Coffee, for me, is more than just a simple physical need, or a basic addiction. Like heroin or crack cocaine, it goes much deeper. Like water, air, and decently-written and stimulating reading material, I need coffee. Anyone who has spent time with me in real life can attest to this. I love my coffee. And this is how I like it: strong (very strong) and black. I do not ruin my coffee with weird little froufrou things, with caramel or strawberries or chocolate. These things go NEXT to coffee, not in it. (Just a little trouble with prepositions, people, work on it.)
I also do not share my coffee. If we are drinking coffee together, just leave mine alone. Ok? I want you to keep both your arms.
I remember when Starbucks started. I remember going to their very first store, in Pike’s Place Market in Seattle. I remember when they opened their first two Portland stores simutaneously. They were nice. They were fine. They joined Coffee People and Allann Brothers and others as a place to go on a rainy day to get a good cup of strong coffee. Starbucks wasn’t so special.
Then, they began to spread like a cold virus at a playgroup. And we mocked them, here in Portland, but I at least still liked them. I liked the drive-thru. I liked the dark roast. I liked the comfy chairs and I liked the espresso. I liked the Java Chip ice-cream.
They got silly. They lost sight of their utopian coffee dream, and their coffee got a little weaker, and a lot foufier. They got greedy, opening location after location after location, often within mere blocks of each other and sometimes even opening a Starbucks inside another Starbucks, hopelessly overcrowding areas already rich in good coffee options (like the Pacific NW) while cruelly neglecting areas of real need (like Nouakchott, where they sadly think Nescafe Instant is coffee, a cry for help if I’ve ever heard one).
Still, I couldn’t actively dislike them. Donn and I started dating 20 years ago now, and we’ve made that long drive between Portland and LA many times in those years. I well remember the wasteland it used to be, where your only coffee options were Denney’s, McDonald’s, and gas-station “espresso,” made from real Nescafe with tepid water forced through it.
(Total aside: You have to go to Italy, where the gas-station coffee is super-strong espresso served in little porcelain cups. Really really good coffee. Even churches serve strong coffee in Europe.)
Now, there are several Starbucks dotting the thousand miles of I-5; not as many as in the 3-block radius at the heart of downtown Portland, but it’s much better than it was all those many years ago. When you see one, you can go in, order a double espresso for here, or if you’re feeling flush, a grande cappuccino dry for here, and relax with the policemen. And that is a good thing. So, although most Northwesterners decry the commercialization and heartlessness that the Starbucks corporation represents, I don’t join their ranks. I go to Ava Coffee House or Coffee Monkey here, but I still like Starbucks and I’m always happy to meet someone there (especially if they’re paying).
Also I like their merchandise. I have some fun Starbucks mugs. And Tazo Tea is a good thing.
Last Sunday was a gorgeous day–crisp and clear. The sky was blue; Mt. Rainer was glorious. (I’ve decided it’s my favorite Cascade) We went to see my mother, and decided to take her out to Starbucks for a treat. We settled in a quiet corner, chatted, enjoyed ourselves. The light was beautiful. So I got out my camera and began to snap some photos. I took a picture of Donn in his beret with his coffee cup, looking trés trés à la mode. I took a picture of Abel drinking his hot chocolate.
I took some pictures of my mother.
Then the barista came round the corner and noticed us. “You can’t take pictures in here–it’s against company policy,” he said.
I had a feeling of disconnect: was I back in Africa, where authorities are sensitive to photography in areas where they‘re worried they might not be living up to their international obligations? Do Starbucks employees not wash their hands after using the bathroom? Are employees not smiling? Or perhaps Starbucks has interrogation techniques they‘re not acknowledging. Coffeeboarding?
“What was that, comrade?” we said. “I‘m sorry,” he replied. “I think they’re worried about trade secrets.” Which begs the question: is there a designer or interior decorator anywhere on the planet that hasn’t been in a Starbucks?
(Sample conversation: “I’m thinking, maybe it could look like a Starbucks.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Do you have a picture?”)
Maybe they’re worried we might be spies from Tully’s or Seattle’s Best, come to see what colours are trendy at Starbucks and, at a loss for words (it was sort of a coffee-colored chair and the table had a checkerboard pattern), having to take pictures to show our own soulless corporate bosses what mere words could not describe.
He said we could write and get permission. “Yes hello, if I happen to be in Seattle and have managed to carry off my 84-year-old mother from her assisted living complex and if the light happens to be slanting perfectly, could I please please oh pretty please take a snapshot of her and her grandson? Please?” He said a couple who met at Starbucks got permission to film a tiny snippet of their wedding video at the café. (They’re so lucky!)
At least they didn’t grab my camera and empty out the film, like they did in communist countries when you took pictures of the protests.
I don’t want to hate them. They really have revolutionized coffee. They have made it so that Americans in France can hold their heads up high and say, “Yes American coffee USED to be horrible but now, we’ve changed. Good coffee exists and isn’t too hard to find in America.”
But along the way, I think the constant caffeine buzz did some permanent damage.
And I’m sad about that.
Not just for them, but for what it might say about my future.