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.

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