Friday, January 30, 2015

The Living Statue

I stopped briefly to speak with George Tait, the Living Statue who has been entertaining Ann Arbor Art Fair visitors for years on North University Avenue. Below is a transcript of our conversation:

“Hi, George! I have a few questions for you if that’s OK.”

“How long have you been a “living statue”?

“What sort of educational background prepared you for your work as a mime?”

“Do you have a ‘day job’ to help pay the bills? Is it as much fun as being the Living Statue?”

“What’s the most difficult part of your work?”

“Can you tell me about any amusing people you have seen at the Ann Arbor Art Fair?”

“Have you ever talked with a non-living statue? What was that like?”

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

From Behind the Green Apron

At a Starbucks in Winter Park, Florida, I ordered our drinks and then gave my partner numbers for my partner discount. The barista asked, “Where do you work?”

“Gainesville,” I replied, “and Ann Arbor.”

Another barista, listening from about 15 feet away, gasped audibly and stared at me.

“What’s the matter?”

“I didn’t know they had a Starbucks in Antarctica!”

I paused for a moment and said, “We don’t get very many customers, but when they come in, they order a LOT of coffee!”

A retired English teacher, I spent three years as a Starbucks barista, dividing my time between stores in Gainesville, Florida, and Ann Arbor. It was in many ways the perfect retirement job: part time, good conversation with young people, and no papers to grade. Perfect despite the fact that I am, in my wife’s words, “kitchen challenged.” And even calling drinks back from the register to the bar can be tough: What I meant to say while working at the Main and Liberty store was, “Iced grande half-caf latte’.” But what I said was, “Grande half-assed latte’.” We are discouraged from criticizing the drinks our customers order, but I swear this was an accident.

From behind my green Starbucks apron I had a unique glimpse of Starbucks customers, at least in my university towns. My extensive research shows that many fall into categories:

1.     High Maintenance Yuppies. This stereotyped Starbucks customer insists on a “triple grande upside down soy caramel macchiato.” These folks, however, are usually charmingly embarrassed by the preciousness of their order. Still, some specify the temperature of their drink (145 degrees? Really?), and one lady asked me to make her cappuccino five times before I got its foam density right.
2.     Squatters. Frequently students, they camp for hours with laptop, books, and a drink that they nurse for hours. Historian Jim Tobin researches his book on FDR from his “office” the counter at the Main Street Starbucks - when I’m not impeding his progress with chatter. And I told one University of Florida co-ed that I was worried that she had no place to go when we closed.
3.     The View. Groups of ladies meet regularly to chat after dropping off the kids at school or daycare. I’ve never seen males talk this way – except maybe about football.
4.     Road Warriors. These vary from the in-a-hurry-to-get-to-work, identifiable in line at every Starbucks by their twitching and neck craning, to weary-eyed souls seeking synaptic recharge at Arborland before returning to US23. For several weeks in Gainesville it’s Big Ten fans on their way to Florida bowl games, identifiable by their hats.
5.     Celebrities. A trim gray-haired man approached my Main Street register and ordered his latte’. I paused for a moment and said, “You probably hear this all the time, but you look just like John Mahoney – the guy who plays Frasier’s dad.”
“I am John Mahoney.”
When I mentioned this sighting to my partners (all Starbucks employees are called “partners”) I was told that I’d missed Richard Gere and Rob Reiner. I did wait on Bill Ford at Arborland (I like to think his latte’ helped him Focus) and said hello to Lloyd Carr, who said hello back with a “Do I know you?” look on his face.
6.     Other-Liners. During the Art Fair and before home football games, the line for drinks is long. Even longer is the other line – the one leading to the bathrooms. We were instructed not to worry if other-liners actually bought drinks. And by the way, a question that occurred to me when cleaning bathrooms: Why do so many male Starbucks customers refuse to flush?
7.     Lost and Found. This is the most fascinating set of characters I’ve met at Starbucks. At first glance they seem to be lost souls of one kind or another. But each is finding a way to make do. Here are some snapshots:

I was hauling trash out to the dumpsters behind my Main Street store. I’d taken the first load down and saw a homeless guy, or so I assumed, walking toward me with two bags of our trash.

