The Meantime Coffee Co.: A glance into UNC’s student-run café

By Ellie Heffernan

 At 6:30 a.m. the Chapel Hill sky is far from Tar Heel blue. The sun still hasn’t risen, and the clouds cast a dirty shade of lilac. Most students will not be awake for hours. The unlucky minority with 8 a.m. lectures will try their hardest to roll out of bed at 7:45 a.m., sprint across campus and somehow still arrive on time.

Alyson Cabeza is already riding her cherry-colored moped to the Campus Y. That way, she will arrive on time for her 7 a.m. opening shift as a barista at the Meantime Coffee Co., UNC-Chapel Hill’s nonprofit, student-run coffee shop.

Open for business

If you arrive exactly when the Meantime opens, hoping to witness the first morning rush, you’ll be disappointed. It already happened. The coffee shop technically doesn’t open until 8 a.m., but Cabeza and her co-worker, Ryan Weston, have already served multiple early worms who arrived as they were setting up. 

Handling pressure is second nature to UNC students like Weston and Cabeza. In one way or another, they are experts at jumping through the hoops of the campus rat race. They run from job, to second job, to third job and finally to the library. But they do it so effortlessly that when asked to describe them, your mind initially jumps to words like “lowkey,” “chill” and “down-to-earth” – as opposed to hard-working.

Maybe this is why the Meantime maintains a cult following among students. Why shop here when dozens of other coffee shops in the area sell coffee from Carrboro Coffee Roasters and baked goods from Durham’s Ninth Street Bakery? Maybe the Meantime’s customers are also buying an idea, a goal to work toward.

For students, by students

 They purchase their coffee from student baristas who work hard, play hard and make it look easy. These baristas are the kind of students you wish you could be and maybe already are, although you probably forget it most of the time. That little voice in your head is too busy distracting you, making you feel as though you are the pile of finely ground beans in the Meantime’s pressurized espresso machine. Despite the internships, part-time jobs, extracurricular clubs, and 16 credit hours’ worth of classes, you’re afraid it won’t be enough to win.

 This feeling is familiar to most UNC students, including Cabeza. She typically works at the Campus Y seven hours weekly, which she says is pretty manageable with her school work. She also has a second job working roughly 10 hours weekly in the Global Office at the Campus Y, and she used to have a third job working at the UNC Student Stores.

Weston works at the Meantime about 10 hours weekly and has class today until 6:00 p.m. When asked how many classes he has, he responds modestly.

“That I’m going to?”

He is scheduled to attend four, whether or not he makes it to all of them is another story.

Juggling work at the Meantime with other commitments can be challenging. When the clock nears noon, Weston says the job itself can also get stressful; especially if you are stationed at the espresso machine while an exponentially growing line of people waits for their coffee.

Most customers are patient, but many of them do not realize that espresso-based drinks, such as lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos and mochas, take much longer to make than drip coffee.

For this reason, the Meantime created a giant flowchart explaining the differences between various coffees and teas.  

The flowchart and other signage sprinkled around the coffee shop creates a homespun, yet hip atmosphere. Like many UNC students, the Meantime evokes a sense of carefully constructed effortlessness.

Not like your other beans

When the shop opened, just over five years ago, “The Meantime Coffee Co.” was painted straight onto the Campus Y’s wall using two different fonts. The shop itself is little more than the necessary machines and beans. The only furniture to be found are two wooden serving bars. Along with the wall, they form the Meantime’s small boundaries.

 The Meantime’s baristas exude dogged, independent youth. On a certain level, they do not care what you think about them. This is hinted at by Weston’s choice to sport a bright, flowery apron with little regard for society’s rigid, gender-based rules regarding dress.

 A willingness to challenge the status quo is not surprising for a coffee shop run completely by students. The Meantime’s current CEO, Alaina Plauche, is a UNC senior. Like Cabeza and Weston, she is firing on all cylinders. She has had six internships since starting her undergraduate degree – seven if you include a position as a research assistant.  One of these internships was with the U.S. House of Representatives.

Like the baristas that serve them, the Meantime’s customers engage in hustles of their own. They slink down the Campus Y’s stairs, as the aging wooden floors elicit shrieks in response to their every footstep. They’re already heading to class, coffee in hand, although the Meantime still has not technically opened.

