I used to write at Starbucks. I was one of those people, with their laptops fired up, an untouched copy of Robert McKee's STORY unnecessarily displayed on the mini-'Bucks table, dressed in a writer's tunic and authentic French beret (ordered from the back pages of New Yorker magazine) with a small pin affixed to it, declaring, "I'M A GROUCHO MARXIST!" The truth was, I liked the solace of Starbucks, the relatively late hours they kept, and their amazing mastery of the art of comfortable, pragmatic blandness. It's not an easy to do – you have a space that's full of baked goods and slick, poster-sized ads for coffee products, furniture busied with whimsical text-based surface design, dozens of people engaged in the quiet desperation of their lives, a P.A. system pumping in loud music, and yet all of these elements, when combined, produce an environment that is equally easy to ignore or enjoy. I got a lot of writing done at Starbucks...or haven't you seen a little movie called BABY GENIUSES 2: SUPERBABIES?
Then, when a couple of independently-owned coffee shops opened up near my apartment, I saw them as the first excuse I needed to escape the corporate clutches of Starbucks. (It never sat easy with me that I was spending my money – and a lot of it – on that lousy corporation that just happens to have sort of decent coffee. Curse your paradoxes!) I liked the new places just fine, and one in particular (I won't tell you its name because I'm not TimeOut NY; I'm StayOut NY and KeepYourPowerbooksOutOfMyLocalHangouts NY), but that one keeps short hours and I like to write into the earliest morning – usually from zero o'clock to about two-thirty or three. And, unfortunately, the other one, while huge, doesn't have a single comfortable seat in its whole 3000 square feet, and also (inexplicably) plays The Grateful Dead at an ear-splitting volume, with speakers positioned every three feet. It's like the worst party you ever attended in your dorm, presented in IMAX.
Due to these mitigating factors, I've spent less and less time at both of these places and, as a result, my productivity has plummeted and my sublimedirectory.com site visits have increased forty-fold. So, tonight I decided I'd head back to Starbucks after a nearly two-year hiatus.
Certain things had not changed: the manager is the same tattooed dude who is probably very into Rancid, and has grown into a more and more grim portrait of spiritual inertia with each day he passes in the employment of the Starbucks corporation. The baked goods still looked totally inedible and possibly made of fema clay. (They always seem unbaked or, if they were baked, the baking would have been done inside a particle accelerator labeled, "Lemon Poppy Loafulator 4000-ZX.") But once I proceeded into the lounge area (yes, I said lounge.) with my Snickers® Frappagaylord, I noticed a stark change: this place looked like hell on Earth. It was as if someone closed down a drug treatment facility for veterans and, in a gesture of apology, sent all the occupants packing with a scrip' for methadone and a Starbucks Duetto™Card.
There were smelly old guys sprawled out and shoeless on Starbucks' signature Comfy Couches™. Another old-timers in flip-flops, and covered in spooky amateur tattoos (sparkly crosses and cryptic green text running along his forearms), was screaming at a bag-lady, and demanding a standing ovation from the loungers. The Starbucks lounge was a scary intersection of Long-Term Drug Abuse Lane and Smelly Hasidic Way. There were a few white dudes who yell, "I'm Rick James, Bitch!" when the small talk dies down, sprinkled in for good measure.
The only way to truly make sense of it all was to imagine that somehow a social hierarchy had formed once the newer, independent coffee shops settled themselves in our neighborhood and, in the shake-out, Starbucks became sort of like that lunchroom table composed of The Geeks, Creeps, Dorkwads, Deaf Kids with clunky hearing aids, and Gaytards.* I typed as fast as I could, and drank my coffee beverage in great gulps, all the while thinking, "the only way I'm gonna get a date to prom is if I ditch these lame-o's and take some karate lessons."
*This kind of reminds me of a summer I spent in Newport, Rhode Island. On the main drag, which tourists shuffle along each day and night, looking for scrimshaw anklets and crab smoothies, there was a Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop. It summer employees were the most handsome, even-complexioned and congenial high school kids you could ever hope to meet. They were outgoing and trustworthy, and rang a giant, goodtimes cowbell every time they received tips from a customer. As a result, the atmosphere there was FUN TO THE POWER OF WHEEE! and the lines of customers were tremendous. One night, I was out with a couple pals and we were ice cream hungry, but felt a little discouraged by the B&J's line and, honestly, because we were never really the clean-cut winners when we were in high school ourselves, we resented the good times at B&J's just a little bit, and didn't fully trust Team Handsome.
Then one of my friends remembered another ice cream shop just down the road – they sold Hershey® Brand ice cream and the shop was called – oh man, I have no idea what it was called which goes a long way to understanding how unpopular it was for tourists. In fact, it was almost entirely empty, except for the staff of the most awkward theater dorks with the most tremendous unfortunately placed fat deposits and the most irrepressible facial moles and acne explosions. As soon as we crossed their shop's threshold, they began putting on an embarrassing and desperate show of service for us, complete with "funny" voices from Monty Python and Austin Powers. When we told them how long the lines were at B&J's, they immediately seized on it and launched into a diatribe against the B&J's staff that was so long and thorough it might have actually been rehearsed – or at least involuntarily memorized through knee-jerk repetition. The relationship between those kids at NAMELESS ICE CREAM and the kids at B&J's (who probably didn't even know another ice cream shop existed in Newport, because they were too preoccupied with touching each other's tan skin and soft blonde peach fuzz that sticks out just above the top of bikini bottoms) was the exact same one that now exists in my neighborhood between Starbucks and the Tea Lounge/other cute coffee shops.