“I just thought I’d help you out,” he said. I gave him a couple of bucks – no doubt his goal – and suggested he come in and get some coffee. He told me he was going to buy cigarettes.

*   *   *

One of our semi-homeless regulars at Main and Liberty brought in a wallet he found at his seat just outside the store. About two hours later a guy called in to ask if we’d found a wallet. When he arrived he was surprised and delighted to see all of his cash and credit cards. He peeled off five $20 bills for the partners working while the wallet was missing. Nothing offered for the man who turned in the wallet – though several of us gave our cut to the man who deserved it.

*   *   *
One of our regulars at the Arborland Starbucks would park her shopping cart outside the door, wait patiently in line, and then ask for a sample of the bold coffee we were brewing. She’d taste it and then request and pay for a venti (20 ounce) cup. When I’d hand it to her she’d take a sip, make a face, and then request a sample of the milder brew. Oblivious to the line growing behind her, she would sip the sample and then request a venti of the mild, which she also did not like. This took place nearly every day.

Finally our manager told her that at Starbucks we try to satisfy every customer, but there is no satisfying her, so she is no longer welcome in the store. When customer threatened to take her business to Borders, I decided not to give them a warning call.

*   *   *
He is one of our Gainesville regulars: a clean cut man in his 30’s who politely orders his cappuccino and retreats to a table to work at his laptop. He wears a blue bandanna covering his hair and half of his face. I thought this was the result of some kind of injury – he sometimes arrives by motorcycle. I later discovered that under the bandanna his head is wrapped in aluminum foil – I could see some peeking out and saw a wad of it in the trash after he left the men’s room. I knew from studying schizophrenia that this is effective in keeping people from stealing your thoughts. I decided not to attempt to see what he was writing on his laptop.

8.      Academics: As university towns, Gainesville and Ann Arbor boasts its share of professors. The Arborland Starbucks offers discounts for answers to daily trivia questions, and as an academic, I often brought in the day’s question. They ranged from “Name the Seven Dwarfs” (most frequently omitted: Bashful) to “What kind of fruit grows on an apple tree?” (Hint: It’s an apple.) Twice I recall fairly heated arguments by customers in line: “What are the first five prime numbers?” (Does 1 count as a prime?) And, “What does ‘DVD’ stand for? (I had no idea, but the two engineering profs in line each thought they knew.) Then there was this humbling event:

I was doing a “clean sweep,” a routine thorough cleaning of my Gainesville store. My immediate project was scraping the gum off of the underside of the counter – a byproduct of our largely student clientele.

Perusing his New York Times was a middle-aged man who I classified as “professorial.” He looked down his nose at me, which from his perch was easy to do.

I glanced up at him and said, “I have a degree from Harvard.”

Without missing a beat he replied, “English major?”

9.      Assignators. It is not uncommon for blind dates, as we used to call them, to meet at Starbucks as a safe public place. And flirtation between customers in line is not unusual. Partners are strongly discouraged from hitting on customers, though “connecting with customers” is part of the Starbucks philosophy. Then there was this:

My wife Kim was in the store having coffee with a girl friend visiting Gainesville. I was at the register. I guy about 40 came in with his wife and then ordered a drink for her while she went to the ladies’ room. He made some comment about everything he does for her.

I replied in a loud voice, “I bet your wife does a lot for you, too!” And then I quietly added, “I had to say that - my wife is right behind you.”

Instead of looking over his left shoulder to see Kim, he glanced over his right and spotted a gorgeous co-ed in line behind him. He wheeled back around to me and gave me the double thumbs-up. “Way to go, man!”

The co-ed, who had heard everything, approached me with a smile. I said nothing to her, but I bought her drink. Kim didn’t notice. Some day I will tell her about it.