Close to opening time, the Campus Y remains relatively quiet. A few customers shuffle in, but UNC’s campus is largely devoid of human noise. Leaves crunch and birds chirp as nature reclaims the earth. Until campus groundworkers switch on the leaf blowers and Weston bangs the used coffee grounds out of the espresso machine.

 Minus the vrooming and clanging, the Meantime maintains a peaceful atmosphere. Some indie folk song that you can’t quite make out plays in the background. A customer cheerily promises to return tomorrow when her favorite pastry is back in stock.

Coffee that cares

The Meantime’s baristas seem to actually care if you have a good day. Weston says he feels genuine joy when he can provide customers with their morning fix of caffeine. Most customers respond to this gift with kindness – minus the one “coffee connoisseur” who mansplained how to make espressos, says Cabeza.

 For $15 an hour,  plus a free cup of coffee on the shift, a gig like this is worth the difficulties a student might face getting out of bed so early. Most on-campus jobs pay less than $9 an hour.

When asked what they like best about working at the Meantime, Cabeza and Weston don’t initially mention money. The relationships they form with their customers and coworkers are their favorite part of the job.

It’s clear that the Meantime’s staff are good friends outside of work. The wall is dotted with polaroid pictures of baristas hanging out and the entire staff is going on a camping trip this coming weekend. Cabeza says she still doesn’t know where they’re going, and she doesn’t think management knows either.

Friendship is also extended to customers, who like the baristas – and their beans – are constantly on the grind. This is most clear when an older woman sprints in, her hands wrung in prayer, basically shouting as if these students were gods.

 “You guys are lifesavers! LIFESAVERS!” she says, beginning to ramble.

 She had no idea there was a coffee shop here and after the morning she has had, facing bumper to bumper traffic amid construction on Raleigh Road, she needs caffeine. Now.

Cabeza and Weston smile, listen and get to work on making her drink. They get it. After all, they have places to go, too.

Edited by Jake Jeffries and Natalie Huschle

 

Leah Gneco: the gymnast who persevered through four ACL surgeries

By Emery Summey

She dedicated 17 years of her life to the sport, yet it only took one faulty landing to change the course of Leah Gneco’s gymnastics career. At the age of 21, the former collegiate gymnast received her fourth ACL reconstruction surgery, and her fifth surgery total.

A few days after her 16th birthday, Gneco was on the balance beam at gymnastics practice, gearing up for her dismount. She had been training extra hard in preparation for a college coach coming the next day. As Gneco zoned in and hurdled for the roundoff, her foot missed the beam.

Crack.

Despite the pop in her neck, Gneco remained calm. It was 15 minutes later when her hands went numb, and Gneco’s parents rushed her to the emergency room. They learned that Gneco had torn ligaments between her fourth and fifth vertebrae and also crushed her spinal disk. The injury required Gneco to undergo surgery if she ever wanted to be active again. After two plates, eight screws and a cadaver bone, everything was fused back together. Gneco was back doing gymnastics three months after the surgery, unaware of the four major knee surgeries she would later undergo.

Dusting herself off

In 2017, a week before the regional championships, Gneco was training on the balance beam during practice. She was setting up to finish her back handspring back layout when her right knee popped out of place upon landing. Gneco noticed her knee began to swell, but continued with practice and even participated in conditioning. She eventually went to the ER with her parents, where she was referred to an orthopedic surgeon and received an MRI. 

Torn.

 “I’m sorry to tell you this Leah, but your right ACL is torn and we need to schedule surgery to fix this,” Dr. Dasti said. 

  “So, my junior prom is next week, and I already bought my dress,” Gneco said. “I still really want to go. Is there any way we can schedule the surgery after prom?”

 “Yeah, we can do that,” Dr. Dasti laughed. “But you’ll need to be on crutches until your surgery.”

 Gneco agreed to the deal, knowing she wouldn’t take those crutches to prom. 

With junior year being crucial to the college recruiting process, Gneco felt down about not being able to attend college gymnastics camps over the summer or show her skills to coaches during practice. Nevertheless, she remained optimistic that her body would heal quickly, and she would return to her old self in no time. After a nine-month recovery, Gneco was back to her normal training schedule.

