As a former barista, here’s why I think Starbucks’ #RaceTogether is a terrible idea

It's eSpresso, not eXpresso

It’s eSpresso, not eXpresso

As I have mentioned before, I have spent the bulk of my adult life working in the food industry, most of it spent dealing directly with the public. The horrible, stupid, ignorant public…

When I first read about Starbucks wanting their baristas to engage their customers in talking about race relations, my first thought was, “How in the pragmatic hell is that going to work? When I wasn’t waiting on people, I was supposed to be stocking and cleaning. It was my job to caffeinate the customers, which meant that a lot of them weren’t ready for an involved conversation until after they finished their coffee. And frankly, I didn’t give a rat’s patootie about their thoughts on life as it was.”

And a lot of those customers were jerks anyway. Not all of them, not even most–the majority just wanted to get their coffee and go, and they did. But a significant proportion of which made the job feel like the store could be mistaken for a zone that straddles the Fourth and Fifth Circles of Hell. Occasionally, those terrible were customers were racist toward the few black people I’ve worked with, one of them being a drunken nutbag who was thrown out by the manager after his verbal abuse made a 17 year-old black girl break down in tears.

I did have some regular customers that I look back on fondly, mainly because they also worked in the mall, and we were united in our disgust with the general public. I know this sounds like an utterly bleak view, but the reality is, anyone who works with the public long enough will come to loathe them. This is largely because a lot of people lack empathy and can’t see the world beyond their noses. Also, a lot of customers don’t realize that we’re at work. We’re not being nice because we like you, or kissing your butt because we think you’re wonderful. We’re performing happiness to provide a comfortable atmosphere to make it easier to sell you stuff.

This Starbucks initiative is also very telling of something else: the disconnect between the suits in corporate’s ivory tower and the people who actually work in the stores. I first came to realize this disconnect because the layout of the particular store I worked in was incredibly poor–it was as though they anticipated all their baristas would be 6’5″ and weigh 120 pounds. (It’s worth noting that the store I worked in still exists and has been remodeled, and appears to be more functional.) But there’s also a disconnect between what Starbucks thinks it does and what it actually does.

The classic European coffeehouse has, historically, been the domain of thinkers and artists. In Lauren Stover’s Bohemian Manifesto, she writes, “In Vienna, writers took to coffeehouses like Beatniks to bongos. Cafés started stocking writing supplies. Out of coffee? Out of paper? Out of ink? No problem. Some writers even gave the café as their address and received mail there…The intellectual and creative activity sizzling inside coffeehouses led many political and religious leaders to believe them to be hotbeds of rebellion and decree them illegal.”

Café Central in Vienna

Café Central in Vienna

I can’t help wondering if this old school café lust for life is what Starbucks is trying to cultivate or emulate. If they are, it’s too little too late. Starbucks is responsible for turning a place that was once a haven for society’s free thinkers into a fast food empire. It’s no longer a viable place for conversations that require patience, nuance and empathy, which race certainly does.

If Starbucks wants to go out of their way to make sure their stores are safe havens for people of all races, and all other walks of life, then good for them. Forcing the issue isn’t, I think, the way to go. When I discussed this with a friend who worked in another (now defunct) chain, he said that if this initiative had been proposed in his store, he could see the more redneck element of their clientele lecturing him on the “evils” of political correctness.

The best thing Starbucks does is offer a good cup of  coffee and an occasional sanctuary in a world gone mad. Also, free wi-fi. So I would implore Starbucks to do what it does best. But as a writer, I certainly wouldn’t turn down free paper and pens.

Starbucks does Paris.

Starbucks does Paris.

Categories: Food Nerd, Racism Is Still With Us | Leave a comment

Beware of Darkness: In memory of my best friend

I recently found out that my best friend has passed away. I know that he had struggled with mental health problems and substance abuse issues for years, and they finally ended his life. While part of me wants to find solace in that he has finally found peace, an even larger part of me is angry that the world has been cheated out of what this bright, sweet, funny young man had to offer.

We first met working in the same restaurant. He had a Fargo accent so thick that I initially thought English was not his first language. When he was washing dishes he put on the Sex Pistols, and I was the only one who totally dug his choice. From there, we would bond over books and music. If you’re a Kerouac reader, you know how unusual it is to find anyone who has read anything besides On the Road, and we had both already read the Dharma Bums. George Harrison was our favorite Beatle, and we agreed that Chrissie Hynde was the overlooked Queen of Rock ‘n Roll. We believed that John Lydon’s memoir, ROTTEN: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, should be required reading.

