Phil is elbow deep in ice cream when a customer tells him he’s leaving an extra dollar for tip. Phil is making a mocha shake—his least favorite order.
“Thank you much,” Phil says over his left shoulder.
“Thank you,” Phil says while straightening up, “I said thank you much.”
Phil Cowley has to repeat himself often. Customers at Fourth Coast Cafe have a hard time hearing him over the constant hum of peripheral conversation, espresso machines, and music. “I guess I’m a low talker. But I hear myself just fine,” Phil says.
In addition to his low voice, Phil has quite the poker face. His slightly pronounced jaw, tight lips, and deeply shadowed blue eyes do not leave room for many emotions other than sternness. Yet, his sternness is further translated into somberness when laid across his ghostly pale face and stacked upon a tall and lanky body —his expression always somewhat diluted, always somewhat less potent than intended.
After one and half years at Fourth Coast, and two years in the restaurant upstairs, Crows Nest, Phil is ready to leave. He says, “I’m looking for other shit. I’m getting really tired of this job. I’ve been in customer service too long.” Phil has been working in different sectors of customer service since he was thirteen years old, making him a veteran with his upcoming thirtieth birthday.
But, it’s not the years in the industry, the labor, or the humdrum routine of it all that exhausts Phil—it’s the fakeness of the forced interactions. He refers to it as “placating” when customers can tell he isn’t engaged in conversation yet persist anyway. “...Either they don’t know or they don’t care...they don’t realize the shame in it [being placated]”. He continues, “I like people talking to me. I just don’t like people I don’t want to talk to talking to me.” He feels no sympathy for others’ loneliness—he is definite in thinking that it is shameful to want to be “placated”, regardless of the reason.
In an ideal world, Phil gets out of customer service, becomes a zoologist, and builds himself a house made out of stone in a town that’s a hybrid of his hometown, Kalamazoo, Michigan and his favorite place he’s lived in, Savannah, Georgia. Savannah is the only place Phil has gone back to live in for a second time. He was initially drawn to Savannah because he has distant relation to General Sherman, the Union Army General who gave Savannah to President Lincoln as a birthday present. Phil fell in love with the simple things of Savannah: the flowers, the Southern charm, the architecture, and people’s friendliness.
He’s also lived in Washington D.C., Chicago, Fort Knox, Kentucky, Alexandria, Virginia, and Costa Rica. He’s been on the move for almost thirteen years now, leaving at the age of seventeen because he tested out of his senior year of high school. He travels out of presented opportunities—a brother-in-law in Virginia, a friend in Costa Rica, family in Chicago. He returns to Kalamazoo whenever he runs out of money, usually making his travels last about two years.
When initially asked about his frequent moving, Phil chalks it up to his gypsy blood. His ancestors must have been nomads, he thinks. He even recently turned in an application to be a flight attendant because of the free travel. But upon further reflection, he thinks it really comes down to the utter boredom he feels on a daily basis. “I’m bored at work, bored at home...I think I’m grumpy most of the time because I’m bored.”
Now that he’s older, Phil would settle down somewhere if it were the right place. His next intended city of living is Charleston, South Carolina. He asked his co-worker, Nathan, to come down and live with him, but Nathan can’t move now because of financial reasons.
Nathan becomes instantly animated when asked about Phil. In three words, he describes Phil as: independent, smart, and crazy—crazy in the sense that Phil does everything his own way... a way that doesn’t match any one else. Nathan says, “Everyone really likes him [Phil] but are confused by him because he doesn’t give you a lot.” But, Nathan is one of the people that Phil wants to talk to, so Nathan is always in the listening mood when spending time with Phil. Nathan thinks Phil’s life stories are useful because he is not caught up in the popular culture of feeling like one has to contribute in order to make one’s life meaningful. “Phil lives for himself and just exists,” he says. His favorite story about Phil is when they were both working together, and they had to kick a customer out because he was giving them a hard time. They went outside to mess around with the guy because it was a quiet night, and the customer began threatening to shoot both of them in the face. Phil got right up the man’s face, and in his characteristically steady and low voice said, “Shoot me in the face then.”
Phil’s calmness in the sticky situation with Nathan is a reflection of his growing up. He lived near the Edison neighborhood on the South side of Kalamazoo, where robberies were common. His dad taught him if he wasn’t immediately attacked, the perpetrator didn’t mean business. He learned how to bluff muggers and claims he only got beaten up once because of it.
Phil’s dad also taught him to be environmentally conscious before it became cool, and also raised him as Buddhist. Today, Phil is strictly agnostic though, saying, “I don’t think there’s any way to know...I just can’t bring myself to believe.” He also thinks, “religion is the trouble with the world”, but he’ll still respectfully listen to a religious person talk about his/her beliefs.
It is mid afternoon, and Phil is outside smoking a cigarette—American Spirits because even though they’re double the price, they’re supposed to last longer and be less addictive, which he doesn’t believe because he still smokes a pack a day. He’s got three hours left in his shift, and he’s getting agitated, “Time is dragging by today. It sucks.” He doesn’t stay outside for long though because his baby blue polyester pants are making him sweat in the humid weather. After a short conversation with a prep cook from the restaurant above Fourth Coast, Phil returns behind the counter. He seems troubled, and looks towards the door as he talks, “Everything is made to be temporary so we can make more.” This is a typical nugget of wisdom from Phil, the discontented yet happy barista. Perhaps Phil is bored because he is too smart for his own good, or perhaps he is bored because he’s waiting on himself to make permanent change in his life. Either way, he still has a few hours in his shift to kill, and a few more customers that will want to talk to him, even if he does not know how to grin and bear it.