Letters from former selves

January 1995

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.

Categories: Memoir, writing

Tags: , , ,

44 replies

  1. One of your best (yet) posts! Fascinating background on Starbucks – will be thinking of you next time I’m inside one (avoiding due to COVID – next time may be awhile). Your dreams of being back inside but badge not working mirror the dreams I had for years after leaving IBM. Something about the badge – I cried the day I handed mine over – the bit of plastic I’d cursed for years as an inconvenience suddenly a treasure taken away. In my dreams the hallways were always not-right and I’d wake up confused, frustrated. Luckily, those dreams are history (unless reading your post stirs one up?)

    Liked by 4 people

  2. “Shana and I break up in October and she moves back to Pittsburgh. I change apartments…” — This line jumped out at me as being pivotal, a major life event. What a turning point. Did you know it at the time, or did it sneak by like it does in this piece, kind of unnoticed?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hey man, thanks for asking and for reading. That’s a great question, glad it jarred you. It did us too; part of that was a symptom of being so young and careless about other people’s feelings I guess. The kind of decisions we make when we’re a lot younger and don’t comprehend how those decisions could affect others. It’s its own story of course. You can probably relate.

      Liked by 1 person

      • And you staying put there in WA. Imagine if you’d gone back to PA.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah really. I knew the first time I came here this is it. Glad we got to consume some of it together, for a bit. Mercer Island in fact! Not far from that store I mentioned in the post. But that store is long gone now. Torn down and replaced in fact.


      • Yes, me too, good consumption, that. And I hear ya. Three of my former stores are kaput too. One of them the one where I met the wife. Even had a genyoowine Starbucks, inside. I remember the first time I heard the word “Frappuccino.” Woulda sworn the dude was saying “crappacino.” Those baristas, they were free spirits back then. Would’ve been in character.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Ha ha. You Texans have a funny way a spellin’ things…I remember the B&N buckeroos well. It’s nice you have those memories. Funny, one of the guys who jumped ship at the first indie coffee shop I worked for left thinking it was becoming too corporate…and headed on over to Borders to run their music business there. Wonder how that worked out. Anyhooo


  3. Enjoyed this capsule bio, really packed without seeming so, I didn’t realize how much ground you covered in a few strides until I reached the end. Glad there’s a feeling of joy upon reaching home

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Robert. Season’s greetings as they say! Yeah I don’t know about you, but funny how much I moved around when I was in my early 20s. Glad for that…hope you’re able to enjoy feelings of home yourself before the year is through. Thanks for reading. Shout out to Finger Lakes, represent yo’!


  4. A book ought to be written by you and it shall never translate fully the scope of sentiment I carry in some of your words. What I am able to see in this is as much a reflection of my glorious intellect as it is your of absurd talent; or some twisted madness indistinguishable in both.
    I find so many arguments for the former as I do for the latter.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s sweet on so many levels Joao-Maria. So happy we connected this year, a small bright spot in an otherwise drab year. Your readership, comments, writing, unique style and clarity of mind/word are inspiring…thanks for being here…! Will reread and enjoy these words throughout my day! Bill

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Another great one, Bill. Your deep dives in your past are really working. Looking forward to that book.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hey thanks for that! I know you’ve been down that road yourself and know what it’s like. Heck I’d like to read the book about the making of the book. That feels like the premise of my whole time on the blog here. Maybe a clever distracting mechanism, ha. Hope you’re enjoying the snow!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Any story with an appearance from Donnie the Psychoanalytic Hairdresser earns an extra star. ⭐️
    Really enjoyed you stretching out a little here Bill. Reflections on how our sense of self gets coloured by any workplace we stay long enough in.

    Last night I dreamed Donald Trump punched me for calling him a liar. In fighting back, I whacked my partner. Could you ask Donnie what that means please?

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Excellent piece of work, memoir becomes you

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Howard, Dave Olsen, Orin…man, so many memories of the SSC. And Jim Donald, too. There are times I miss the place, though I know it’s evolved quite a bit in my absence.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Interesting read but it mad me sad how you had to enforce policies that weren’t your own. I really dislike when large corporations take over like that. Long live independent smaller companies!
    Your dream about your badge and not recognising people at work seemed familiar somehow. Like when I had been away from where I used to work, to do something else and escape stress, and came back and found that half my former colleagues had quit or retired. I loved working there (if it wasn’t for the stress) but it wasn’t the same, so I don’t feel sad anymore about leaving it behind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Long live independent companies yes! I can say that Susanne but the truth is I made a living off my time with Starbucks and it was great. And now I contract to write marketing for big tech companies. But I can relate to what you said about your company changing when you returned and how it didn’t feel the same. How quickly the dynamics can change, right? I’m glad you’re not sad about leaving it behind. Thanks for coming back to read again and for leaving me this thoughtful comment. I think big companies can maintain a heart and soul and it’s the people and leaders who make it so. But so many times the opposite is true. Be well…


  10. I like this relaxed reflection. Drive-thru people pass you their garbage? Humans are terrible.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi Bill, I enjoyed this piece immensely.
    That will not, however, stop me from climbing to the top of Melbourne’s inordinately high pile of superior coffee beans (perhaps even arrogantly superior beans, judging from the heady aroma) to dispel the myth that Starbucks failed in Australia because it did not sell the brand hard enough. Looking back now, the answer seems more likely to have been an absence of beards rather than a lack of promotion of brand or any shortcomings in the beans or the way they were prepared.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. It is summer and I will take a few days off to be with family. But I actually prefer to be working during the quieter, more friendly summer holiday period. I’ve been very touched this year by the kindness of my mainly elderly clients who have suffered a good deal of isolation due to Covid19. Indeed the quota of community kindness seems to have gone up throughout Australia I think. I would like to think it’s an international trend. All the best. DD

    Liked by 1 person

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