Or maybe not. I recently retired from my retirement job at Starbucks in order to spend more time drinking coffee. I don’t especially miss the “work” part of work, but I do miss the encounters that my green Starbucks apron seems to attract. I kept my apron.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Bird Nests

            It was a shocking day when we learned that Kim has been breaking federal law for years – repeatedly, without a qualm of conscience. I could picture her in conversation with her cellmate, both clothed in road-construction orange:

            Kim: What are you in for?
            Cellmate: I killed my asshole husband. How bout you?
            Kim: Bird nests. I collected them. Along with feathers.
            Cellmate: No shit?

            None. Collecting bird nests, feathers, or eggs is in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. There are a few exceptions: If it’s OK to shoot and kill a bird, then it’s OK to collect its feathers, which makes a kind of sense. And even though the government’s record of enforcing treaties is a bit spotty (just ask a Native American), we’ve seen enough of Orange is the New Black to want to stay out of the slammer.
            Kim’s first response was to hide her nest collection. While our friends know and love Kim for her creative and natural approach to home decoration (we also have some hornet’s nests), our house is on the market, and who knows when the bird police might walk through and call the cops.
            Her second response was more artistic: She decided to make her own bird nests. So for a period of about two weeks our daily walks did not feature cameras but rather bags to collect the raw materials. We gathered twigs, stripped some bark from trees, peeled threads from the leaves of palms, peeled the skin off of some protruding roots. We even collected a long strand of cobweb from a giant spider who was not pleased to have his trap disturbed. On one walk we found a clump of what I guess was a clump of treated human hair that had been removed from a brush or comb and thrown from a car window. We collected a few other human discards since we had seen some in nests we had observed.
            Kim retreated to her studio to start work on the nests, while I retreated to the sink to wash and rewash my hands.
            I’m not sure exactly what she was doing in there, but the results were very authentic. At one point I suggested that to make the project even more true-to-life that she build the nests only using her beak, but she thought I was joking.
            Once the nests were finished, we had to come up with names for the birds that produced them. Here are the results:

Yellow Catcatcher

Betula Thrush

Black-eyed Vireo

Lady Palm Warbler

Tiny Tree Hopper 

Savanna Pointe Sparrow

Kim, of course, made all the eggs, too

            The plan is to slowly bring the nests out of hiding, display them along with Kim’s nests, and claim that Kim made them all. But after showing her nests to a few friends, we decided that the plan would not work, mainly because nobody would believe that a non-bird had actually made the nests.

            Kim: What are you in for?
            Cellmate: I killed my asshole husband. How bout you?
            Kim: Counterfeiting. I made counterfeit bird nests.
            Cellmate: No shit?