Familiar feeling

Almost a year later to the date, Gneco was once again on the balance beam training for regionals. She was setting up for her series, back handspring back layout when she landed and felt a familiar pop in her right knee. She finished her workouts and even continued training for the next week, in denial of the hard truth. When she could no longer bear the pain, Gneco went to a new orthopedic surgeon specializing in female athletes and received her second MRI scan. 

Torn.

 “Hi Leah, my name is Dr. McCarthy,” she said. “I see you’ve been through this before, but unfortunately you have torn your ACL again.”

  “Yeah, I could feel the exact same thing as last time, but I thought I could keep pushing through and go to nationals,” Gneco said.

Dr. McCarthy shook her head in disappointment.

“We are going to have to schedule another surgery to fix your ACL and I would like to do it pretty soon.”

Gneco made a face.

“Last year I postponed the surgery so I could go to my junior prom … will I be able to go to prom after my surgery?”

“Yes, you can go to prom after,” Dr. McCarthy said. “But you will have to be on crutches, and you will probably be in a bit of pain.”

 Gneco smiled and agreed, knowing that this time she couldn’t avoid the crutches.

Slow and steady

With her senior year over and a 13-month recovery ahead of her, Gneco headed to UNC-Chapel Hill to start summer classes. She slowly began rehab, weightlifting and eventually gymnastics. Entering college as an athlete, Gneco felt the excitement and pressure to deliver her gymnastics skills. She was thrilled to compete and contribute to the team, but also skeptical about what her knee could handle.

Throughout preseason during her sophomore year, Gneco frequently felt her knee pop out of place or lock up. It seemed like something was wrong, but her desire to compete in college was strong. One day in practice, Gneco had one more bar routine and asked her coach if she could leave out the dismount because her knee was feeling sore. Coach left the decision up to Gneco, who decided to go for it. As soon as she landed, she felt her right knee get blown out again. This time, Gneco was in too much pain to even stand up. She was familiar with the routine, but this time was different–Gneco instantly knew her gymnastics career was over.

Gneco went to UNC-CH’s knee and ankle specialist, Dr. Jeffrey T. Spang, who said that her ACL was torn once again. This time, however, she would have to undergo two surgeries to fix her knee. The first surgery would be in February to remove and regrow her ACL, while the second one would be in June to go back in and complete the reconstruction. With an 18-month recovery ahead of her, Gneco was devastated by the abrupt end to her gymnastics career.

A new normal

By the start of her junior year, Gneco had a slim chance of ever returning to gymnastics and decided to medically retire. With so much of her identity focused around the sport, she had to create a new normal for her everyday life.

Currently in her senior year, Gneco has found the positive side of medical retirement. Not having to spend 20 or more hours a week in the gym has given her time to focus on her future. Now, Gneco is working at Labcorp, has completed all of her medical school applications and is exploring new interests such as cooking and baking. Fifteen months out of surgery, she is still not cleared to do high levels of physical activity. However, Gneco’s love for gymnastics remains.

“Gymnastics has been my whole life for the past 18 years,” she says. “It has taught me to be resilient, adaptable and to push through challenges in all areas of my life. I have sacrificed so much of myself for the sport, but I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Edited by: Natalie Huschle

Wyndham Robertson: A matriarch built on her own terms

By Sammy Ferris

Wyndham Robertson’s mission in life is to have a good death.

She has written the obituaries for everyone in her family. When her older sister passed away last year, she wrote to honor their lifetime of sisterhood. She tears up when thinking about Blanche Williamson’s death. She put that love into a crafted gift to their family. The power of honoring life in death.

During the pandemic this past year, Robertson decided it was time to write her own obituary too.

Death at 84 years old feels more like last call at a bar after a night spent with good friends and good martinis. Something inevitable and sweetly crushing. And for Robertson, something that should be talked about as such.

Writing her own obituary was a no-brainer. Robertson laughs that she is not sure who else in her family would do it anyways. Her lifelong career as a writer and her candidness have prepared her for the task.

Neither morbid nor nostalgic. Necessary and on her terms.

Robertson has always been a woman inspired by intention. Born in 1937, she is the youngest of three. She feels lucky to have been born during the Depression. It was rare and brimming with the kind of hope necessary to survive. The hope born from reviving a dying country by going to fight a war in another.

