“I could do an espresso,” I said aloud. But I was talking to myself in a cold little warehouse with a hot noisy machine. Then I looked up and saw that I was late. The digital thermometer read 453˙, and I was supposed to start getting ready at 450˙. I leaned my broom against a 20-gallon bucket and rushed to open the big roll-top door. I ran back to the machine, grabbing up the elbow of aluminum duct and the big metal stir-stick along the way. The display showed 460˙.
I kicked on the fan of the cooling tray with the toe of my shoe. With my hands I was juggling the duct and the stir-stick, fishing my heat glove from the kangaroo pocket of my hoodie, trying to fit the duct onto the discharge port, and pulling the glove onto my right hand. I had it all in place at last. 463˙. I took a quick, deep breath and tried to relax as I walked around to the side of the machine. I still had plenty of time.
At 465˙, the jet of fire next to me shut off. The warmth in the noise going on around me left, and all that remained were the rattle of the beans in the roast chamber, and the twin roar of the cooling fan and the jumper. I watched the temperature rise one more degree before it began to fall. I kept my eye on the gauge. The beans had to come out at 450˙.
I let my hand rest on the hatch. Like everything else, it was easily hot enough to give me a serious burn. But my glove protected me, I hardly even felt any warmth. I found my stir-stick with my left hand and marked the moment that the display read 450˙. I slammed open the hatch and stirred furiously. The cooling tray filled as I stepped around, stirring fast so the air blast of the jumper wouldn’t blow the beans right out of the tray.
I could blame the sleep deprivation. Sleep and I don’t get along so well anymore. I slept from 2:00 until 5:30 on Saturday. Sunday night I went to bed at 11:00, got up at 3:00 to take care of my daughter calling from down the hall, and woke up for the day a half-hour before my alarm even went off at 5:00. I could blame my stopover at home between jobs as too much of a break in my momentum. I could blame the confusing mumbles of my boss back at the shop for disorienting me before I started roasting. But the fact is that I made a mistake. I forgot to put in the nail that holds the duct onto the discharge port.
I had just gotten directly in front of the discharge port when the duct fell off. It was like the bursting of a dam. I stood in front of a steady blast of 450˙ decaf Colombian coffee beans. The jumper forced them out at great speed, and there was very little I could do about it. But one of the chief reasons I got hired to roast coffee in the first place was because I was reportedly able to keep calm and not panic if something went wrong. And something had just gone terribly wrong.
I dropped the stir-stick and slapped at the kill switch for the jumper. It would take some time to shut off. With my right hand, I fished around for the duct in the cooling tray where it was slowly disappearing under the beans. My body was right up against the tray, blocking the bulk of the beans from shooting across the room. Very few of them dropped down into the tray on their own. But most of those that hit me ricocheted back down to where they were supposed to go.
One bean slipped into my glove next to the wrist while I rooted around for the duct. It ended up giving me a pretty good blister. I finally retrieved the duct and held it up against the discharge port. It redirected the barrage down into the tray. I had it backwards, so I couldn’t fit the end back on. Beans still blew out around the sides, but there was no way I was going to pull it back to turn it around.
I transferred the duct to my bare left hand. I could feel the heat through the thin metal. But my right hand was twisting the cover off of the fill tube. As the jumper wound down, the majority of the air blew out of the top of the machine, easing the pressure that forced the beans out at me. Finally, the situation was calming down. I shook out the bean that was still in my glove, switched hands on the duct, and picked up the stick to stir. The flow of beans began to slow, and then stopped.
I pulled back the duct and looked at the last, spiteful little pile that still sat in the machine. The beans crackled angrily below me, and smoke began to rise up from the tray. I must have been busy, because somewhere in all that activity I had switched off the cooling fan down by my left foot. I switched it back on, took a breath, laughed, and turned around to survey the damage.
I’d made some mistakes before, wasted a few valuable beans. On my first day of training, I’d left the cover off of the fill tube. When the jumper kicked on, green beans spouted out the top like a miniature volcano. My trainer and both my bosses laughed about it as if I’d made the worst mistake possible early on. But that was nothing compared to this. What I’d just done was like piloting the Exxon Valdez of coffee roasting. I could almost see the poor seagulls drowning, their wings weighed down by all that coffee.
Hot, crackling, brown beans stretched all the way to the back wall. They blanketed the cement floor. They got into the buckets of unroasted beans I had lined up to do next. They got under the bathroom door, 7 feet away and at a 90˙ angle to the right. They filled up the pocket of my sweatshirt. I looked at it all, amazed that I had survived.
“Well,” I thought to myself, “there’s my free pound for the week.”