Saturday, January 10, 2015

How to Order at Starbucks

Living in the 21st century is not without difficulties, from the economic and glacial meltdowns to getting a live human being on the telephone. To ease our human suffering I offer this guide to help others through the bewildering experience of ordering a drink at Starbucks.
Let me explain my qualifications. I work at Starbucks as a barista. So what I offer you is inside information – useful for Starbucks virgins.
Try to think of Starbucks as a large vaguely Italian club – for many of the words we use there sound Italian. A filtering system keeps the uninitiated away while giving insiders – those who speak Starbuckian – a feeling of belonging. Knowing that you say “venti” when you mean large, or “tall” when you mean small, indicates that you are a member.
Here’s what you don’t want to have happen:
Barista: How can I help you?
You: I’d like a large coffee.
Barista: I don’t understand.
So, let’s get started. Tall is small. This Orwellian turn did not occur maliciously. Starbucks still does sell “Short” size drinks of 6 ounces (what used to be known as “a cup of coffee”), and Short and Tall were the original two sizes. But as the world became more caffeinated, “Short” disappeared except for those really in the know, and our addicted clientele upped their doses to “Grande” (16 ounces) and “Venti” (20 ounces – “venti” is Italian for twenty – except when it’s not: an iced Venti drink is 24 ounces). So, to summarize: “Tall” means small, unless you want smaller; “Venti” means 20 ounces – some of the time; and “Grande,” though it means “large” everywhere but in Starbucks, connotes wonderfulness.
So, now:
Barista: How can I help you?
You: I’d like a Venti cup of coffee. That’s the large one, right?
Barista: Do you come here often?
Moving on: Let’s say you are one of those old fashioned people who goes into a Starbucks because you want to drink coffee. Not a Frappuccino. Not an upside down caramel macchiato. Just coffee. And let’s say you have mastered the size business and you confidently order “a Tall coffee.”
The amiable barista taking your order might ask you if you’d like “bold” or “mild.” Most people can’t tell the difference, so you might as well choose the adjective you’d prefer to be. I like being thought of as bold, so that’s what I order.
You: I’d like a Venti coffee.
Barista: Bold or mild?
You: Bold.
Barista: Would you like room?
This apparently existential question has been known to throw thoughtful people into a trance: Room for what? Arm-swinging? Won’t I spill my coffee? Do I look like I want to be alone? Why did I come to Starbucks? But no – the barista is only asking if he should fill the cup to the top or leave “room” for you to add cream.
Speaking of which: If you order a latte´ or a cappuccino – more on the distinction later – then you can have it with a variety of steamed milks. In most stores this means whole milk, 2%, non-fat, half-and-half – which we call “breve,” which is Italian for something – soy, or in the winter, eggnog. Caution: If you are in Italy, ignore this paragraph and just be grateful that you are in Italy.
Most Starbucks drinks can be made with different flavors created by squirting syrup into the drink – vanilla, hazelnut, caramel and the like. Be careful, though, not to ask what “flavor” coffee they are brewing today! Starbucks does not brew flavored coffees. Ask what “coffees” they are brewing (e.g., French Roast or Sumatra), and then add flavor if you want. Or not. Be sure to pause as if you were considering the taste differences among the various coffees. And by the way – if you want more or less intense flavor in your Starbucks drink, request more or fewer “pumps” (of vanilla, hazelnut or whatever) not “shots.” Espresso comes in shots, syrups in pumps. Got it?
You: I’d like a Grande 3-shot vanilla latte´.
Barista: Do you want 3 shots of espresso?
You: No, I want 3 shots of vanilla.
Barista: Vanilla doesn’t come in shots – it comes in pumps.
You: Whatever.
Speaking of shots of espresso: They are typically ordered without using the word “shot” or “espresso.” If you want three shots of espresso in your Grande latte´ instead of the standard two, then you say, “triple Grande latte´.” Or for two shots of espresso in your tall cappuccino, say, “double tall cappuccino.” Never order a “double Grande cappuccino” because the Grande drinks all come with two shots, as do the Venti drinks except for the iced ones, which have three. Unless you ask for more or fewer.
The difference between a latte´ and a cappuccino is simple: the depth of milk-foam at the top of the cup. The steaming process actually suffuses foam-bubbles through the drink in a properly made cappuccino, but that is more than you need to know. You can also order your cappuccino “wet” or “dry” which, surprisingly, has nothing to do with the amount of Vermouth.
All of your drinks may be ordered “to go” or “for here.” The former means “paper cup with a lid,” while the latter means “ceramic cup with no lid.” In reality, 95% of those camping out in a Starbucks (“here”) enjoy their drinks in paper cups, and nobody says, “for here but in a paper cup” except for Ernie at my store. It’s best to order your cappuccino “for here” if you intend to drink it there (“here”). Aside from the status boost, you will better take in the aroma and possibly discern the face of the Virgin or Howard Schultz, or perhaps a map of Turkey, in the swirl of foam your barista artfully created.

Now to the I’m-not-kidding “upside down caramel macchiato.” Almost all Starbucks espresso drinks require putting the espresso in the cup before adding steamed milk. The exception is the caramel macchiato (along with “afogato style” Frappuccinos – but don’t get me started!), where the espresso is added on top of the steamed milk – marking it with brown coffee stain (“macchiato” means “marked”). So when you order your caramel macchiato “upside down,” you are requesting that the shots be added before the steamed milk, as it is in every other espresso drink. So, to clarify: by “upside down” we really mean “rightside up.” If you understand why our small-ish drink is called “tall,” this will make perfect sense to you.

--David Stringer