Saturday, March 19, 2005

If I'm in a Cuban Coffeehouse, It's a "Barista;" At Starbucks, You're the Coffee Gofer

I gotta admit that it's not easy being able to see all the complexities and facets of a situation. Case in point: A few days ago, the New York Times published an article in the Metro section titled "No Need to Stew: A Few Tips to Cope With Life's Annoyances." The gist of the article is that Life, or that nebulous entity they called "the Man" back in the sixties, hands us all sort of sorts of insidious — and I use that word deliberately — little bothers, and naturally rebellous New Yorkers aren't gonna put up with that shit anymore. Just because Starbucks wants you to call their smallest size coffee a "tall" and their medium size coffee a "grande" doesn't mean you actually have to do it.

You know those little subscription cards that fall out of every issue of every magazine you get? If you send those back blank, then the magazine has to pay for the postage without getting a new subscriber. You can even fill those junk mail postage-paid envelopes with heavy bond paper or sheet metal so the mass mailer sending them out has to pay extra to get them back.

You can buy a little device that blocks other people's annoying public cell phone conversations. Instead of just hanging up on telemarketers, you can put your yappy three-year-old on the phone with the person trying to sign you up for a Mastercard.

You get the point.

Now, today, the Times published some letters to the editor regarding the article. Some of them were interesting; most were pretty banal. I can't say I have a lot of sympathy for one Blake Rowe of Ossining, New York, who has time to not only listen to telemarketers' pitches, but to turn the common dinnertime annoyance into "another opportunity for creative role playing." If you think talking to telemarketers sucks, imagine actually being at the other end of the phone, stuck in the office, cold calling, getting one hang-up after another, and now having to deal with this jackass pretending to be a "suspicious shut-in" or "big-hearted Texas rancher."

The letters that really struck me are from the folks who (claim they) are unperturbed by the myraid of Life's Annoyances. Here's what Matt Mizenko of San Fransisco has to say on the topic: "I find it humorous that most of the people quoted in [the article] seem to actually have no life. If they did, they'd not be wasting it on such trivial and inane matters as what Starbucks calls its sizes. If it is really that annoying, shop somewhere else..." And Susan Scotto of beautiful (really) South Hadley, Massachusetts weighs in: "How do I deal with life's petty annoyances? By enjoying the grande latte instead of simmering about calling it a grande; by reading the magazine and tossing the inserts in the trash; ditto for the junk mail.... As I see it, life's small annoyances are called petty for a reason."

Part of me wants to agree — the fact that the Dubyas of the world are trying to destroy Social Security sort of makes those magazine inserts less important in perspective. Life would be much, much, much less stressful if I just go to a coffeehouse that calls a small a "small," or better yet, one that calls a large a "small." But on the other hand, Starbucks can just as easily make their size names in line with the rest of America...

Which, to me, is why these so-called petty annoyances really aren't petty at all. It's not like Jimmy the semi-retarded "barista" at the Starbucks on Park Row (about fifty meters away from the Starbucks on Worth Street, by the way) woke up one day and decided to change the sizes. The Starbucks Corporate Brass, the Man — albeit one of the more munificent Men you'll find in our heavily incorporated society — spent a shitload of money not feeding the poor or building schools but finding ways to get your image-conscious ass paying three times more for your coffee than you would at the deli down the street. One of those ways was the creation of a little Starbucks counterculture, where you come in the door and you think you're in a hipster Seattle coffee joint with Kurt Cobain sipping his venti skim milk double mocha mochalatte at the table behind you and some suddenly-cool geeks from Microsoft taking a break from creating the twenty-first century to discuss Jonathan Safran Foer. The well-to-do liberal elite New Money aren't gonna call it a "large;" they're call it a "large" in European — a "venti."

Now, of course, you're in, like, Podunk City, surrounded by dumbfucks who call it "ex-presso." But no matter; Starbucks has tricked you and you're buying into the illusion. For God's sake, they call their smallest size a "tall!" Not a "small," not a "basso," not a "consise" or "humble" or "tiny." No, look, I'm getting a lot of coffee for three dollars and sixty-seven cents; I'm getting a tall! Take my money and give me more doublespeak!

What worries me even more is that if you can't tell that Starbucks is using you, how are you ever gonna tell when, say, the government is using you, lying about weapons of mass destruction or dropping fake news reports into the nightly news?

But it's the same idea with the magazine inserts. I sit down to read my magazine, I don't have any intention of getting up and throwing stuff in the trash. But it doesn't matter what I want to do, the magazine publisher is making me get up. The telemarketers are making me answer the phone and say, "Sorry, not interested," or pretend to be a cowboy or whatever. Whether you rebel or not, you're still being controlled, no less than during the Solidarity marches in Poland, when the government made the laborers leave work by six o'clock so they'd all be home in time to watch the state-sponsored news. (In Poland, everybody was home by curfew, but they all turned their televisions to face out their windows, so only the police patrolling the streets could watch them. Clever.)

When I call the damn cup of coffee what it really is, what I'm really doing is wresting a little bit of that control back from Starbucks. I'm not only seeing through their facade, but in the middle of that constructed atmosphere, I'm announcing that it's a facade.

But here's the thing. Starbucks smallest size, a "tall" really is larger than the smallest size you'll get at most places. A "grande" is relatively big, compared to other coffee places, and while I've never measured it, a "venti" does look like about twenty ounces. The only thing that makes the Starbucks terminology so grating is the ubiquitous monotony you find in the sizes at every non-Starbucks coffeehouse across America. Aside from Starbucks's insidious mind-fuck, the rest of society is busy counter-mind-fucking you. Au Bon Pain doesn't call their coffees petit, régulier, et grand because society's so conformist (and anti-French at the moment) they're afraid their little marionette customers will storm out of there without buying so much as a baguette. I don't see how that's an improvement, either.

My (partial) solution involves figuring out what really irritates me in this world and what pisses me off only because MTV told me it's supposed to piss me off. I never even considered the socio-political ramifications of ordering a tall mocha frappuchino before, and now that I have, I've decided it's not worth putting in the effort to make a conscious change. On the other hand, maybe I'll try to get myself on some Republican mailing lists, just so I can send them back loads of sheet metal.