The kind of hope which would allow a girl from Salisbury, North Carolina with a dream of being a Rockette, to move to New York City and work at Fortune Magazine for over 40 years.

Engagement of Her Own

Marriage had never interested her, unlike many of her female peers. She saw engagement as employment, and if she was going to be an employee anywhere, it was going to be somewhere she could write. It certainly was not going to be because of a ring on her finger.

Necessary and on her terms.

After graduating from Hollins University with a degree in Economics, she moved to New York City. Her father told her she was not allowed to get an apartment or a job for at least a month, certain that she would return home to North Carolina.

Robertson spent those first few weeks speed dating with job interviews. Unable to commit until a month had past, Robertson went on speed dates all over the city with the confidence of someone who had nothing to lose.

The economy was coming out of a recession, and she was in an uncommitted relationship with Manhattan. She played the field.

Her first job was at Standard Oil doing research. Carol Loomis met Robertson after she had been there for a few years. Feeling called to change, Robertson traveled to Europe for three months with her cousin. Before she left, her boss referred her to Loomis who was working at Fortune Magazine. They agreed to discuss about job opportunities when Robertson came back.

In Spain, she received a postcard from Carol: check back in immediately upon your return.

A New Beginning

Fortune’s structure was nothing short of overtly sexist. All writers and editors were males who had females labelled as researchers at their beck and call. Loomis wanted Robertson to come on board as a trainee researcher. She knew it was below Robertson’s qualifications, but also knew she would easily move up the ranks.

Robertson agreed with one condition added in her contract: if she wasn’t promoted in a year, Carol had to fire her.

Necessary and on her terms.

Within six months, she was promoted to researcher. The magazine was in its prime and its prestige was a passport. Robertson accompanied writers on trips across the country interviewing business titans like Henry Ford and drinking martinis in expensive bars.

Her catch-me-if-you-can intelligence and American girl good looks made her a weapon in the business journalism world, and her unimposing charm and irreplaceable candor made her a writer.

In 1968, after a series of promotions, she became the first female Assistant Managing Editor at Fortune.

Necessary and on her terms.

No Regrets

Robertson’s ability to elicit respect and trust commanded her love life in the same way it did her career.

She turned down four proposals in her life, though somehow managed to maintain friendships with all of the men. The one proposal she did accept was from Wally McDowell during her early twenties. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was the only man who would ever hear Robertson say yes.

She laughs remembering how it ended after a few weeks when she fell madly in love with someone else. She broke it off with a clean conscience, confident he would move on and marry a different person.

And while he did, she did not.

Dating was fun for a classically smart and beautiful woman like her. She has always loved men, usually having more than one “sweetheart” at a time.

Dating never went further than that. She has no regrets about being single, recalling her thirties when women and men would look at her with pity for her status. Since turning 60 years old, the most common response she hears is now is “lucky you.”

She is a matriarch with no children of her own. That role, she has filled by giving to her nieces and nephews. When she was invited to the 1991 Super Bowl, she brought her nephew Julian Williamson as her date. To him, she is the kind of aunt who made living in New York and working as a single woman feel like the obvious choice.

Robertson did not set out to refuse marriage. She simply refused to believe that marriage was something to set out to get.

Julian believes she is one part self-sufficient and one part scared. Not one to take risks, Robertson is relentlessly independent. A person who at 84 and in need of a new hip, will refuse anesthesia during the surgery rather than risk damaging her mind by going under.

A bold act rooted in fear of losing her mental acuity before it’s her time.

Wyndham Robertson does not believe that the great beyond resembles a family reunion. She believes that there is something waiting, but what that looks like she does not pretend to know. There are people “up there” who would want to see her again, but not vice versa. How would God decide that dilemma?

In talking about her legacy, she will be happy if her life is remembered at all.

Although Robertson never joined the Rockettes on stage, she crafted an extraordinary life. Charming and intelligent, she is a walking cocktail of southern manners and New York worldliness.

She is, in a word, unforgettable.

When Robertson’s time does come and her family reads the obituary she wrote, she will be remembered. A matriarch who, in life as well as in death, will always have the last word about who she is.

Edited by: Natalie Huschle