Tossing and Tortured 'Till Dawn

I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide.

Monday, March 21, 2005

It was Sunday morning, and I sat there at Starbucks - the one on Park Street, not the Ione plaza one, of course. That was even worse. I wouldn't be at this place at all, mind you, but that the little coffee shop in the building across from mine is closed on account of it being Sunday on spring break for the university, and the effort required to walk a mile to the Portland Coffee house is just too much. Perhaps I could've gone to the Bella Cafe, but that's eight blocks east and half that south, and there's no guarantees on it being open, either. I'm very particular about my coffee shops, you see; mostly, it's a matter of their environment and not the coffee they serve. If it were all the same to them I'd just sit in their chairs and drink some Earl Grey tea, but I can't bring myself to pay a dollar and a half for the same thing that I could make in my own apartment for a dime, and since I don't have an espresso maker, I can excuse my presence at these places by buying an Americano. None of those double-grande-with-whipped-two-per-cent Latte's for me, thank you. But every time I come here, I find my bile rising just a little bit, and occasionally I'll even vent these metaphorical acids onto my keyboard; today is such a day.

Starbucks is an impressively massive corporate coffee chain, and its dominance over the town's market is reflected in the fact that I could easily walk to over twenty of the green-and-white mermaid logos. Of all the things a coffee shop ought to have, Starbuckses on the whole have none. First of all, their product, while revolutionary compared to the almost tasteless slush that passes for coffee at convenient stores and gas stations nationwide, is decidedly inferior to several other local brands. Those less-advertised brews are rich, flavorful, and have all sorts of feel-good labels like 'organic' and even 'fair trade' or 'equal exchange,' meaning as we sip our caffeinated beverages that cost more than the entire daily income of the poorest fifth of the world, we can be placated by the assertion that the growers of these beans were paid a full, fair compensation for them. Altogether, Starbucks's coffee runs about a fifteen per cent price premium over many smaller coffee shops.

Worse is their selection of pastries. I've become quite accustomed to eating a scone in the mornings with my coffee or tea; a financial sin when I consider I've got to live on about seventy-five dollars a week, yes, but we all have our indulgences, and even though I could certainly throw together some hot cereal for nearly free, it's not the same. Like I said, I'm very particular about my location, but I'll get to that in a moment; I mention it here to say that if some coffee shop or other would be so kind as to prepare oatmeal for me, I'd be very happy. The scones at several of the local coffee shops are sourced from a few very excellent local bakeries, some of which go to the trouble of calling themselves Boulangeries, despite their situation in the old You Ess of A. One of my favorites calls itself this title as well as naming itself after a region in France, but I excuse this due to the quality of their pastries, and that they are lovingly crafted by a very, very French pastry chef. The scones at Starbucks, again, are sold at about a fifteen per cent premium over those from the aformetioned Boulangeries, but to say their quality is inadequate understates many things. Let me simply leave you with the observation that whoever provides their scones also supplies donuts.

Already, then, the chain has dug itself into quite a hole when it comes to ranking in my favorite places to pass an hour or two with a book and a drink, but what compounds their faults is the environment they provide. Typically, they're all filled in a similar manner - racks upon racks of overpriced products to sell, from bags of roasted coffee to mugs and thermoses, all the way up to espresso makers running in the hundreds of dollars. I won't bother to wonder how many of those they sell. Then, they pipe through their speakers an awful array of music supplied by a contracted, satellite-music source. To pay any attention to my mind, I've no choice but to bring headphones whenever I end up at one of these places. Another blow is their hours, though I may seem something of hypocrite bringing it up now; with one solitary exception I'm aware of in a suburban strip mall, they're all open what probably constitutes typical cafe hours, opening relatively early in the morning, but closing at or just after dinnertime. Seeing as how I'm something of a night owl and often would love a place that's not a smoky bar to sit and have a second round with that book I was reading earlier at about eleven at night, their locked doors and retired chairs pose an impediment, you understand.

Finally, there's the environment they provide: antiseptic, uninspired, homogenous. Many of my favored local coffee houses are, literally, houses; they're built into old residences that predate the businesses in their area. I find this charming, and it also means that they're usually lacking in the office-style foam square ceilings and cheap tile floors that's the calling card of Starbucks. In the name of efficiency, too, they usually have low-maintenance, pressboard chairs about tables fixed to the ground, and keep the thermostat several degrees lower than I find inviting to sit in for very long. The reason I've decided to come to this particular Starbucks is that, as an exception to most of the chain, they've at least ordered two comfortable, brown velour chairs, and the rest of their seats are actual wood that, if fairly cheap, is still a world better than the lightweights I described earlier in this rambling exposition. Chiefly, though, it's because corporate doesn't close for the holiday like many independents; their minimum-wage-plus-tips, black-and-green-clad staff still show up for work, and so here we are. But now that I've finished complaining about the lack of virtues plaguing this establishment, I may just remedy that.

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