I found myself sitting in Starbucks this morning enjoying a Pike's Place with a
shot of vanilla while reading "The Mistress of Rome" by Kate Quinn on
my black, leather-clad Kindle. I was alone and was worried that I'd look
strange without either a book or some sort of technology in front of me. I was
almost tuned out when I looked up and saw American culture in its most
stereotypical forms all around me.
- At the table against the window, a man in a nice suit is sitting across from another
man in an equally nice suit. They’re not talking. They both have humming laptops
and their ties are flipped over their shoulders. I assume it’s a meeting but I can’t tell
because there’s no verbal communication between them as they silently and purposefully
type on their keyboards. Perhaps they’re just sharing a table.
- On the couch, a woman is sitting with two girls: one is about 7 and the other
maybe 10 looking like they've just stepped off a J. Crew catalog with whip-crème
laden Frappuccinos in front of them on the coffee table. The 7 year old is
playing on a Nintendo DS and the 10 year old is on her Iphone tipping it this
way and that. The woman is deep in conversation on her very own Iphone
discussing how she is going to cave and buy the Iphone4 because she has heard
it’s faster than her current model.
-On a stool to my right, a young woman directly out of a Katy Perry video in a pair
of daisy dukes with bikini on top is texting a mile a minute on her Motorola
Sidekick. Her orange-manicured thumbs are flying as fast as humming bird wings.
-To my left at the counter, a middle-aged man is reading MSN headlines on his Ipad
at what I am convinced are 4G speeds.
-In line, a 40-sh woman, dressed much too flashily (read Jersey Shore) tapping
her 'F#$%-me' 5 inch peep-toes waiting for her half-caf latte, no foam
mochawachamacallit; a blinged-out cellphone of unrecognizable make and model in
-Finally, the manager is in the corner at a table with one of his young employees
quizzing her about the menu -- "explain how you would prepare a
cappuccino?", "what's the difference between a regular latte and a
chai latte?" She briskly answers all of his questions with memorized ease.
Then he asks, "what if someone comes in and just wants a coffee?"
Yeah! What IF someone just wants a freakin' coffee, I think to myself. The
young employee, the proverbial deer in headlights, blinks at her manager with
the full realization that she has just completely bombed her annual review. This
little scene, in and of itself, could have been a Gary Larson cartoon.
I found myself wishing I knew the answers too. Of course, when I got home, I
Googled "Starbucks Menu Explained" and found there were no less than
1,500,000 results. Because really, there was no need for all of this until
Starbucks created the need: The need for "Tall, Grande and Vente" vs.
"Small, Medium, and Large", the need for chai latte vs. tea with
milk, and what's this business with "half-caf"? If you're ordering an
Espresso then you are in desperate need of caffeine. Why would you want
decaffeinated espresso? In Europe, when you ask for coffee, you get espresso.
If you want coffee, you have to ask for "American coffee".
So, are we over-compensating for being so completely un-chic or is it something
else? Why do we spend 15 minutes ordering coffee? We take it for granted that
many Starbucks are opened until midnight. We can get free wi-fi, we can chat
on-line, or text from Starbucks at virtually any time of day. How many of us
actually go there to just sit around, drink coffee and talk? I want to know the
statistics. How many people on a typical Starbucks day actually order coffee,
just coffee, and sit across from their friend and talk? When you go to Starbucks,
is coffee the goal or simply something to hold in your hand so you don’t look
foolish while you surf the net? Instead of sitting at home in your pajamas, with
your hair unkempt and your teeth unbrushed, you dress and prepare to go sit at Starbucks.
When I have somewhere to go and an hour to kill, I go there (or to a Barnes & Noble –but
that’s another story altogether) and I can’t just sit, I have to pull out the
cellphone or some other electronic that, without which I would look like a
homeless hobo minus the smell of pee.
A friend of my mothers', told me a story with appalled chagrin. She said, a man
recently from Europe had asked her out for coffee. It was a very cold winter
day in New York City. "I was dressed nicely in my good shoes,” she began,
“I wanted to impress him. My hair was done; I was dressed for a fancy
restaurant. He took my arm leaned in and told me in a hushed whisper, as if
this information was a CIA secret, that he knew of the most charming cafe just
off Washington Square Park. After traipsing around the slushed, sub-zero winded
streets of Manhattan's east side for an hour, I found myself shivering and 12th
on line at a packed Starbucks. I had wanted to point out that we'd passed at
least 3 of them on our trek but that seemed rude since he was so proud of his
found treasure". This woman is not an American by birth but has been in
this country long enough to be completely swallowed up by the Starbucks
mentality. In her mind, and I am sure in many of our minds as well, Starbucks
isn't a quaint, romantic cafe for a first date, but a hangout for people who
just want to be left the hell alone and so this setting, beside the fact that
she had completed a ten mile pilgrimage in the snow, wasn't appropriate for
In Paris, young, beautiful people in Gucci and Prada are sitting on lovely
wrought iron chairs with intricate designs at their quaint, street-side cafes
drinking plain old espressos with whole milk out of actual porcelain cups (with
saucers) while holding a sugar cube between their teeth and having a
conversation with another human – face to face. Multitasking at its finest.
They've no need for 2-mile long names for coffee because coffee isn't the goal.
I finally make it out of Starbucks 2 hours later. I notice that there is a
basket with yellowed Miami Heralds by the door. The date on the top page reads
February 3, 2009.