At a Starbucks in Winter Park, Florida, I ordered coffee and then gave my partner number for my employee discount. The barista asked, “Where do you work?”
“Gainesville,” I replied, “and Ann Arbor.”
Another barista, listening from about fifteen feet away, gasped audibly and stared at me.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“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!”
I recently spent three years as a Starbucks barista, dividing my time between stores in Gainesville, Florida, and Ann Arbor, where I taught English at Huron High for thirty-one years. 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.” Even calling drinks back from the register to the bar could be tough: once, while working at the Main and Liberty store, a customer asked for an “iced grande half-caf latte.” The order I relayed was, “grande half-assed latte.” We are discouraged from criticizing the drinks our customers order, and I swear this was an accident.
While wearing my green Starbucks apron, I had a unique glimpse of Starbucks customers in two university towns. My extensive research shows that many fall into categories:
High-Maintenance Yuppies. This stereotyped Starbucks customer insists on a “triple grande upside-down soy caramel macchiato.” These folks are usually charmingly embarrassed by the preciousness of their orders. 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.
Squatters. They camp with laptop, books, and a single drink that they nurse for hours. Most are students, but historian Jim Tobin researches his book on FDR from his “office” at the counter at the Main Street Starbucks–and is no doubt progressing better now that I’m no longer impeding his progress with chatter.
The View. Groups of women meet regularly to chat after dropping off the kids at school or day care. I’ve never seen men talk this way–except maybe about football.
Road Warriors. These have several subspecies. Those in a hurry to get to work are identifiable in line at every Starbucks by their twitching and neck craning. Others are weary-eyed souls seeking synaptic recharge, pulling off briefly at Arborland before returning to US-23. For several weeks in Gainesville it’s Big Ten fans on their way to Florida bowl games, identifiable by their hats.
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 “partners”), I was told that I’d missed Richard Gere and Rob Reiner. I did wait on Bill Ford at Arborland.
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?
Lost and Found. This is the most fascinating set of characters I 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 the Main and Liberty 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 on Main 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 (twenty-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. She threatened to take her business to Borders. I hope her move was unrelated to the store’s closing.
One of our Gainesville regulars was a clean-cut man in his thirties who politely ordered his cappuccino and retreated to a table to work at his laptop. He wore a blue bandanna covering his hair and half of his face. He sometimes arrived by motorcycle, and at first I thought this was the result of some kind of injury. But one day I noticed aluminum foil peeking out from under the bandanna, and another time I found a wad of it in the trash after he left the men’s room. Some people with schizophrenia cover their heads with foil to keep others from stealing their thoughts. I decided not to attempt to see what he was writing on his laptop.
Academics: As university towns, Gainesville and Ann Arbor boast their share of professors. The Arborland Starbucks offers discounts for answers to daily trivia questions, and 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 about the question: “What are the first five prime numbers?” (“Does one 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 the underside of the counter–a by-product 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?”