Last week I decided to apply for one of those hot Tea Sommelier jobs we see cropping up everywhere nowadays. Tea Sommelier seems like a perfect seventh career for me. Imagine spending your day doing nothing but brewing tea, drinking tea, shopping for tea online and drawing dirty cartoons for the company newsletter. Seems like businesses all over are now paying the Help good money for picking tea leaves out of the break-room drain and I don't want to miss out.
I figure my qualifications are as good as anyone else's. I can boast at least as much diarrhea from skanky border teas as the next fellow, maybe more given what I've been chugging lately. In fact, people are complaining to me about my recent recommendation to brew up an entire 20g Golden Melon shou tuo in one session, and seem aghast for some reason that I brewed up all 99 grams of Poundcake sheng. Which tells me that if this sort of drinking is knocking down the younger gens, then I must be the Keith Richards of Tea. So of course everyone wants to hire me. Nobody should risk company assets like CEO's and donut boys when the tea can be tested on a corner relic like Old Cwyn who is uninsurable anyway, the tea equivalent of a wooden cigar Indian parked out in front of the store. All the money I save the company will buy things like more blonde models for the corporate holiday party and upgrades to the next IPhone.
But I hit a bit of a snag when applying for my first job. You guessed it, the Human Resource office pre-screen. The purpose of Human Resource offices is to create online screening tools that nobody can possibly pass so they can avoid the tasks of answering the telephone and reading applications. Now if I were actually talking with a real person, of course they would know who I am and I could skip this part of the hiring process altogether. However, you can't get through to a real person until you complete the application. All is going well until I can't bypass the question of, "Do you have Certification as a Tea Master?" Still, I just go ahead and mark Yes anyway.
Next I must type in my certificate number and the place where I received my certification. I make up a number and then add the name of the nearest resort town. All seems well until I get an automated email saying my certificate number didn't check out. I reply that maybe I'd missed a digit somehow and I would dig out my certificate and get back to them. When an email to the CEO with an offer for a boozy lunch date doesn't materialize into anything tangible, I start looking around for a quick tea class. I'm certain once I spend a few minutes with a real Tea Master, he will see at once that I'm clearly qualified and I will test out of any further remaining studies and go straight to my certificate. After all I'm a Tea Writer already and so therefore Tea Master is a logical next step. Or would I be a Tea Mistress? In that case I'm surely pre-qualified because I've had more cakes of all ages in my bed than Marie Antoinette. But now I need to be both qualified and Bona Fide.
Luckily, tea classes are popping up all over which brings up the question of whether one course is as good as another. Apparently that is indeed the case, which tells me something about the whole racket already. So instead of paying the entire fee up front, I pay the "reserve a spot" $10 amount and figure I'll get a refund on that once I get there and wave my AARP card. With any luck they'll pay me just to stay.
"Welcome to The Elk Hotel Tea certification conference. My, you're certainly an...older student. Have you been here before?"
I feel like bringing up the gun conventions, but that might be a bit of a mood kill, so I just nod.
"The rest room is just around the corner to the left," she chirps, clearly because older ladies pee all the time. "I'll need the rest of your $300 registration fee as well."
"Oh, I left my checkbook in the car."
I brandish my cane and sigh tiredly to emphasize how clearly too winded I am at the moment to make any effort besides sitting down.
The Tea Master looks surprisingly normal in a suit, not too expensive, and rather disappointing. I want to see the flowing robes and whatnot that I will earn the right to wear after paying good money for this class. After all, people won't think you have any special esoteric knowledge unless you are wearing some sort of costume. But he has on a pink tie. I don't know how I'm supposed to impress the corporate types as a Tea Mistress without an appropriate outfit. Then again, I can always just throw on my academic attire or perhaps the Franciscan nun's habit if I'm feeling frisky. Check Outfit off my list of must-haves for the new job.
Naturally the class starts with meditation because we can't possibly brew tea otherwise. I play along, even though I've already done my meditation today in the car while driving. Obviously the Master thinks none of us novices have the requisite number of Oms in yet, and then too the gods always find ways to punish me whenever I'm anxious to get on with it in terms of tea. This is why, if you simply must drink tea with other people, you should be the person in control of the gaiwan.
Mr. Tea Master begins a brewing demonstration. And it...can't be...but it is...Nuclear Green Oolong. Seriously, this is what the Tea Master is drinking? Not even an aged Dong Ding for my $300 fee...well, my $10 fee at the moment, because I'm not going to pay a dime more unless and until he coughs up some of the good stuff. I didn't drive all this way for nothing. But evidently this green oolong is his personal specialty. The Master explains his reasoning.
"Fresh tea. Always serve fresh tea to your patrons. Is much more better when you buy from us."
Of course it is. And I had hoped to learn something useful, like whether Rave hairspray on tea tastes as good as Round Up in case my boss turns out to be an ass. The Tea Master goes around and fills our little cups. I sip mine and nod with the other suckers in the room and then dump the rest in the bamboo plant. Nothing is more disillusioning than when the people you hope to admire exhibit an enthusiasm for aesthetics you passed by two decades ago, and nothing is so reassuring as when the snake oil game remains so deceptively simple.
