What Starbucks Gave Us
by Michelle Thomas and Cherie Thomas Sakai
Ever since I was small, standing at the kiosk beside Papa stirring Mama’s Venti dark roast with a splash of half & half and two Sugars-in-the-Raw, I’d notice that person, evidently on top of things, who had earned a moment to curl up with a drink ‘for here’ and a really good book. I would imagine a time when I’d be older and stealing a moment in my own very full schedule to escape to Starbucks and get lost in a book. We’d walk back to Mama and Michelle who were waiting in the van and I’d slide into the back seat, break into the raw sugar packets I’d snagged for a snack and daydream about possibilities (never considering, as I possibly should have, the possibility of diabetes in my future).
I’ve come to recognize that many of my pretensions have come from reading.
I’m very particular about the cleanliness of restrooms because, since childhood, the restroom has always been my rest room, my hideaway, my nook, my study. On cold Chicago Saturday afternoons, there was nothing better than to sink my fanny into the seat (sideways), feet on the heating vent, forehead on the toilet paper roll, and nose in a book. I was, of course, slightly smaller in elementary school.
Fifth grade is generally the time in human development when sensitive children develop the observational power and motor skills to draw realistically; this is when I began to shape my identity as an artist and — intellectual. My reading leaned toward all topics British, thanks to the influence of our colonially educated mother, and I fell under the spell of another strong woman, the great Agatha Christie.
Why did children of a certain age crave mystery? We sought stimulation. Our lives were safe — we marked our hours by alarm dings and bell schedules, metronomes, ballet/tap/jazz classes, snack time, dinner time, bed time. In those precious prepubescent years, we longed for a little danger, intrigue, adventure.
Mrs. Marple always tested my patience, so removed was she from my 20th century American experience, but something about the très cosmopolite Hercule Poirot arrested me.
While celebrated for his intellectual prowess, Poirot was an elegant outsider with a penchant for banter, drama, crème de menthe, luxe cars, and patent leather shoes — a stellar role model for any brave American girl of exotic ancestry. He had such presence, such intelligence, utilizing his outsider status to cut a figure in London and establish himself as a naturalized celebrity. In Poirot’s wake, I retain a predilection for all things Art Deco and an enduring appetite for omelettes. Like Poirot, omelettes are my calling card and one of the few dishes I can prepare with finesse.
My mother supported my lack of interest in domestic activity, even after we moved to the suburbs of St. Louis, where domestic activity was highly popular. She was the one who taught us to analyze and critique, she read long essays aloud from The New Yorker even before we had a full grasp on irony, she permitted lipstick and high heels at an incredibly young age (in sartorial interests of course, not to win boys). She was the one who gifted us with our first subscription to Vogue magazine for the stated purpose of fueling our efforts at fashion design (One of her better gifts. Over the years we had also been gifted with matching berets, matching ties, denim vests; I think she wanted a French son.). We never received subscriptions to Seventeen (that scattered mess) or InStyle (too pedestrian) or Cosmo (with its exaggerated focus on sexual positions). Just Vogue. Classic, glossy, pure Vogue. She did subscribe to W for us once, but I was the one who approached her and suggested that perhaps it was too risqué for constant consumption. Stiff upper lip. Props to you, Agatha Christie.
Thanks to Vogue, Cherie and I started to fancy ourselves New Yorkers. We read about art films and went to see them in theaters empty except for very old people, we attended gallery openings in deeply sketchy neighborhoods, Cherie designed outré prom dresses for her classmates while I wrote neo-beatnik poems and stared pensively out to the horizon.
But in the suburbs, in the 90s, in the great American Midwest, where could a youth go to act out the beat life? Enter Starbucks with her siren call, replete with mismatched armchairs, almond biscotti, and warm piano jazz, a glimpse into the archetypical metropolis.
I kept building toward that moment all my life -- from the Tuesday afternoons in middle school when we would meet our friends at the Manchester Starbucks to "do our homework,” and all those times in high school I would skip class to get a Vanilla Bean Frappuccino and then sneak back into the art studio to paint. Then there was that era around senior year of college when I became so very disciplined, every morning up at 5 AM and straight to the Starbucks by 24 Hour Fitness for a pre-workout Americano. When I finished my routine, I’d swing by for another drink before school and catch up with the gang of retirees on the patio and my good friend Dorothy the Boston terrier. My days wouldn’t feel complete without my Bucks.
Everything in our young lives happened at Starbucks: We gave our friends henna tattoos, we made portraits of one another, learned Spanish, practiced watercolor technique, went on quasi-dates, studied for drivers’ tests, math tests, history tests; I explained Plato’s cave to my sister and she explained economic utils to me, meeting every Tuesday night with our friends. Then the boys started playing hockey on Tuesdays and the girls wanted to go watch and would we want to join them there instead? Cherie and I were outraged. Did they not understand that the point of meeting at Starbucks was meeting at — Starbucks? Where everyone knows your name? Where Louis and Ella are god and goddess? Something about Starbucks was a lifeline to us in a way that it was not for the others. Something about the warmth of the baristas made us want to open up to them about every high and low. We were hooked on a feeling, albeit a feeling imported from corporate offices in Seattle, but we craved and sought a sense of welcome St. Louis did not have the mind to give us on her own.
