2008-09-24

Drip Roast

(This post is under construction. Please check back for an updated post with the completed list. I know its hard to wait, but why not read the other essays over and over again while hitting 'refresh' every five minutes until its updated? I mean, WWJD?)

It's official: economic superpower Starbucks, whose meticulously uniform stores and aggressive business model have earned the nickname "Corporate Coffee," is shuttering franchise doors in record numbers. In a few years we'll all be donning tattered rages and slurping up cabbage broth at soup kitchens, dreaming of the halcyon days when pre-brewed Chai flowed like water and the Dylan downloads were free with purchase. Generations from now, our progeny will analyze the DNA on non-biodegradable menu boards and plastic sippy lids, pinpointing the exact moment when Starbucks nose dived faster than the virgin flight of The Spruce Goose. But for now, as disposable income dwindles and the price of bovine breast milk skyrockets, all we can do is stand back and watch the slow transition back to the lukewarm, flavorless break room coffee of yesteryear.

I worked in the coffee industry for years on the service side. Not at an actual Starbucks, but there are so many universal aspects to the American coffee industry it doesn't really matter. I can pretty much guarantee that whatever store you frequent to get your fix, certain unspoken rules apply. I hate to tell you this, but no matter how nice he seems, your barista hates your guts. Coffee shops are a dumping ground for jaded twenty-somethings with impractical degrees, like Sixteenth Century Shoemaking or Modern Economics of the Ang Thong Province. If you ask your local latte artist about his educational background, he'll most likely mumble a few sentences about his eight years studying Poly-Sci at Oxford and then go spit in your drink. I would advise against this topic of conversation. Better to limit your behavior only to things you'd be comfortable doing while on line awaiting your weekly vodka ration in Soviet Russia.

One must also consider the particular clientele this erudite misanthropist must regularly face: this is the land of harried white collar suits and skirts desperately in need of their wake up juice, and like it or not, only the barista can provide the espresso-based jolt they crave (incidentally, most middle class homes do not have a $6,000 La Marzocca in the kitchen). The coffee chain, unlike a full service restaurant, is only selling one very inexpensive item with endless add-ons allowing for customization (and large amounts of up-selling). The skilled barista, however, unwaveringly smug at all times, never up-sells options like syrup, soy milk, extra expresso or the 24 oz behemoth "Venti" option. Every time John Q. Customer forks over $4.95 for a cardboard cup of hot milk, he has only weakness of body and mind to blame. The sting of guilt along with the throbbing cranial anguish of caffeine withdrawal can turn even the most civilized gentlemen among us into an obsessive-compulsive maniac. Based on my observations over the years, I have determined that every coffee shop customer can be categorized into one of five types.


The Regular Joe

Distinguished by his fierce determination to prove that he's a low maintenance guy, the Regular Joe sticks with the back-to-basics black cup of coffee. Male, aged 45-60, usually of the shirt and tie variety, displays high stress level and defensive posturing. Neurotically paranoid that he is going to be targeted with an up-sell to some frou-frou drink, Regular Joe takes no chances. Maybe Regular Joe's father beat him with an electrical cord that time he caught him looking at the menswear section of the Sears catalog. Or perhaps R.J. has just learned to employ his best poker face when confronted with a high pressure sales situation, like being on line at the Coffee Hut. But as soon as he steps away from the counter, the mask slips and the true nature of Regular Joe is revealed as he demands fresh milk in the carafe, a new lid to replace the defective one you have given him, a shot of coffee because his is too cold, and any other request he can cram into the five minutes or less he lingers at the cream and sugar station.


The Diva

This self-loving dilettante knows exactly what she wants--and she knows 5 minutes before she hits the door that whatever she is served won't be up to par. Always female (even gay men never quite cross into Diva territory), always unhitched, and always accompanied by at least one adoring fan, Diva's not so much a woman with high standards as a one-act show in need of a supporting cast. The Diva won't waste time in line; she knows the menu, honey. But don't assume her initial directness comes with a swift exit strategy; like the Regular Joe, this customer goes in for the kill after cash has already exchanged hands.

