In 2005 I was a 25-year-old barista at a Starbucks in Hollywood, which was a terrible waste of my anthropology degree, insofar as an anthropology degree can be anything but wasted. But despite failing at life, I had come to think of myself as a mentor to one of my co-baristas (or “partners” in Starbucks lingo). Nardo, short for Bernardo, was a 17-year-old who managed to scrape together a decent income from his wages and selling weed to customers from a corner of the store not covered by security cameras.
I wanted to be a good influence on Nardo, but I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to react to his stories about “busting out a piece” at parties. I didn’t want him to think I was judging. After all, I had no moral high ground, since during most night shifts I was drinking Coronas out of a Venti hot cup, which was the perfect size to hold a bottle of beer with room for foam.
One evening during a closing shift I tried to steer the conversation away from things that would make me an accessory after the fact, so I asked Nardo, “You planning to go to college? Because I’ll help you write your essay. I’m, like, a writer. I mean, I don’t get paid, but I, like, could help you do an essay.”
Nardo yawned, then reached into the pastry case to gift himself a raisin bagel. “Whatever, dude.” He was far too stoned to hold a conversation. I respected him for that. So instead of trying to be his amateur lifestyle coach, I took my Venti cup of beer to the patio for a smoke.
When I was halfway through my second cigarette, about minute fifteen of my ten minute break, I noticed a cavalcade of town cars filing into the parking lot and I knew I was about to get a hell of a celebrity sighting. Hollywood is no different from any other worn-out industrial neighborhood with drop houses, potholes, and men in ankle-length fur coats carrying honest-to-God pimp sticks. That is, except for the famous people. All of us baristas pretended like we weren’t personally improved by being face to face with Teri Hatcher, but we were and we knew it. We weren’t famous, but we were fame adjacent. And so were our customers. While waiting for a latte, a photographer would let slip that he was on his way to shoot Pink. I wasn’t Pink. I didn’t know Pink. But I talked to a guy who took her picture once. That’s Hollywood.
I stubbed out my cigarette, grabbed my Venti cup of beer and dashed inside to take my place behind the register, eager to see someone more famous than our usual stream of former Just Shoot Me! guest stars and cell phone pitchmen from spots that ran a lot on Comedy Central. First to enter the store was a security detail: three gorilla-sized men wearing secret service-y earpieces. Then, five women in the standard Scientology uniform of the day — light blue dress shirts and pleated navy khakis — marched through the door. Finally, she emerged, glowing, pregnant, the fragile queen, Katie Holmes.
As an avid reader of gossip blogs, I knew that she was in her second trimester and that Tom Cruise, the alleged inseminator, was working down the street filming Mission Impossible III. As her entourage waited silently, Katie, or Kate as she was called during her more serious moods, wandered the store. She was tall and striking in her maternity finery and professional makeup. She dawdled over our limited selection of CDs, pawing each Diana Krall, Cat Power and Bob Dylan disk, then she moving on to the mugs, running her finger around the brim of each.
Nardo whispered to me, “Is that chick, like, somebody? She’s sorta hot.”
I shot him a look that I hope said, “Shut the f-ck up,” but in a gentle, mothering way.
Finally the pregnant starlet whispered something to the highest-ranking lady Scientologist, presumably her church-appointed auditor. There was a little back and forth, then the auditor relayed in a monotone bark, “Grande Pumpkin Spice Latte. Soy.”
“Decaf?” I asked the auditor, eyeing the bulge in Ms. Holmes’s midsection.
America’s newest Scientologist spoke directly to me. “No. Caf.”
“With whip?” I asked, sure that she would say no because topping a soy drink with whip cream is just stupid, but she nodded.
Then I stared Katie Holmes right in the eyes and asked, “Can I get your name?”
She ignored me and instead pushed Herbie Hancock’s Possibilities across the counter. “And this.” Then she backed away and her auditor rushed in to pay for it in nickels and dimes.
I fished a Sharpie out of my apron pocket and marked up a cup with the drink order (“S WC PSL”). I wrote her name on the cup, exactly as it appears on IMDB. I handed it over to Nardo, slightly worried that he was too stoned to do the job. But I shouldn’t have underestimated him. He was way better at being high than I ever was. He dutifully, if slowly, made the drink and then called it out. “Uh, Grande Soy Pumpkin Spice Latte with Whip for, uh, Katie Holm-Ez?” God bless that boy for mispronouncing her name. That’s why I loved that kid.
Then, as quickly as they arrived, the security guards, auditor, helpers, and the former Dawson’s Creek star slipped out of the building clutching a her new CD and her dairy-topped dairy-free drink. When the door shut behind the last of them, Nardo asked, “Is she like famous famous? Would I have seen her anything?”
I shrugged and I walked to the fridge to refill my Venti cup of beer.
When I got home that night I anonymously emailed a gossip website a breakdown of Ms. Holmes’s visit, which was soon published and read by thousands. I couldn’t have been prouder if I were paid or given a byline. Then, even better, the next day paparazzi were camped out front of my Starbucks, hoping to get another glimpse of the soon-to-be Mrs. Cruise. The paparazzi were there because of me, because of something I wrote, because I was somebody.