Chain restaurants are such a comfort. So often they’re maligned as the blandization of America. Travel with some people and they will denounce going to a chain restaurant as though you had suggested going to a salon to have reeds pushed under your toenails. But when you’re away from home and hungry, craving familiarity and a sense of order, few things are better than stepping into Starbucks. It’s clean. Their music is nice. The dark woods are soothing and upscale feeling. They have large bathrooms and are patronized by people with whom you are not afraid to make eye contact. It’s also reliably organized into sub-categories of customers. Like your junior high cafeteria, many a Starbucks is like a walk through the unspoken cliques and clubs of adulthood.
Today’s Starbucks, on a busy corner of suburban St. Louis looked like this: at the table nearest the door, the cops. Four or five, some in uniform and the rest looking somehow even more cop-like by not being in uniform. Their domination of the tall table near the plate-glass front windows made it clear – yes, we are relaxing with our coffee, but we can see your every move. They sized me up from head to toe, and not because of my cute apple green trench coat. I can only assume this sizing up is a long-ingrained habit of theirs, but it always leaves me wondering if I’ve inadvertently committed a crime somewhere between the car and the front door, or if they somehow know I’m a recovering speeder.
A few tables away, positioned near the display of clearance coffee mugs and seasonal thingys were the workout ladies. Fresh from a session at Curves (according to the t-shirt of the ring leader), they sat huddled closely around their table, cradling their drinks and deep in conversation. Given their average age I felt sure that had I approached their table, say, to ask about Curves, I would have been received warmly. But 35 years ago? Maybe not so much. They were mostly in decent shape, mostly attractive and almost certainly with time and money to spare.
Farther along the aisle but toward the back was the I-Get-to-Work-Wherever-I-Want-to Guys, some of whom may be genuinely working, but some of whom are looking for a job and can’t stand another day job hunting from the kitchen table. They are well dressed, well groomed and they might also be trying to pick-up chicks in a non-threatening environment. After all, nothing says “I’m a good catch” like a nice wool trouser and a Mac powerbook.
Scattered in line were the working women. Many of them carry inordinately large tote bags with heavy hardware and folders sticking out. Some of them exude busyness. Some of them exude don’t-talk-to-me-ness. Often they order drinks that seem kind of not fun or a commitment to a diet. The woman behind me in line ordered a grande hot chocolate – skim – and after a pause said, “but I also want the whipped cream. Just a little bit.” What I wanted to say to her was, “you shouldn’t have to feel guilty about admitting in public that you want whipped cream. The chick making your coffee could care less and I don’t even know you.” What I said instead was, “life’s too short to go without whipped cream.”
Don’t ask me why I felt compelled to comment. From the guilty look she gave me she probably wished I hadn’t. But I couldn’t help myself. I tend to make conversation with strangers anyway, and part of me wanted her to know that it’s totally fine to have whipped cream.
When I first entered the work world I thought I was entering into a world of grown ups. And of course I did, but I still marvel at some of the high school-like tendencies that remain alive in all of us. Our desire to hang out with people most like us. Or worries – whether we admit them or not – about whether we fit in, only now it’s about how we parent our children, whether we work too much or too little, whether we make enough money or how we look for our age.
Walking into Starbucks today the parallels between our adult universe and the one we lived in during middle school didn’t seem that far apart from each other. We didn’t know it then, or we didn’t believe it when our parents said it, but we were just fine as we were. And we still are.