Starbucks: A Life

When the Seattle Coffee Company first came into my life, it symbolized a future filled with mochas and notebooks and novels, read or written. This wasn’t that long ago, yet thinking of that cafe, on the corner of a pretty neighborhood of north London, and I feel suddenly ancient and pathetic. Before it became Starbucks, before the logo changed from some vague navy blue thing involving stars to a creepy green mermaid who seemed capable of hypnotizing a person out of five dollars, Starbucks was one of those few American luxuries that had made its way over to England in the late 1990s. I think I can count the others on one hand:

Planet Hollywood
McDonald’s et al
Big Red gum
Hershey’s chocolate bars

Starbucks was overpriced then, too. The prices were in the high three-pound range, which worked out to more than four dollars — ten years ago. Somehow we high schoolers had money to spare, and for some sad reason we decided, every few days, to spend it on “cafe mochas,” as we insisted on calling them, even informally. Inside, this satellite Seattle Coffee Company had very comfy chairs and sofas. It was very dark. It was a cozy-dreary aesthetic that fit in well in London, whose weather is pretty much identical to Seattle’s.

It was such a wild west in there in the early days that a classmate of mine actually invented a drink that became a regular request. Now it is on the menu — a frappucino that uses only milk, ice and vanilla syrup. It was never — I repeat never — warm enough during the school year to warrant buying this drink, which invariably turned to white, flavorless slush halfway through drinking it, yet my best friend and I would often buy this drink, thinking coffee might stunt our growth, even though we were both already tall, and take it to “the wall,” a foot-high brick wall down an alley and in the back of some apartment building, and drink it while smoking a cigarette.

I remember being slightly disappointed that the employees of our Seattle Coffee Company were not American. It seemed like kind of a gyp — that we were not actually in America when we set foot in the place, or fully treated as such. But what did that even mean? I hadn’t set foot in America since 1995, when I attended my sister’s graduation from a boarding school in Virginia. All I remembered was how clean Virginia was, how green, and how humid. By contrast, Seattle Coffee Company was a bit like Central Perk, the coffee shop in Friends, except moodier and sulkier. So, yes: we were still in England.

There was no Wifi in the place back then, because the Internet was still an innocent embryo of the monster it would become. This was the era of dial-up AOL, when people would regularly hack into my email and spam all my contacts (all five of them), and when Napster and Limewire were around to provide Tori Amos bootlegs to starved Londoners whose Virgin Megastores did not stock obscure releases of any kind. People actually read books in the Seattle Coffee Company, and wrote things by hand. They met there to talk to each other. They may have even had dates there. We regularly spied The Prettiest Girl in Class there with her boyfriend, a guy who wanted people to know that he was not much impressed to be dating The Prettiest Girl in Class, and reported openly that sex with her was “not that great.” (Sex! What was that?) But they looked like America’s sweethearts, walking hand-in-hand out of the Seattle Coffee Company carrying their matching white paper cups in their free hands. I think they were prom king and queen. Happily I can’t remember.

Thinking of the amount of money I have given to Starbucks-née-Seattle Coffee Company since then, I am truly ashamed. I wish I could take it all back. I am one of the people that financial columnists are needling in articles about New Year’s financial resolutions (“If you forgo buying your morning coffee and instead brew a cup at home, you’ll save approximately $4,826 per year”). But it seems there was not any other way I could have accomplished most of the written things I have accomplished in that decade: countless album reviews for which I was paid nothing; many more for which I was paid a pittance; a 400-page novel that went nowhere; and the numerous other pieces I have accumulated and sold, or not sold, or given away, since then. I was such a regular presence at the Starbucks on 7th Avenue in Park Slope years ago that I may as well have been an employee, or had a bed set aside for me in the storeroom; I ended up dating an employee of this Starbucks for a significant amount of time, and probably spent too much money on Starbucks beverages during my courtship of him.

This Starbucks location was very Park Slope, in the sense that it had exposed brick, semi-nice photographs displayed on the walls, comfortable seats for new moms to sit in, and employees equipped to handle a mob scene of regulars on the weekends and every time school let out. But the seated regulars, the people with the computers and the textbooks, were mostly law school students, for some reason, and they always seemed hungover and miserable, always in sweatpants and with messy hair or traces of last night’s makeup still around their eyes. This was in an era when I had three jobs: barista, sports store employee, and music reviewer. I had one day off a week, Sunday. Saturdays I spent in Starbucks writing music reviews.