Something made Starbucks a place where arty, sensitive minority kids could generally feel safe. I was once leaving Starbucks with my father, my gentle, gentle father, when a group of men on the patio began loudly discussing Osama bin Laden, one looking straight at us, “I say just kill ‘em all.” My father tensed up but kept walking. I kept pace with him for a few steps before turning on my heel, approaching the primary antagonist and telling him quietly, clearly, firmly, “Don’t you ever speak that way in public.” I would always defend my sweet, tender dad, who perhaps looked like a terrorist but loved gardening and cats and his daughters most of all. And maybe, if this had happened at the grocery store, where customers gave us sidelong looks and butchers regularly overlooked us in line, I might have hesitated for a nanosecond. But at Starbucks I had the confidence to tell a group of huge, outrageous, racist men to behave themselves. Starbucks was my safe place, a place that most closely embodied my ethos, and their views were, for once, in the minority and unwelcome. “We are built on a foundation of humanity,” said Howard Schultz, sharing with Forbes his goal to make Starbucks a “laboratory for developing a better society.” Yes. As cynical as I love to be in response to corporate-speak, I have to say, simply, yes.
Then I would find a little solace in the familiarity of my Starbucks when I missed Michelle and I'd sit there with an empty chair next to me and think of all the things I would want to tell her. I could pick up the phone and call her, but I couldn’t reach the girl I grew up with and for that I felt sad. Starbucks offered me time for nostalgia, melancholy, and a stage for some tasteful theatrics like informing my on-again, off-again, head-in-the clouds long-time love interest that I was done. The baristas were listening in because I had told them what I’d planned earlier that morning. After the conversation, as I walked out with him inexplicably still beside me, Louis the long-winded bicyclist told me how good I looked and told Mr. Head-in-the-Clouds how lucky he was to have a girl like me. I still attribute the magic of Starbucks to the perfection of that moment.
I came across a quote by Howard Behar, president of Starbucks during those glory days: “We’re not in the coffee business serving people; we’re in the people business serving coffee. Our entire business model is based on fantastic customer service. Without that, we’re toast.” It’s not that Cherie and I were addicted to caffeine. All those years, we were addicted to a deliberate, systemic, consistent kindness.
I moved back to Chicago after college, and as I hopped from job to job people at Starbucks all across Chicagoland got to know me and my drinks — the Starbucks in Elgin by the photo studio, where that one barista never spoke but always gave me free drinks (until he met my fiancée), or the Starbuckses in Northbrook and Old Orchard malls with the friendliest, quirkiest casts of baristas who would find me on their breaks to vent about their managers and hash out plans for the future. Years later, I’ll occasionally run into one of them and we’ll chat about the paths our lives have taken — and they will always ask why I no longer visit as often.
Here I am, finally in that place in life I idealized where I have earned a moment to curl up with a really good book and a drink ‘for here’. But I don't wanna. My Gold Card is empty and I'm not refilling it.
My Cherie, always the one far more rooted in reality, has established her life. We are the ant and the grasshopper. She has priorities, and coffeeshops are not one of them.
Not that Starbucks hasn’t attempted to retain my favor. For all the complaint letters I submitted, I’ve received many a drink voucher and the sincerest of apologies. But what can appease me when the place that was once my home base now houses so many unpleasant memories that tell me I no longer belong? Memories of the aggressive manager from the Roosevelt & Wabash location barreling out from behind the counter and commanding me to leave although I was a regular customer and had clearly purchased a Turkey Bacon Breakfast Sandwich and Tuxedo Mocha; but her impression was that I was waiting for the bus in her shop and had to vacate the premises, even though the entire café was (and still is) brimming with transients who did not (and do not) patronize the shop. I have a long blur of memories of blank-faced cashiers herding lines of nameless consumers through the “Starbucks experience” — wait, not nameless, they’d check the name on your card and write it on your drink for some semblance of community. A certain blank-faced barista does ask my husband’s name — and upon hearing it contorts his face, always deeply confused by what is a common Asian name. This behavior never bothers my husband but it saddens me.
Starbucks was never a haven for him, but it was once mine, and to feel so consistently disappointed by a place I could call home, no matter where my family moved or where I was lost on vacation or to whichever location work dictated, is sad. That being said, the convenience factor of Starbucks is forever unrivaled; I cannot completely delete it from my day-to-day but I’ve reduced my standard beverage to a solo espresso. Short and to the point. In and out. Passing through.
Now my home espresso maker flips on each morning before I slide into my leather armchair for a pre-workout Americano. Our front room is cozy with memories of people I love and filled with shelves of things I treasure and their stories, like a gift I gave my husband on our monumental three-week anniversary: a photo of a buttery, fluffy Morning Bun and an earthy Apple Bran Muffin nestled next to each other in a Starbucks pastry tray because it reminded me of us.
Now I’ve moved to San Francisco, a place where the plumber winks at me instead of looking at me like a wild thing before muttering that I should go back to my country, where I have the real thing, real bohemians with whom to rub shoulders and Allen Ginsberg’s beloved Caffe Trieste, and so many small-batch roasters and self-righteous artisans with whom to flirt that I rarely visit my first love. I can take a walk in my own neighborhood and sketch Art Deco architecture. I can live out my Poirot visions, sip spiked coffee with friends and attempt to solve the mysteries of our hearts as we look out upon the bay.
But Starbucks, for the refuge you once provided us, we warmly thank you.