.  “In some countries you’re legally not allowed to question; in others, people are allowed, but they don’t tend to do it.  Or they don’t talk about it, if they do.”

On the other hand he came to appreciate that people are people, wherever you go.  And more unusual, he came to appreciate the feeling of being out of his element.  “I liked that feeling of being outside,” he says. “Where I don’t fit in, and people don’t treat me like I fit in.”

That’s not a feeling most 12 year olds enjoy, and he admits he might not have enjoyed it right away.  But he came to appreciate the perspective, “even when it’s confusing and harsh, it’s also exciting.”  He says he expects to live internationally again, though he does wonder if it will be different, having come to appreciate the stimulations of parochial life. “It was new, I hadn’t experienced that before.”

Stephen moved to Chicago in 2011 to study architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and to Bridgeport in 2013, following an ad for an apartment on Craig’s List.  UIC has a great reputation as a theory school, and that’s what attracted him.  He wasn’t so interested in style or aesthetics, as in the power the architect has to make decisions, but decisions that were not arbitrary, decisions that are calculated to try formal ideas.

“Form follows function” is the classic theory of the old Chicago school, articulated first by architects whose designs were streamlined for modern office and manufacturing functions, without pretending to be from some earlier era.  They came to wear their steel frame structures as an aesthetic, without a lot of prettified details pasted on top.  Stephen says architects are pushing new limits with the terms “form” and “function” in the post digital era, but that’s not the problem that interests him personally.

“Initially it was a social thing,” he says of the kind of theory he wanted to pursue: the architect’s power to create space that affects people without them realizing, or paying attention.  He describes the feeling he got in an airport he visited recently – it was a vast space with a high ceiling, but the ceiling swooped up at the edges, so it was concave, it felt like it was bearing down on you, making you small.  People tend to feel small in cathedrals too, but cathedrals soar upward toward the center, drawing your eye into the vastness.  “It’s not about you and how small you are,” Stephen says.

Stephen’s not sure he’s interested in building a lot of large structures, right now he’s more interested in smaller spaces, where he can design an environment, especially since that’s the scale that’s accessible to him now.

He recently joined up with friend David Ramis to build an experimental project at the Co-Prosperity Sphere, the gallery just down the street from the coffee shop, where they’d helped reorganize the basement in return for use of some of the space.

They built two walls, joined at a 5 degree rotation.  The walls were built out of regular sheetrock and studs, but it didn’t quite reach the ceiling, the 2 walls met at that odd little angle, the sheetrock was cut and distressed up top to make a pattern in relief.  “It’s made of all the things a wall is made of, but it’s to make fun of walls, it’s about finding ways to re-imagine something we take for granted.  It forces you to pay attention.”

Stephen was very happy with the results, they invited friends and local artists to see it, and some of Stephen’s architecture professors came to see it too.

After school, Stephen considered the kinds of things most people do just after architecture school.  They go straight to graduate school, or they get a low level job at an architecture firm.  Neither of those options seemed all that compelling.  He took the job at the coffee shop while he was considering his options. “If you’d asked me then, I’d have told you I’d be there for 6 months.” He ended up working there for 2 and ½ years.

“It’s more about the people than my passion for beans.  I really don’t care about coffee beans.” The coffee shop is where he came to appreciate life in a small neighborhood.  “I’m not anonymous,” he says. “I know people here, and I’m known.

“I don’t think it would be the same if I worked at a coffee shop in a different part of the city.”  Sure he would have had regulars, sure he would have made friends, but the people would probably be more transient. “Neighborhood, community, those are real things in Bridgeport.”

He lived on Lloyd Street for awhile, where all his neighbors had been born there, not just in Bridgeport but on that street.  “The neighbor next door had been there for 80 years.”

Meanwhile he was interacting with a constant stream of people at the coffee shop.  He couldn’t choose who came through, though he had some control over how much he engaged with people, which he sometimes exerted in a playful way.

“There was one guy who took years to warm up to me,” he recalls.  “He’s one of the grumpier people, a gentleman who always came in and got the same order.”  Stephen made a point of being extra friendly “partly as a way to take some power back.” Eventually the friendliness took, especially after they ran into each other outside the coffee shop.  Now Stephen will show him projects he’s working on to hear what he thinks – he trusts his opinion. “We’re interested in engaging in the same conversation.”