While seemingly chatting with friends as the barista is making her skim, sugar-free, five shot, decaf latte, Diva is secretly preparing herself for a tour de force performance about the importance of kissing her ass. Diva's palate is so trained, her senses so delicate and refined, not even forty mattresses could conceal the fact that the pea-brained slug who made her drink did NOT follow her instructions. Seeing this as dramatic impetus, she urgently confers with her cronies on how to handle the situation, skillfully using a tone just loud enough to be heard by anyone within earshot. When Diva makes her approach, the wise barista will feign concern, even embarrassment, while begging Diva's forgiveness and allowing her to brood and emote until satisfied. When given the opportunity to flex her acting chops improvising with a deadpan, nihilistic punk who's goal in life is for no one to know he works there, Diva truly has her chance to shine. Just a tip: like being attacked by a bear, when Diva approaches with drink in hand, play dead. This woman is not looking for a new drink or cash refund, she needs a forgettable costar who won't chew the scenery. Think "hat rack".

The Renaissance Man

Memories of the '90s are, for most of us, vague at best. There are a select few, however, who mentally crowd surfed through their own coming of age while watching the MTV telecast of Lollapalooza '93 in a wood-paneled basement. The potent combination of warm beer, shake, and product placement for Doc Martens left an indelible mark on the hearts of a select few dreamers, who, in the face of an inhospitable, pop-trashy world, stand up and say "Yes, I can still be the next Burroughs!" Enter: The Renaissance Man.

As the name suggests, this breed is always male, (roughly) aged 33-43, nerdy but lacking credentials. Donning a combination of grungy, bland-on-purpose clothing (possibly owned since adolescence) and the occasional "normal" pair of nikes his ex-girlfriend forced him to buy, the 'Sance is a defunct hipster that never was. Now pushing 40, unmarried, and probably sans degree, he's molding the ever-growing chip on his shoulder with so much relish that "Unchained Melody" should be playing in the background. But Renaissance Man is too young and too stubborn to just go gently into that inevitable choice of routine blandness vs. dying alone that so many men must face. He is on a mission to unearth the kind of intellectually stimulating environment where a middle-aged man who lives alone can find someone to argue with; to rediscover the lost "cafe culture" of the American coffee shop--one awkwardly forced conversation at a time.

I have been referring to "the barista" as male up until this point, mainly for sake of unconventionality because people tend to think of service staff as female. But when discussing Renaissance Man, it is necessary to differentiate between the divergent experience a male or female barista is going to have dealing with him. I would gladly trade places in a second with my male counter-part when the 'Sance comes sidlin' up to the counter, looking to make friends and influence people. Only a dude like 'Sance would see the cold, utilitarian interior of a Starbucks as a golden opportunity to find a new bff (surely an undiscovered genius like himself), or worse yet, score some tail. This is not a beatnik-era lounge with couches, bongo drums, and Larry Ferlinghetti loading up a hookah in the corner. This is a fast food joint classed up with fake art on the walls and adult alternative music on the sound system. Give up the dream.

Hobo McScruffy

Once a bright eyed little tramp with a cart full o' cans and a pocketful of dreams; now all he has is a dingy paper cup he fished out of the trash can that's clearly visible from the counter. Scruffy's nothing if not persistent, and he'll sure argue his case for that refill price. "Hobo" pretty much says it all here. Can be male or female, disturbingly (but not unpredictably) he's frequently in good company with Renaissance Man. Renaissance Man has a love of novelty that cannot be contained by even the laws of basic self-preservation, and Scruffy's got plenty of stories to tell about how his "friends" tell him some bad stuff about that guy who owns the 7-11. Bottom line here: kindred souls, united in their copious amounts of time spent not working. Scruffy likely reminds the 'Sance that if Mike and Carrie weren't so cool about him crashing on their couch while he gets his band off the ground, he himself would be fishing around in the dumpster for day old pumpkin bread and mentally mapping out every single-use toilet in a ten block radius with a locking door.

The thing that makes Hobo McScruffy a difficult "customer" is simple: you can't reason with a bum. No matter how hard you try to keep your head above water, you engage with a bum for more than 90 seconds and baby, you're officially in crazy town until that conversation is over. And unfortunately, chances it will end well are slim.

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