Shana and I moved into our first place together, a house on the hill overlooking Pittsburgh. I put plastic insulation on the windows, that ‘Frost King’ crap you install with a blow dryer. But it makes everything look milky and opaque outside and now I can’t wait until spring to tear it out.
The cafe I work for got acquired by a chain called Tuscany Premium Coffees, a small group of investors from Seattle making a play to beat Starbucks to the east coast “tertiary markets.” A few people at my store jumped ship, not wanting to go corporate. Tuscany has an employee handbook with a clean shaven policy I’ll need to enforce when I’m a manager. A guy named Fletcher Kohlhausen will put me to the test on that and I’ll have to write him up, get him to sign a warning, then put it in his file.
I move from the south side Tuscany to the one in Oakland by Carnegie Mellon. My new boss is testing me for bigger things, like relocating to Philadelphia to open new stores. I don’t know anything about negotiating salary though and accept his first offer. It’s like trying out for high school varsity, I’m just glad I got picked.
We rent an artist studio loft called The Sponge Factory in north Philly. Shana thinks our apartment manager Monica has borderline personality disorder, the worst kind. She lives right next door and plays the same Bjork song every morning, cries to it. I feel both sorry for her and hateful.
North Philadelphia is rough: the corner store has thick bulletproof partitions separating you from the clerk. You can’t even touch anything in the store, you just point to what you want and the clerk gets it for you, then you exchange money through the partition like it’s a bank. We saw smoke coming out of a warehouse and worried it was on fire, but Monica says it’s only bums cooking pigeons.
Tuscany Premium Coffee’s plans for expansion fizzle out a few months after we move to Philadelphia and I apply for a store manager job at Starbucks. I’m supposed to move into temporary housing in Washington, D.C. to train, but plans fall through so it’s a downtown Philly store instead.
I fall in love with Starbucks mostly through the design of their stamps, the stamps you peel off and put on coffee bags. The scooping and weighing of the beans and the folding of the bags to press out the air. The video tapes of Howard Schultz and voice mails from Dave Olsen, Orin Smith…the legend that is Starbucks and lure of the west coast.
I get my first store to manage and we open it two days before Christmas. It’s a three-story location with a working dumbwaiter and the staff thinks the dumbwaiter’s a toy, and they’re lazy, so they send crates of dirty dishes between the floors at night, at closing. It’s a disaster waiting to happen (or an amputation). The former business was a pizzeria owned by the mob boss John Gotti and there’s a mysterious intercom box they probably used for call girls. I have to tell the staff not to play with it, but it’s kind of fun. The idea with the dumbwaiter is to deliver drinks from the first floor up to the second without having to use the stairs. But the day before we open for business the dumbwaiter starts moving on its own accord like it’s possessed and we have to get it serviced, the culprit: dried pizza dough in the buttons.
Come spring Shana and I travel to Europe for the first time with a pair of plane tickets we got for Christmas. In 10 days we visit five countries, and return thinking we need to see more of the world, need to leave Philadelphia. Our lease is up and I can transfer with Starbucks to another store: if we pick Seattle we can road trip across the country, and live with my college roommate Mike. We pack the car with jade plants, books, garbage bags full of clothes and our two cats Pokey and Sherman. We dose the cats with valium which makes them look like lizards when their inner lids come out, an odd look.
I’m 25 and have been working in coffee shops for three years now, often managing people older than me. They put me to the test, all of them. I transfer to a Starbucks on Mercer Island, but it’s hard to find people willing to work there and I can’t stand the customer vibe. One insists on fresh milk every time: she says I want to watch you pour out the old milk and pour in the new. Some want us to add “half an Equal.” I’m surprised and saddened by what people expect me to do in the drive-thru. Handing me their garbage, paying with loose change. It’s like I’ve been reduced to an automaton springing to life every time a car pulls up and the bell goes off.
One day I get a call from a recruiter at the Starbucks corporate office looking for a shuttle driver. I’m not interested in that, but ask what else they have. And soon I’m saying goodbye again, and starting a new job.
Shana and I break up in October and she moves back to Pittsburgh. I change apartments again, a one-bedroom with a courtyard. It’s 1996 and in two years I’ve lived in three cities, worked at 10 cafes, learned how to roast coffee, how to drive stick. I finally got a job where I can take weekends off and not feel compelled to check voice mail or worry about demoting people, asking for their keys back, or changing safe codes.
I’m working in the Starbucks store communications group writing Operations Bulletins, telling baristas what to do, with heavy emphasis on bullets and bolding. Do this, do that. Stop doing that. Start doing this. And it’s funny, I’ve seen this same “Ops bulletin” format from my time working at Tuscany. The woman who did their communications used to work at Starbucks and stole the template, just replaced the Starbucks logo with Tuscany’s.
The Ops Bulletin voice is cut and dried, matter-of-fact, leaves little room for interpretation. Years later we’d try to update that voice to give it more life, to make it sound more real, but it was probably too late. Same with waiting so long to chill out on the tattoo policy and dress code. Maybe it’s the distance between the HQ and front line that makes companies feel so big. You can close the gap in the voice, in how you talk to people. If they don’t read what you write is it their fault or yours?
It’s the end of 2020 and I still have the occasional dream I’m working in the Starbucks head office. I spent more time there than I did anywhere else, almost 20 years. In those dreams I know I shouldn’t be there, it’s like I’ve snuck in. My badge doesn’t work and I don’t recognize anyone. My hair dresser Donnie still cuts hair there and says it’s got something to do with my ego, I need to work that out. I never have.
Those cats are long gone and I never made it back to Pittsburgh. I have a drawing of a manual typewriter I did when I lived there and the caption says Winter’s Playground. Some of the keys are deliberately off kilter. I think that gives it more of a life-like feel, the typewriter as a living thing. The voice inside it too.
Looking back on your life is like looking out of a plane taking off or touching down. Trying to make out familiar places below, or leave it behind. The details are hidden in terrain you can’t see from afar but with enough familiar features you can recognize where you are. Memory is like that too. Detail regarded from afar. I look back on my life with a similar feeling of joy when returning home to Seattle, circling the mountains and lakes, the tall buildings below. I can’t believe where I live. And I can’t wait to get off this plane.