Yesterday I paid a visit to my old Starbucks–the one where I worked from early 2004 to mid 2009. I go there less and less often these days because there remains only one barista (albeit one of my favourites) with whom I worked back then, and I think he may be phasing himself out and moving on to better things, as well. Since I left that place of employment, the main reason to go back there was always to see friends who hadn’t escaped yet. I mean, I am fully capable of making coffee myself at home, and we drink Dean’s Beans which is far superior to anything else out there, so I rarely go to Starbucks for the coffee. (Although yes, I do buy a cup when I’m in there.)
Now it’s a toss-up as to whether or not Mouse (not to be confused with this Mouse) will be there when I venture in, and although I know some of the newer baristas on a “passing acquaintance” level, what I usually find when I go in there anymore are a bunch of sort of uneasy memories. There were some great things about my barista era, and some painful things, too, and now that I’m married to my Paul and living in Our Town, and there’s another Starbucks that’s closer (remember, I’m in New England, where Dunkin Donuts is king–for some reason–so “close” Starbuckses are not a foregone conclusion), where one of my former colleagues is the manager no less, it just feels “safer” (and easier) to go to that one if I ever have a hankering for a coffee shop moment. But I went into my old Starbucks yesterday because they had just had a long overdue remodel, and I was curious to see what it looked like.
It looks great. It’s always been kind of a dark store, and it might be darker now, but it’s less dingily dark and more artsily dark, if you get what I mean. The barista who took my order, and whom I know slightly from back when he and I existed on opposite sides of the counter, asked me what I thought of the new surroundings. Because there was a queue behind me and I didn’t want to go into a long description of how there have been many other times in my life where a location which had formerly been my life was redesigned beyond recognition and that that always kicks in the nostalgia, and because it actually does look very nice in there, I said, “I love it! It definitely makes a lot more sense.” I meant that the front of store layout no longer leaves the customers as tangled huddled masses crammed into the doorway, but pulls them away from the doorway and strings them along the length of the store in an actual line instead.
“Yeah,” said the Slightly Known Barista, “It makes more sense for you.” It was an inclusive, and yet oh-so-exclusive you. He meant you the customers. And that, more than the drastically altered surroundings, was what gave me the all-too-familiar “you can’t go home again” feeling. When you work directly with the public in any form, but maybe especially when there is something physical like a counter separating you, a pretty extreme Us/Them mentality springs up. There are always lovely customers, but it’s the monstrous customers (of whom there usually seem to be a lot more) who help to create this culture, and even though I haven’t been behind the counter at this or any other Starbucks in four years, I think I still sort of saw myself as an honorary barista.
What I really am is that annoying customer who knows all the trade secrets well enough to call you out on them. Like that time I went to the Starbucks in Our Town and the girl making my mother’s and my lattes ran out of steamed milk with which to top off mine so that there was about an inch of emptiness at the top of the (already small) cup. She just lidded it and handed it off as if she thought I hadn’t seen her do that, or as if I wouldn’t care, or as if I were a know-nothing customer who would just lie down and take it. I took the lid off and said, “Excuse me, could you please top this off?” It’s okay, barista-girl. I’m willing to wait for you to steam some more milk. I paid good money for this, even if it did come off a little plastic gold-coloured card. (Okay, so maybe I still go to Starbucks sort of regularly . . . )
The Slightly Known Barista didn’t have any ire in his tone of voice when he made his us/them-y comment–just maybe a put-upon tone over the fact that Corporate had once again not taken the needs of its baristas into account. (There’s an us/them, there, too.) It did look a little narrow back there . . . but I seem to remember its already being pretty squeezy in the old days, too, and am not convinced there was really such a difference. Ire or not, though, when he said that (“It’s better for you“), I heard his unspoken observation that, no, I am no longer a barista. I cannot know how they suffer.
In some ways, I guess he’s right. I no longer have to spend hours crammed with four other people into veal-like quarters, proffering unnecessities to entitled-acting patrons. Ever since Starbucks I have said that every human being should spend at least six months in retail or customer service so they can learn to treat other such people like humans, and I spent almost six years there and am happy enough not to be there anymore. But I think I remember what barista “suffering” is. I also know I could have marked my drink correctly and made that green tea lemonade way better than the one they handed off to me. And I would have asked how many “n’s” to put in the Jenn.
Have you ever worked retail/customer service? What’s your us/them? Do you think everyone should be conscripted into such service, like the military in some countries, or am I just being ridiculous?