Then the first lady up for her qualifier returns to the group and informs the rest of us that the test is on brewing technique, but we can choose the technique we're best at. A few people heave sighs of relief. The man sitting next to me says he is worried because he's never brewed tea before.
"Hello and welcome, I think you're the oldest student here today," says the Tea Master. "I noticed your presence in the back of the room."
"Yeah. I get that a lot." It comes with being a Personage instead of just a Person.
"You intentionally waited until last. Perhaps you think of yourself as something of a standout."
The Tea Master waits expectantly.
"One time my ex-husband wanted to meet Mstislav Rostropovich after a concert," I say. "So I just made myself stick out in the crowd and sure enough he came right on over."
"I see. Are you someone who intends to stand out?"
Clearly he wants to peck away at my ego. The nuns tried that on me too. I explain I am up for a big job as a Tea Sommelier and am hoping to get it, leaving out the part about lying on the application.
"But you were snoring during the Brewing Basics lecture."
He has the face for it, I'll give him that.
"I haven't had enough tea yet today."
"And what sort of tea is your specialty?" he asks.
"Mostly I drink pu-erh tea. Sheng. You know, the raw stuff."
"Ah yes. So you must be proficient at gong fu brew technique."
I hold up my tea stained fingers to prove it.
"Do you know how to remove these stains? If not, I can teach you," he suggests cryptically, in what obviously is a test question.
"Normally I use athlete's foot spray which works pretty well, but I ran out and didn't feel like paying 8 bucks for another can."
"Hm." A blank look. "Well, perhaps we should get on with the questions."
"So what other types of tea do you drink besides sheng pu-erh?"
"Uh..." I can feel a Fail coming on.
"Never mind, what would you like to demonstrate for your final exam?" He's ready to be rid of me.
"How about we steep out my '05 Naka and see who is still standing?"
"As you wish." A very agreeable man.
I set up what looks like a 200 ml gaiwan. With this size I will need at least 20 grams of Naka, but 30 seems better and then I sweep in the crumbs so as not to leave a mess. The Tea Master doesn't have a waste bowl because he doesn't rinse any of his teas. So I go ahead and use the trash can.
"Minimal need for a strainer, very good," the Master approves.
"I usually just chew."
He gives a pained look.
"Well, I had to quit smoking," I explain.
Line 'em up, pour 'em neat, knock 'em back just like a bartender and that ought to get any tea head a job. Five rounds in.
"Very nice," says the Tea Master. "I am satisfied with your technique."
"But we've only just got the storage off."
"I don't think so."
After pouring three more rounds I can tell he's wanting to leave.
"A few more sir, we're just now getting to the actual tea."
Another three rounds, the tea is really opening up. I try and offer the gaiwan so he can appreciate the big fat leaves, but he appears a little slow. Just a couple more steeps now...
"Thank you, but I really must...I'll be right back," says the Tea Master.
He heads off in the direction of the rest room and then trips on the bamboo display.
"Uncle!" Registration Girl jumps to his aid.
"I'm quite all right, thank you." Woozy.
She takes his arm and escorts him to the rest room. Fifteen minutes later she returns.
"I just checked on the Master and he's staring at himself in the mirror with his pants down."
"Oh, I'm sorry. Is he sick?"
"I don't know. What on earth did you give him?"
"Just tea. Want some?" I'm not wasting a $300/beeng tea.
Two more rounds for the road. I dump the leaves out into a napkin and then in my purse to save for later. I feel I deserve the gaiwan too, and so I tuck it away as well. Then Reggie Girl says the Tea Master will mail me my certificate, and she walks over to hand me a slip of paper with the number on it to use for my job application.
"We will require the remainder of your fee."
"I really do have to pee now. You wouldn't want the hotel to think you're responsible for the upholstery."
In the stall I listen to Reggie trying to get the Tea Master out of the men's room. I wonder if she helps him zip up. I best skedaddle now that I have my certificate number in hand and get back home to my stash because I'm feeling the Naka wearing off already.
A few days later my certificate arrives. Proudly, I show it to my daughter. I've been talking up this new job with her for a couple of weeks now.
"No one is going to hire you," she says.
"Of course they will." She likes to be negative with me.
"Mom. You wear boxer shorts and slippers all day long. Your idea of dress-up is pulling on a nylon sweat suit before driving to the grocery store."
I'm miffed. "It's about the tea, not about what I look like!"
She enjoys inflicting these petty tortures on her elderly parent, which I keep track of for the county, but she has a point. More shopping. I spend some time at Kohl's online looking at bras and men's briefs before navigating over to see what's new at Yunnan Sourcing. After all, I need to keep up on my tea knowledge now. I use the opportunity to buy a few shou cakes since the daughter thinks I'm buying clothes with her credit card.
Later on during my nap time I dream about a corner office and custom stone tea table desk with real hose drainage. A cute young guy in a pink tie dinner jacket and no pants serves as my secretary. No doubt in my mind this is meant to be.
So if you need a real Tea Sommelier, you know who to call.