Having Tea with the Man

The music and the cold industrial ventilation noise of this place arrive unwanted through pipes above my head. The walls are aged wood paneling, like we were sitting outside by Leopold’s chicken coop home, except that you can see at the edges that it’s composite board. A chandelier is caged in some sort of old fishing equipment, the table underneath has been carefully and artificially battered to emulate the rustic farm look. The burnt orange velvet overstuffed sofa with gold tasseling tries to remind you of an estate sale find but it loses its authenticity because there are twenty of these sofas, mixed in with old dining chairs pulled up to new metal tables. The overall effect produces a slight unease.

A medium-sized jewelry box arrived last week, with a soft nest of batting tenderly cradling a fragile plastic rectangle. What would I do with a Starbucks gift card? I’ve come here as an experiment. This cafe is one of their new fake neighborhood places. It offers tea in teapots and lattes in real cups, but I have the feeling they’re trying to sneak something by me.

Is it snobby to consider Starbucks the epitome of corporate-passe? In many suburbs where they are just arriving in strip malls, there is no cafe culture to compare to. As meeting places they are at least better than fast food restaurants and maybe even a step up from the built-in cafes in dying big-box bookstores. Here in Seattle, Starbucks is a hometown hero, but its ubiquity makes it easily mocked by the young hipster artist class seeking authenticity. Or is that quite it?

Yesterday it was misting, forty, and still dark at six thirty. I was one of the only customers at the small corner Starbucks. Thankfully, since I’d last visited, someone in the customer psychology department had identified my type — Profile: rebels refusing to learn which sizes grande, venti, and tall correspond to. The customer-psychologists figured out that this subtype is always going to be slightly annoyed by this and respond with an eye-rolling “yeah, whatever the medium size is,” often in an attempt to provoke a genuinely human conversation. It is better for sales to instead either play along or make the drink without admonishment, leaving the customer room to assume that they are engaging in a small defiance of the man, even as they hand their money over. They must be reading Seth Godin a little. — Thankfully they also had trained the baristas not to respond in a nasal, didactic tone with “do you mean venti?” My order of a “medium” Earl Grey passed without comment.

I asked “for here,” but my tea came in two nested paper cups, a plastic lid and cardboard sleeve. They don’t do tea well, how do you keep it from over steeping? I perched at the window bench and started to write. Three baristas, all about my age, kept up a running patter. Each customer was greeted with “what can I get started for you this morning?!” as if the customer was the only other person in the world, and each in turn brightened, feeling special, though the same line had been used on the guy who’d walked in a minute earlier.

Regulars were served “the usual?” and encouraged to recount their weekends. Though all were well received, the only story that made me listen was about a date. It started with a drink at the bar across from his apartment, and then they had “gone back to his place and sang songs together at the piano.” Leaving, the dater was almost skipping with happiness across the street with his coffee. The whole place brightened, everyone left in line was smiling, and there was lots of cooing from the baristas.

At seven fifteen the sky was lightening and I was still the only one sitting; everyone else was fueling on the go. Repeated crashing from outside: one of the metal chairs on the patio was being hefted overhead and slammed to the ground. A rolling suitcase was plonked down on the table, a laptop case on top of that. A man wearing shades and jeans with a tan rivet webbing belt from the nineties flopped down into the chair, intently running his finger up and down his smart phone. He was not wearing a shirt.

He looked like a frat boy turned investment banker, his baby potbelly jiggled under a thick layer of hair. “Uggh, close your eyes” a barista giggled, and there was some silence as they tried to figure out what to do with this unexpectedly shirtless man on their patio. He wasn’t just a homeless person they could yell at and shoo away. He was the owner of expensive electronics which afforded him some status; he would need a more carefully reasoned approach.

Perhaps he was here on business, still drunk after a Sunday night’s revels. Behind the bar “it’s private property” was parroted back and forth in indignant agreement. After some time for the drawing up of courage, one marched outside. Confrontation, she delivers her line, a short exchange we all wish we could hear, and she returns. He’s popping earbuds out and leaning forward, getting up, and his shirt goes on. Then surprisingly she’s delivering him a plastic lidded cup of water, and he walks away with it, transformed. With a shirt and a casually slung laptop bag, he could have been any guy on the street. The story of her triumph poured out: “and I said: ‘you have to order something’ and he was like ‘okay I’m just using your wi-fi lady, but I’ll take a water’ and I was like ‘water’s free so that’s not an order’ and he said ‘bring me some water and I’ll leave’ so I did!”

Is meeting to talk over drinks inherently good? Does it have to be done in a beautiful atmosphere, or not at all? The thing is, you can order your pain et beurre in French from a real person at Cafe Presse, or make eye contact with the bearded flannel shirted guy behind the counter at Stumptown and know that you’re interacting with a human. Once you experience that kind of depth, once you go beneath the surface level of scripted interactions and processed food and industrially concocted coffee, it becomes impossible to go back.

To people who haven’t gone deep, we may seem arrogant, that somehow we (and not they) deserve real food, real people, beautiful places with wood, good chairs, maybe some pressed tin ceilings and uniqueness. Why isn’t corporate good enough for us, aren’t we caught up in being judgmental all the time if what we love to eat, drink and buy can only be fully enjoyed when it is local, independent, artist-made? It can’t possibly be worth the work, a friend’s brother argued, defending the mediocrity of his black and white pre-framed tulip prints from a big box decor store. Only stuck-up hipsters care, and they’re too busy judging everyone to be happy. How interesting. Is it true?

If you live in a suburb, or if you haven’t yet discovered how to eat, how to live, perhaps Starbucks is really the best option. It is at least a coffeeshop, and provides a space for conversation, thought, reading, and writing — the ingredients for cultivating awareness. The scripted lines from the barista did offer people interactions with other people. Training wheels for the real thing, for when one day you look beneath the surface and see that you’re no longer happy with mediocrity. Once you tried that local restaurant, indie coffeeshop, or farmer’s market, you know there is something more. Maybe you will think that it was lovely to have had such a place to meet and talk and grow, but now you have evolved. You don’t go to real places because you’re stuck up, you go because they’re real, they resonate with you and nothing else is quite good enough.