Saturday, January 31, 2009

Starbucks Forever

These January weeks just about last forever. The raw, gray, weather settles into my head and my mood, and by Friday night, I am whipped. I usually just want to light two candles, say a blessing (if I have thought far enough ahead to buy a challah), drink a glass of wine and make something easy for dinner so I can climb into my bed with my kids and watch the previous night's episode of "30 Rock." Saturday mornings, I start to rally: I run with our dog, drop our younger son off at basketball practice, and haul myself to Starbuck's for a grande skim latte, which rockets me through the day.

Yesterday, the front page of the Star Ledger ran a story that was so virulently anti-Starbucks, I wanted to cry. I have been a loyal Starbucks' customer for more than a decade. When we left New York and moved back to my hometown in 1999, the one thing that gave me hope that we hadn't left civilization completely was that a Starbucks had sprung up on the corner of the main drag. This Starbucks is large and comfortable and has big picture windows. It even has outdoor seating. The baristas are attractive, chatty and young, anad make me feel hipper than I am. There are piles of copies of the New York Times near the napkin dispenser, and the nice young people behind the counter do not mess up my order---nor do they insist on asking me my name, so they can write it on a cup, as they do in Penn Station.

The other nifty thing about Starbucks is that you can always find one---I don't know how many of them there are in New Jersey, but everyone in New Jersey can name one a mile from their house. You can linger at Starbucks for hours and no one kicks you out. I pay bills, mark up students' papers and have "meetings" at Starbucks all the time. Last week, I met with my editor at a Starbucks in Montclair. It wasn't the Starbucks she preferred, but we both knew exactly where it was and it was right next to a big parking lot so we both got in and out quickly. This week, I met with a guy who is a screenwriter at the Starbucks in town (he is not a coffee drinker so for him, meeting for coffee was just figurative.) He didn't order anything, but we sat for over an hour and no one cared.

Anyway, I found this Star Ledger reporter's analysis of why one shouldn't go to Starbucks and why the company is doing so poorly (the coffee is expensive, there are too many locations, and we're in a serious recession, dummy) logical, and yet, for me, irrelevant. The reporter has six kids and six college tuitions to pay for, so for him, it makes perfect sense (pun intended) to skip Starbucks and make coffee at home, or to just go to the local diner, where coffee is about $1 per cup.

I know my overpriced cup of coffee is just that: Overpriced. But it's strong and its effect on me after a cold morning run is just magical. Once I down my grande skim latte, I can get through pretty much whatever the day brings me: Fighting kids, falling stock market, demanding students, low-paying writing assignments, husband's repeated requests for a can of diet Coke when it is staring at him from the top shelf of the refrigerator...

But I digress. Another nice thing about Starbucks is that our neighbor's nanny moonlights there as a barista. Some mornings, my younger son and I walk to school with her and the twins she watches. She is one of the most earnest and pleasant people I know. A couple of weeks ago, she managed to sell me (for $25!) a Starbucks black card. The card entitles me to 10% off anything I buy, indefinitely. "If you spend more than $250 a year at Starbucks, it's worth it," she explained. "Everybody does, they just don't admit it." Daily latte-addict, c'est moi. The day I bought the card, I got my latte free! I know, I'm a sucker. Since I usually I dump my 10% savings into the baristas' tip jar, I doubt I've saved a penny. But every time I buy myself, or a friend, a cup of coffee, I feel virtuous and frugal. Maybe those feelings just exist in my head (my husband would argue that I am far, far, far from passing as "frugal") but sometimes my head is a great place to justify my impulsivity.

A few hours after reading that Star Ledger story, I took my younger son and his friend to acting class in New Providence. Across the street from acting class is a McDonald's. Normally, I avoid McDonald's. For a few years, my kids begged to go there and we allowed it on their birthday's, but otherwise, we just drive by the drive-through. But I had a hankering for a cold diet Coke, and a quiet place to read my book while my son and his friend acted out "101 Dalmations" for an hour. I crossed the street and walked in. I couldn't believe my eyes. This McDonald's had been transformed into a McCafe. There were booths with leather seats, lovely, modern brushed metal-and-glass light fixtures hanging from the ceiling, and a full complement of lattes for sale.

Wow. I had come for a diet Coke, and could I turn down a latte, especially one that was cheaper than the one I had had that morning at Starbucks? But it was already 4 p.m., and if I drank a latte, I knew I'd be be baking brownies at midnight and talking on Facebook to women I went to sleepaway camp with thirty years ago. The cheaper lattes tempted me ($2.29, $2.79 and $3.29) but I just couldn't do it.

Then, I saw they were selling hot chocolate. Hope springs eternal so I asked the man behind the counter if the hot chocolate was made with real milk, or if he just got the watered down version out of a machine.

This man was young and good-looking. He wore a diamond stud in each year, a crisp periwinkle blue shirt and a matching tie. He reassured me that the hot chocolate was made with real milk.
"Really?" I said. "Then can I get it with skim?"
"Yes, I can make it with skim."

Well, this was an unexpected delight: A custom-made, diet hot chocolate at McDonald's. I watched him walk over to the machine. He peered in. "We need more chocolate syrup," he said to someone behind him. Then he proceeded to make the hot chocolate.

Did I want whipped cream? he asked. I was on a diet, but it's hard to say no when someone asks you if you want whipped cream late in the day. "Just a little."

He took a bottle of Reddi-whip out of the little fridge and squirted a loop of it on the hot chocolate. Then he drizzled chocolate syrup all over the top of the whipped cream. I sighed with relief. It was a hot, caffeinated drink and it was beautiful.

I smiled, paid and walked to a booth to finish Kelly Corrigan's The Middle Place. I was so pleased with myself and my drink. I was reading a best-selling, paperback. I was sitting in McDonald's. The sun was shining. I felt American. I felt normal. I took a sip of the hot chocolate. I would like to tell you it was rich, frothy, and subtly flavored. It was not. It was weak. It tasted like it had been made with chocolate powder and warm water. It needed more syrup. I drank a few more sips. I admired my surroundings. The place really was pretty. The floor was clean, the ceilings were high, the soft leather booth felt good against my back and there was a large bathroom a few steps away. Behind me, a large flat screen TV silently played CNBC. This was better than a diner, and more comfortable than Starbucks because of the padded booths. But, after a few more sips, I wasn't satisfied. The best thing about Starbucks is that every drink they serve is too strong. I like strength---in feelings, men and drinks. I thought about asking for more chocolate syrup but the man who had made me the drink had disappeared, so I went back to the counter, and paid $1.07 for what had originally come for: A diet Coke.

The woman who took my money and gave me my cup was wearing a chic pantsuit. She had big brown eyes and her hair pulled back in a bun; her smile was beautiful. She looked like she was working the make-up counter at Saks. I inhaled the air around her. She smelled like Oscar de la Renta. In fact, she was wearing Oscar de Renta so we talked about her perfume and then I filled my cup up with exactly the right ratio of diet Coke and ice.

As for Starbucks, you're still my BFF, baby.


  1. I really enjoy your writing, even though the only thing I like at Starbucks is a tall skim mocha no whip.


  2. Yum, that sounds good! I will have to try that. Thank you for reading, as always!

  3. McDonald's is smart for adapting high-end coffee to a slow economy, but still, their McCafe coffees aren't a whole lot less than Starbucks