When I began to try my hand at writing professionally, a Google search revealed that my given name was so similar to an already successful author that a pseudonym was in order. I told my friend about this while we watched Robin Hood: Men in Tights. He suggested I should start calling myself “Tracy of Lockesley” since I was always crabbing about our society evolving into a corporate fiefdom.

I eventually learned was that I met him during a more lucid period. He’d been clean for about year, and remained so for the first year of our friendship. He had the worst luck when it came to his romantic relationships, and was something of a magnet for women who would mistake him for a punching bag. I don’t know for sure that any of these relationships triggered a relapse, but they certainly didn’t help. Once he left for college, he appeared to be on a persistent decline. On the outset, he appeared to be developing into an alcoholic. When I discussed the matter with his father, I learned of my friend’s earlier drug use.

One of the things that’s very difficult about loving an addict is that at some point, you have to resign yourself to the prospect that each time you see them, it may be your last. My friend spent the last years of his life bouncing around, incapable of holding down a job, and couch-surfing on a good day. I think he spent the last two years of his life living on the streets. He somehow managed to visit with me for my birthday last year, and appeared to have been clean for a few weeks. And yet, after we said our good-byes, I couldn’t escape a fatalistic feeling that that may very well be the last time I’d see him alive. And it was.

Of all the difficult things about this, I don’t know what more I could have done for him. As his friend, I had no way of having him committed. I had a standing offer to his parents that if they ever needed me for an intervention, I would be there. He was happiest living in California, and I’m very content to remain in Chicago, so geography was rarely on the side of our friendship.

Even in his passing, geography isn’t on our side. His memorial service is out of state, and I can’t make it. So I’d like to pay tribute to my friend by celebrating the time we had together. Below is a playlist of some of his favorite songs. There’s nothing I would love more than to hit the dance floor with him one last time.

 

One last playlist

One last playlist

Categories: Books, Guy Stuff, Music | Tags: | Leave a comment

This machine kills fascists.

Stella Marrs

Stella Marrs

It is with a heavy heart that I write this. But as a writer, the massacre of writers and artists sickens me and hits too close to home. What frightens me is that the global assault on free speech seems to be accelerating at a more lethal pace than we can handle.

 

So what can we do? Just keep writing.

 

Defend our capacity to agree to disagree. And, most significantly, defend the rights of those we disagree with. It’s not enough to acknowledge that tolerance is a two-way street, we must put it into practice. The right to protest, dissent, and mock are to be protected. We also need to grow up and understand the differences between criticism and threatening language. To not do so puts us on the path to tyranny.

 

And above all else, just keep writing.

Categories: Art Star, Books, Guy Stuff, Lady Issues, LGBT Rights, Losing My Religion, Make With the Funny, Politics & Society, Racism Is Still With Us | Tags: | Leave a comment

In Hibernation

Bear_Hibernation

Sleepy bear is everywhere.

I have a ton of personal crap and work stuff to deal with. I don’t see any writing happening for the rest of the year. I envy that bear.

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Tove Lo – “Queen of the Clouds”

tove lo

Swedish singer-songwriter Tove Lo’s debut album, Queen of the Clouds, has some promising ideas, but ultimately feels too derivative to achieve them. The idea of a song cycle following the arc of a relationship is inventive, separated into three sections by brief spoken word interludes: the Sex, the Love, and the Pain. She doesn’t shy away from decadent displays of sex and drugs, and manages to keep it more sensual than trashy. Her sound is a consistently mid-tempo pop, that hints at the poppy R&B of Rhianna and Usher. As a result this can sound formulaic, and at worst her production sounds dated. She also has moments that hint the eccentricities of artists like Imogen Heap and Lykke Li, and I felt that I spent the entire album waiting to cross the threshold into the genuinely weird.

Upon first listen, I mistook “Like ’em Young” as cougar anthem, and had a chuckle at her being under 30 (she’s actually 26). Then I realized she was talking about wanting guys her own age, and dissing her peers for chasing dirty old men. I think my favorite song on here is “Moments,” mainly for the line, “But on my good days I am charming as fuck.” I can see “Timebomb” bringing people to the dancefloor, and “Got Love” has a sweet groove. The Ali Payami remix of “Not On Drugs” sounds like it could be one of Usher’s leftovers. “Habits (Stay High)” has the potential to be a great breakup song.

Ultimately, it’s good music to chill out too. I think Lo is a promising talent, but I wish I saw a stronger sense of artistic identity.

Categories: Music | Tags: | Leave a comment

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