If culture demands a common worship, and common worship requires the institutional support of ritual, every upper-middle-class American ought to visit the original Starbucks at least once in his lifetime. Call it a pilgrimage.
After parking many blocks away and walking toward the bustling Pike Place Market in Seattle, Wash., I finally spotted the sacred edifice. The sign was a bit different than normal, the Starbucks goddess baring her chest (generally modified to meet the demands of a more puritan public, no doubt), but it still had the trademark green with words and image delineated by concentric white circles. The shop was busy, but not excessively so, like any other Starbucks in a prime pedestrian location. Though a few bits of memorabilia lay about, I am sure that many buyers acquire their beverages without ever realizing that this store claims to be the first. As such, what have they to care? It turns out that their ignorance better approximates the truth.
The first Starbucks was built in Pike Place Market, but not in the location occupied by “the first Starbucks” today. Nobody really cares. I suppose it is fitting, since we moderns don’t attend very well to origins. Everything for us is a projection into the future; the influence of the past is an ever-shifting horizon updated according to the canons of contemporary acceptability. Indeed, even the American political origin is a shock to us. It only remains in our range of sight because we still rely on its justification for legitimacy. But anything underlying that event is hidden; consequently, its appearance seems miraculous and we consider it with mystical reverence. I digress.
Nothing is sacred under capitalism. What if thoughtful people want to visit the location where the Starbucks phenomenon began, so as to better understand our culture? They can’t. It no longer exists. But how can we understand something without seeing its origins? We are left with mere fragments that frustrate intelligibility, and all we can do to grasp meaning is to create something new. But meaning in creation is illusory when we don’t understand our materials.
I ordered a grande extra-hot cinnamon dolce latte. Funny how I could get the same thing if I ordered a grande latte cinnamon dolce extra-hot, or a cindolcegranlatteexhot. It tasted great. One mark of Starbucks’ success is that members of most social classes buy its drinks. One cannot identify a person’s class simply by noting that that person is holding a Starbucks cup. Other factors, then, are necessary for discerning classification.
By buying mini-donuts from a nearby vendor after getting my latte, I immediately removed myself from the upper class. Doughnuts with coffee is too emblematic of the working classes, a la Dunkin’ Donuts. A member of the upper class concerned with his status would never be caught publicly acquiring doughnuts, unless he is so far up the class ladder that he doesn’t care what others think.
On the other hand, my madras shorts did not signal working class. My signals were crossed! One could find a middle-class family background in my respect for the authority of Starbucks. At the same time, eating doughnuts out in the open signalled a disinterestedness groomed by intellectual elitism. Indeed, who monitors their class signals at Yale?
Let me prove my point. Go into the primary Starbucks of an upper-middle-class suburb, and see how many people actually read the words printed on the cup. Not many, because those customers have better things to do with their time than consider subtle corporate marketing. That kind of thing only influences the lower classes, after all. But enter a Starbucks at Yale, and find that, before studying, many consider the comments on their cups. I have found that cup quotations even prompt the occasional debate among friends.
So, as I munched on a doughnut and drank my hot beverage, I turned to consider my cup. I first found a 60 percent post-consumer fiber sleeve which suggested that I could save the polar bears if I “launder half [my] clothes in cold water.” Feeling morally superior upon reflecting that much of my wardrobe is in color, I removed the sleeve and turned to the 10 percent post-consumer fiber cup. “We will end poverty and stop HIV/AIDS within our generation,” it began optimistically, “when guided by African principles such as ‘ubuntu’ that underscores our interconnectedness.”
I don’t know about “ubuntu,” but “interconnectedness” seems less than a solution to HIV/AIDS.
The comment on the cup is part of a Starbucks program called “The Way I See It,” in which short thoughts and ideas are selected by Starbucks for display on cups. My cup was no. 255. Upon inquiring into the editorial guidelines for this program, I learned that the thoughts therein do not express the opinion of Starbucks. The program is meant to be “an extension of the coffeehouse culture” in “promoting open, respectful conversation among a wide variety of individuals.”
This column does not express the opinion of the Oldest College Daily. It promises no verdict on coffeehouse culture. And I do not know what it will provoke. But I suppose that is not for me to decide.
Peter Johnston is a junior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.