In the first draft of my memoir, which I left behind in the States because it has a bad energy objects sometimes can, I began with a scene from 1993 that traces the start of my career to its source, a misunderstanding on a job application. I wrote at the top, “Look, he has experience!,” but the hiring manager mistook my handwriting for his assistant’s, assumed she’d already screened me, and called to ask if I could meet with him, then made another bad assumption I was gay, and asked when I could start.
It was a desirable place to work. He fanned through the applications to show me how many he had. I knew how to make espresso drinks, which was rare on the east coast in the early ’90s. I had a college education and was used to an easy life, felt like I could do anything, but feared what I wanted to do most which was write, because even though it came easy to me, it was hard — hard to read what I wrote because it required more than clever phrasing and metaphor, it was easier to put off for another day.
I started a Wednesday night open mic at the café though and acted as MC, performed my poems, belted them out. The owners assumed this would make me a good manager and one day Pete said “Bill, we want you for management,” and I said OK. Then they got acquired by another chain, a Starbucks knock-off trying to beat Starbucks to the tertiary markets of the midwest, southeast, east coast — and with the new ownership came a more corporate feel with dress codes and training manuals, but I went with it: they were laying bread crumbs and seemed to know the path. It led from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, a long drive across the state in a rental truck to an artist’s loft called The Sponge Factory.
But after visiting Europe for the first time and getting a feel for how big the world could be outside of Philadelphia we ended our lease and drove to Seattle — I’d left the Starbucks knock-off and joined the Starbucks enterprise, fallen head-first for the training videos with Howard Schultz, the pretty stamps and the stories about all the coffees, the pride that came with wearing the apron, the promise of being the best.
So we drove across the US with our two cats and jade plants and my manual typewriter that was pea-green and sounded like gunfire it was greased so well and I beat it like a percussive instrument until it got damaged by bag handlers in Spain and the characters drooped, and it was never right again.
And I worked at a Starbucks on Mercer Island at one of the first drive-thru stores and handled orders with a headset and accepted whatever trash they had in their car they thought I should throw out for them, and fished change out of their ashtrays and then didn’t tip too much.
Got tired of it and started working in the corporate office when a recruiter called and asked if anyone was interested in driving the shuttle van. I said I wasn’t, but what else do you have?
And a year later I was offered a better job in the office, something called a roll-out specialist which we joked was like specialising in rolling out of bed, or rolling out new things to the stores — but I turned it down because I feared it would distract me from what I really wanted to do, write, and so I moved to France because my mom and step-dad had a condo there and I spoke some French and couldn’t seem to get laid for the life of me in Seattle, so why not?
I wrote poorly that summer by the Mediterranean, alone, and couldn’t sleep in the bedroom because I had violent dreams there, and moved back to Seattle, back to Starbucks, and a studio apartment on Pill Hill, where I could walk to work.
I trace it back to my boss at the Starbucks knock-off, when things first appeared to be going right but probably weren’t. A simple device he used to recruit me into management, he said he needed a manager for the highest volume store in Oakland, Pittsburgh — the neighbourhood by Carnegie Mellon and the Pitt campus — but he was planning to place another guy there, and I guess it awoke a competitive side in me, my ego, because I said OK, but I could do the job too, if you wanted.
And he smiled and said, I was hoping you’d say that — and we had a deal. He saw something in me I didn’t see, but I was glad for it, it took all the fear out of it, knowing where I was going, feeling like I’d been picked.
And there is a rule in backcountry navigation I learned too late, that if you’ve gotten off-route and you’re not sure where you are the thing to do is stop and go back to where you knew the way. For however hard it is to retrace your steps, it’s better than going on and fooling yourself you know the way until you’re totally lost.
When I left my job in December, it was almost 20 years since I’d started with Starbucks and longer, with the indie coffee shops in Pittsburgh, the Starbucks knock-off in Philadelphia…and as I was discussing the details with my HR manager on when I’d leave and how, he nodded and said in a really human way that’s a long time to work somewhere, a really long time — and we just left it at that.