Barista Serving Up More Than Coffee at a New Paltz Coffee Shop

By Bill Murphy

It is an afternoon at Cafeteria in New Paltz. At first the room is quiet and then it picks up quickly. Nate McVeigh is standing there taking orders of coffees and lattes.  When customers come up, he approaches them in a friendly manner with greetings like “What’s up dude? “and “How’s it going?”  While he is making coffee, he is singing along to “My Girl” by The Temptations, as it plays throughout the cafe.  While he works, the noise of the coffee machine fills the air of the coffee shop. When the line dies down you can see him striking up a conversation with some customers or talking to his coworker. Nathan McVeigh is a barista at Cafeteria coffee shop in New Paltz.McVeigh,25, has been working there since February.

McVeigh is a graduate student at SUNY New Paltz, studying music therapy and is pursuing a mental health counseling license. He attended Finger Lakes Community College in Rochester, where he received an associate’s degree in music performance. He transferred to SUNY New Paltz and received a bachelors degree in contemporary music studies. His arrival at SUNY New Paltz is when his money problems began.

“When I transferred here, I was a stupid 20-year-old and I did not have any money saved up,” he said.  McVeigh is not alone, according to The Institute of College Access and Success, 69 percent of college graduates are still paying off their student debt.

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Nate McVeigh working at Cafeteria in New Paltz, NY

Regarding his student loan debt, McVeigh described himself as “screwed.” Right now, He owes more than national average when it comes to debt. McVeigh owes $90,000, according to The Institute of College Access and Success, the annual debt per borrower is $28,950. The loans might affect him for the rest of his life, he will never be able to buy a house or take a loan from a bank.  He wanted to start a coffee cart on the Walkway Over the Hudson, but when he went to the small business development center they had denied him because of his student loans.

He is trying to better himself by doing an internship that he does twice a week on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at the Northeast Center for Traumatic Brain Injuries, McVeigh called it “the only cool placement” he had. He works there as a music therapist. “I inherent the musicality of all individuals, I am the first one to get someone on the path to helping them speak again, by getting them to sing the sentence before they end up speaking the sentence,” McVeigh said.

Eventually, he wants to open up a private practice.  He wants to go into music therapy, because at the tail end of his undergraduate career he was interested in psychology, but “it was too late,” McVeigh said.

“I got one hell of a f***king story, when it comes to my work history in this town,” McVeigh said. He first started at the Mountain Brahaus in which he worked for them in the kitchen.  He had said that there are nights in which he would have to work until two in the morning. Following his stint at the Brahaus, he worked at Labella’s pizzeria in which he was fired after snapping a waitress’s rear end with a towel by complete accident, while he was just waving it around in the kitchen.  He had applied to work at Cafeteria twice a year for five years, but did not get accepted until this year.  

Financially, McVeigh is pretty much on his own. He was raised by a single mom who used to work for a government contractor. His mother tries to help him, by doing something like paying for tires or a car insurance premium “as a Christmas or birthday present,” he said.   

McVeigh has expressed his frustration because between ”work, school and internship, I am pulling 58 hours a week. I am stressing the hell out, I have been doing this for eight years.” He feels like he is” trapped in a corner.”

“At the age of 25, it [working minimum wage] pisses me off, there are people who I went to high school with, who came from better off families and are on salaries now with their bachelor’s degree and I couldn’t start an actual career so I needed more time,” McVeigh said.

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Nate McVeigh serving customers at Cafeteria in New Paltz

The living wage for a single adult in Ulster County is $11.21 per hour, while the minimum wage for the state of New York is $9 per hour. The living wage is money that one needs to support him or herself. McVeigh is currently earning minimum wage and is making $40-$80 a day in tips.

McVeigh says that he can get tips through his “personality.”  His personality does come out when he is at work. You can see him talking to a student about her class work or having a conversation with three female customers about ear piercings as he laughs and gives one of them a hi five, as he lets out an energetic laughter with a big smile on his face.

McVeigh said that it is the tips that mainly help him pay his rent. Regarding his living situation, McVeigh believes that rent in New Paltz is more expensive than his mother’s mortgage on her house.

“I am lucky because rent in this town is $650-$700 a month, but I found a good landlord that I do maintenance on his house for, and he only makes me pay $400 a month. Without him, I would have to live out of my car or I would be overworking myself,” McVeigh said.

“The problem with working at places in town is that they expect to work 30 or 40 hours a week and that is impossible when I am also going to school,” McVeigh said.  He has had worked a bunch of minimum wage jobs all over town and had to work overtime,” just to make rent.”

McVeigh had to drop out of school while he was pursuing his bachelor’s degree, because he was afraid of the debt, not being able to make rent and he didn’t know how he was going to use his degree.

“I am pulling 58 hours a week. I am stressing the hell out, I have been doing this for eight years.” – Nate McVeigh

In addition to his work in town, Nate has had worked many blue-collar jobs like construction and during the summer, he does freelance landscaping.  When he worked in construction, it was a job that he was not too fond of, because he did not fit in with the blue-collar construction workers.  He remembered an incident of when he was talking to some of his coworkers about music and their response was “listen to this fag talking about music,” McVeigh said.

Another obstacle   to put into consideration is McVeigh’s health, both physically and mentally. McVeigh was diagnosed with a panic disorder in 2014, when he had his first panic attack. This affects him because he used to work crazy hours and do homework until three in the morning, but it is impossible now because the stress that is infused with his illness would drive him crazy. He currently is not taking any treatments for his panic disorder because he believes” anti – anxiety techniques don’t work.”

A couple weeks ago, McVeigh came to work while fighting bronchitis with a 103-degree fever because he couldn’t afford to take any time off. 

“I washed my hands and coughed into my shirt.” “I probably got some customers sick, “but, I am the only one who knows how to do certain things, I can’t afford to get fired and I don’t want piss off the boss.” 

On top of the bronchitis he was suffering from a kidney infection. Just a few weeks ago, he was faced with a $3,500 hospital bill. In the heat of that moment, he ended up going to the emergency room because his doctor’s office was closed. 

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Nate McVeigh making coffee at Cafeteria in New Paltz

Recently, he had to go on Medicaid at the age of 25 years old. He qualifies for Medicaid because he makes 102% of money below the poverty line.   He also qualifies because he makes less than $300 a week, and he is in school. “About 60 percent of that money goes to rent, “McVeigh said. 

Throughout all of the hardships, McVeigh tries to stay optimistic.  He plans on being at Cafeteria  for the next three years and admitted that he will miss cafeteria when he leaves, because “it’s the only job I love.”   

There was an anecdote that he gave about a friend of his who came from an impoverished area.  The friend was accepted into Columbia University for grad school. McVeigh asked her if she was afraid of the debt that she was going to receive and she responded with “Honey, do you see where I come from? the money doesn’t scare me, I know I will be able to pay it off one day.” “Every time I think about the fear of money I just think of her and that the balls on this girl are down to the ground and I am sitting here with my tail between legs”, McVeigh said. When asked if he was afraid about the money, he responded with “not anymore.”   He credits his own persistence to a combination of “determination and knowing that at this point, I have no other options,” as he said.