Capital Romanticism

Posted on September 13, 2013 by

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At the end of high school I did two years as a Starbucks barista.  I was trained-in by a gal named Mori who rode a red Kawasaki Ninja, had a blonde pixie cut, and a tattoo of a dagger impaling a plump red heart on her forearm. She was ninety pounds of don’t-fuck-with-me. My first real moment with her was at a tasting, where I was supposed to relay my experience of the coffees and she was supposed to tell me what my unrefined palate should be tasting. At some point I made the comment that French Roast reminded me of secondhand smoke. She narrowed these hard, blue and shot through with red eyes and her lips went thin and white. I thought she was going to have me drop and give her twenty.

But that whole hard-ass thing melted away when Mori was with the regulars. It might not come as a surprise that most Starbucks’ with a comfortable café have staunch regulars, the same people ordering the same things and sitting in the same seats, talking about the same things  five or more days a week. Though that all should seem counter intuitive when you think about the national and global presence of Starbucks; you probably wouldn’t refer to or treat McDonalds as the neighborhood burger joint, so why think of Starbucks as the neighborhood coffee shop?

Darlene was one of our regulars,  an old bird who kept her own mug behind the counter and wore the kind of transition lens’ that don’t actually transition, but stay in this liminal state, which make it hard to see indoors, and yet still force you to squint at the sun. Seven days a week she’d pull up in this white Transformer-sized SUV and she would grimace as tried to step down from drivers seat – her bad knees acting up – and grab the aluminum cane from the backseat before walking in. She’d come through the line, talking on her cell, and end every call by telling the person on the other end she was at “the coffee shop,” and had to go.  Every time, she ordered an entire French press for herself, because she never knew how long she’d want to stay. And during her stay she asked a lot of questions about the baristas’ personal lives. Not out of concern, more to keep tabs, because behind the counter was her ant farm and we were the ants. A couple of us kept the conversation real basic with Darlene because she had loose lips. But Mori didn’t feel that way. She spilt it all to Darlene. I wouldn’t have to talk to Mori to know what was going on in her life, because I’d get it all from Darlene. Those conversations  usually started with, “Hey, did you hear […]” and seconds later I was leaning onto to the counter getting an earful about Mori and her boyfriend fighting about who was going to sit bitch on the motorcycle.

Darlene bartered with gossip, but I didn’t have much to offer. She wanted dirt – who was hooking up, who was mad and who, who was gonna get fired. But I stayed out of store politics, so when I couldn’t offer anything on that front, she tried to invade a more personal theater.  I was eighteen and didn’t have any tasty stories  besides the mishaps of early sexual exploration and I wasn’t obviating those cats from their bag, so by default we ended up talking about the Starbucks Corporation.

“That Howard Schultz is such a servant of the Lord,” she said as if she played bridge with him. “Grew up poor, you know? That’s why he’s so adamant about making sure you all have healthcare options through the company.” Which was partially true. If you worked thirty-some hours a week, yes, you were eligible for health and dental plans. But at thirty hours, you’re making peanuts anyway and with the healthcare benefits trimmed from your bi-weekly paycheck, you weren’t taking home anything. However if you explained that to Darlene she wouldn’t get it, or believe it because a nice guy from Brooklyn such as Howard Schultz just wouldn’t do that.

Starbucks has that rich origin story revolving around the face of company – same goes for Apple – sort of like Jesus the carpenter, you have Howard Shultz the poor kid from Brooklyn,  Steve Jobs the college drop-out, all very reassuring. Why not? The messiah story is familiar. Stock with an uncanny beginning, projecting towards an obvious end. And for someone like Darlene, that sort of thing is powerful enough to engender a radical devotion to the brand.

Apart from Howard Schultz the man (who was not actually with the company at the beginning), you have the original Pike Place store itself. Seriously, if the Mecca metaphor was ever apt, it is in this case. Darlene swears the coffee is better at the Pike Place Market, “more Starbucks,” it has that “original flavor [though I’m not sure how she would know what that was like],” even though the Pike Place store now uses the same espresso machines, the same beans, the same milk, same white cups with the same green logos as every store; the subtext is that there’s magic in the air, the same way the Wailing Wall has power because of the events surrounding that locus.

Darlene promulgates an American cliché that suggests we should to pay special attention to the first location in a line that lead to a Franchise. It’s somehow significant. Starbucks is not alone in this regard. In Chicago, I lived a block down from the first ever Potbelly Sandwich Shop; it wasn’t any different than any other location. There was just as much, if not more, profanities craved into the walls of the men’s room, the employees wore the same hats, same shirts, and you get the same very-okay sandwiches you would get at a Potbelly in Lincoln, Nebraska. But as a shtick, being the first location got people in the door. Even I think I half-bragged about that to my out-of-town friends.

As for the Pike’s place Starbucks, I’ve never been, and I might be missing out. I’ve heard it took the original baristas – a hodgepodge of interdisciplinary professors – a while to hit their stride. Supposedly there were more drinks messed up at that first store than any other. And even that bit of hearsay has been romanticized. If people can look back and valorize, or find cute an initially poor product, you know you’ve made it.

It boils down to a simple American value: a company that starts small and goes global deserves the trust of the average consumer. Like the familiarity of the origin story, there is the familiarity of the stores themselves. Anywhere you are, the glossy and amorphous images summarizing coffee culture printed on large squares of particle board hung above meticulously ordered displays of ceramic mugs all assuring you are in good company.