He’s made scores of other friends and acquaintances that way, a professor at the School of the Art Institute, staff from the restaurants and bars nearby, transplants and people who’ve lived or worked in Bridgeport all their lives.

Sometimes someone would make a comment or a joke he thought was “on the less cool side of the line.” Not necessarily about race, it might be homophobic. “Something that I don’t want to smile at,” as Stephen puts it “but not so serious that I’m going to take myself out of the role of smiling server to say ‘Hey, don’t say that.’”

He says he’d smile, and disagree.  “I’d say ‘I don’t think that way.’”

Which, if you think about it, might have more influence than an actual argument. Especially now, when social divides seem so wide that even people of good will talk right past each other, that kind of soft exposure might be exactly what we all need to make incremental shifts in our point of view – like the kind Stephen might exert on a patron, or the kind the neighborhood has exerted on him.

Soft influence is possible here, in an old neighborhood with new people moving in, and the coffee shop is one of the places, like a tidal pool, that we swirl through and brush shoulders for awhile.  But that mix is fragile too.

Stephen says he’s never had trouble with the young gang bangers or drug dealers or occasional shootings that also happen around Morgan Street, because the people engaged in that understand he’s “not part of the mix.”

Where he has felt tension, it’s been from people who see that cluster of businesses on 31st and Morgan as an engine of gentrification that will force their families out.  And they might be right.
Stephen points out that lots of patrons come from outside the neighborhood to Kimski’s to see what Korean-Polish fusion is, or to meet friends at Bridgeport Coffee, and they see that it’s friendly, they know that the rents are cheap, and they find the neighborhood seems pretty safe. 

“I’m probably helping gentrify the neighborhood,” Stephen says “but I’m gentrifying myself.”
That’s the great neo-bohemian dilemma: the service jobs of the people who staff the establishments that make neighborhood life dynamic don’t pay well, leaving them among the most vulnerable to being priced out.

That might be more an accident of labor history than natural law.  There’s no inherent reason service jobs couldn’t be organized and well compensated.  The services might cost more.  In the meantime, patrons can contribute directly to the stability of their servers at the coffee shop, or the bike shop, or the take-out counter at Johnny O’s by making good use of the tip jar.

And there’s another factor at play.  Small landlords who live on their properties are a diminishing breed across the city, even in Bridgeport where the owner occupied 3 flat has been well represented.  But they still persist here more than elsewhere.

Stephen has lived in 3 apartments in Bridgeport, each one of them owned by landlords who had a family member in the building, or they lived there themselves, or, at his current place, the owner lives next door. The fact that none of his apartments were owned by investment groups or distant landlords in the suburbs may be a factor in the cheap rents that drew him here.  It might also help keep some rents stable in the longer term.

At one of his apartments, the rent was so cheap, Stephen wasn’t sure he shouldn’t tell the owner she could be charging more.  But she lived in the building, she wanted good tenants who didn’t demand a lot but might stay awhile.  He was pretty sure she was charging one of his immigrant neighbors something like small change to live there, because she’d once been an immigrant too.

When the guys from Wayward Machine Co. first started coming to the coffee shop, Stephen recalls with some amusement that he thought there was some weird power dynamic going on, because the boss always ordered first.  At one point, he made a joke about it, and they all thought it was pretty funny.  “Now, knowing them better, it wasn’t what I thought.”

One day, they were all standing around outside the coffee shop, talking about a big project they had coming down the pike that they knew they would need a lot of drawings for, and they asked “Do you know anyone who knows CAD?” Stephen knew CAD. “A few hours later, I was working there.”

“They care about the neighborhood.  They’ve done a lot of projects here,” Stephen says.  They also seem to be thriving.  They opened the shop in a large garage space at 32nd Place & Morgan in 2016. They’ve just moved to Cermak and May Street because they needed more space.  Stephen started full time when the new shop was ready.

He won’t be doing metal fabrication himself, though having a better understanding of how fabrication is done is definitely one of the perks of the job.  And the scale of their projects is a lot like the kind of design he wants to do: building restaurant and other commercial environments.

“Working there is really cool,” Stephen enthuses.  “But I don’t know if it’s the last time I’ll work in the service industry.”

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