In retrospect, this was a good time. My chosen office couldn’t have afforded me less of an experience outside of what was happening in my brain, which was probably a good thing. It was an office, after all. It tries, but Starbucks does not have an atmosphere. It is the Marriott Hotel of coffee shops: overpriced, but usually cleaner than cheaper establishments. But its very reliability, its global consistently, its blandness, is what makes it a good place to work. There are few unknowns at Starbucks, few distractions, few risks. It is more of a haven for the homeless than the average cafe, but this only serves to make it more democratic, more hospitable to all. Your only challenge is to not pay attention to your fellow patrons, since they are a generous cross-section of society, and the mystery of their lives will sometimes intrigue you through your headphones; you can’t help yourself. When I’m bored and seated next to a stranger in Starbucks, I like to try to figure out what they do for a living. The other day, a woman next to me was on the phone, reading out a series of numbers to the person on the other end.

“19, 22, 86, 4, 7, 11,” she said. Lottery numbers? “Peanut crunch,” she continued. “Chocolate crunch, apple crisp, and nougat.” I guess not.

Later that week there was a couple who evidently owned a business together and who gesticulated near-violently while arguing with each other, flapping bank statements dramatically inches from my left eye. I was too entertained by their argument to do much until they left. Then there is the combative woman with the pitbull who tries to come in the Starbucks with her dog every couple of weeks, just to argue with the store manager about how her dog is a service animal. It isn’t, as evidenced by the way it lunges at passing dogs, trucks and skateboarders while waiting (outside) for its owner to finish her rant. There is the aspiring rapper and his handlers up on business from somewhere in the South, the French girls on an Airbnb vacation, the Australian family on an Airbnb vacation, the mother and child for whom no one will hold the door.

Fear of the unknown — the as-yet-unimagined craziest ever Starbucks patron — is really the only drawback of Starbucks-as-office. The Internet will never not work (and my chosen Starbucks, a sad little place in the East Village, only has seating for six, so the network is never slow), the coffee is always the same: flavorless, with a vaguely plastic aftertaste, and lovably strong. I am a machine that only runs on exact change, and that amount is two shots of Starbucks espresso — or so this alarmingly ubiquitous enterprise would have me believe.

Recently I was in Canada and low on money. It was during the post-holiday lull. I looked at my bank statement online and saw a sad series of debits sprinkled between other larger amounts:

$4.95
$4.95
$4.35
$4.95
$4.35
$4.95
$4.35
$4.95
$4.95
$4.95

And so on, reaching back several pages. Those amounts will be familiar to fans of the Starbucks latte or extravagant soy latte, which is 60 cents more than the regular. Sure, Starbucks is cheaper than actually renting an office, but I couldn’t help adding up all of those and thinking of all the things I could have now done with that money (including, god forbid, nothing). The inner conversation eventually turned into something along the lines of, What am I doing with my life?

After I returned to New York, I left it all, all the weird territorial regulars and tourists and fed up employees of my Starbucks on First Avenue, for a quiet, grubby place a few blocks away with no Internet connection and too many theater students talking passionately to their teachers over steaming mugs of tea. But I will surely be back. Starbucks has made it impossible for me to not come back. I even went to a Starbucks when I was in Japan last year, for god’s sake. It’s sad to think that Starbucks has actually succeeded in making us believe that it — bad, overpriced coffee — gives us a little piece of home away from home. But it does: it’s an embassy, a safe zone where we can get away with not speaking Japanese or French or Portuguese or Greek, where everybody knows the name of our favorite drink, where the words “grande latte” are as recognizable as “happy meal” or “coca-cola.” And seeing a Starbucks at a rest stop anywhere in America is like coming upon an oasis in a desert. Pathetic, but true.

Now that I know America, I realize that yes, Starbucks is America. That is to say, it symbolizes everything that is shameful but too comforting to avoid about America. Starbucks spoils us, and we spoil it. This is a gluttonous symbiotic relationship. There was a time when we were not so into Starbucks — during the recession, the company did shutter a few thousand stores — but then they decided to give us free Wifi with the help of another American behemoth, AT&T, and suddenly we are back again, in droves, and we pay to play, because the smell is too strong to resist, and the effects too reliably pleasant. We will go home at the end of a (hopefully) hard day of work and patron-avoidance smelling exactly like a sweaty, just-roasted coffee bean, and we will have trouble sleeping, and trouble waking, and we will know just the thing to help us kickstart our brain, and it’s only two blocks away. TC mark

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