In the Belly of the Beast

Photo Credit: Brainless Angel. Licensed cc-by-sa

Photo Credit: Brainless Angel. Licensed cc-by-sa

Yes, I have a shameful secret; well don’t we all? Some secrets are the result of mistakes made through youthful exuberance. Others are passed on to us by our families, whispered in the darkness of a midnight car ride or muttered over one too many whiskies.

In my case, this serious mistake took place in the early nineties. When I graduated from engineering school way back in 1978, the myth of a job for life was just starting to show some wear and tear. I started off OK, working for Calgary Power and then moving on to working for HOPE Petroleum.

This is where the dream went awry. HOPE didn’t do so well, which is pretty pathetic when you think about how easy it is to sell fossil fuels. After leaving this company, I ended up working on a Master of Engineering degree. This period of academic still water passed and I ended up in the rapids of iffy employment, working for one company after another. Some of them went bust and I was laid off or I quit on my own, looking for that employment El Dorado of high pay, interesting work and congenial coworkers.

I don’t want to make myself sound the martyr here. I was always looking for that greener grass, wanting to climb faraway hills whose misty heights promised delightful surprises. And so it was that I came to rest in Vancouver after some months of personal trials that left me unemployed and unemployable.

I was living with the delightful Ms. D in a one-bedroom apartment. The job market was in one of its periodic slumps and I couldn’t even sell myself by the pound. The few interviews I managed to snag went nowhere.

So I applied to work at Starbucks. Yes, sad as it is, I went to work for the Beast. I just wanted to make a few bucks and do something that got me out of the apartment for a few hours a day. Starbucks had not yet acquired a reputation of being the homogenizer of all things coffee, pandering to people who want everything but the kitchen sink in their coffee beverage.

Oh yeah, we had lowfat lattes and decaf versions of espresso, all that nonsense. Even then, someone would come in and rip off a paragraph of drink description that we, the baristas, were expected to adhere to in every respect. Never mind we had six equally complicated orders ahead of theirs. Our manager demanded that we keep all this in our heads. I was reprimanded on several occasions after asking my coworkers to write the orders on down on each cup. This was just not done.

On the whole, Starbucks wasn’t a bad place to work. Company managers mouthed all the platitudes about treating employees right and making sure they got decent pay. They built a whole culture around coffee and how it should be served; I remember going to training sessions on how to make espresso, various types of coffees, where they came from and Starbucks’ various products.

A lot of gay men seemed to work at Starbucks. In fact, it sometimes felt like a qualification for the job. It was one of the first questions I was asked by my coworkers when I started working there. Turns out I’m not, but I always thought that they didn’t really believe me—as though I was in denial about my gay-ness.

By training and experience, I am a “professional” and I still clung to the notion that I was just moonlighting for a while until something better came along. Somehow I was a cut above these people working in a dead end job. But aside from background and age, my coworkers weren’t all that different from me. Some of them had degrees in the soft subjects, had traveled around a lot and were just using this as an interval while they got things going in their lives.

But it’s easy to let the time slide by and find that you’re stuck in this job and the only prospect of change is a similar job at another place. At some point, you wonder where the time went.

I lasted three months. For lots of reasons, I don’t do well in retail. I got reprimanded for not being sufficiently obsequious to a customer (I can’t even remember what it was I said). Then I started getting job interviews again and within a couple of months, I was back on the professional chain gang. For me, my time at Starbucks is a memory that causes me to laugh uneasily and quickly change the subject.

The purveyors of coffee experiences (Second Cup, whoever) want to make it seem that you can go to their place, have a cuppa java, relax with a paper or listen to piped in light jazz.

And that’s what consumers want. But you better deliver their relaxation in a hurry ’cause they only have a half hour in which to enjoy it. And because you’re on the bottom of the working totem pole, customers don’t have any compunction about complaining to your boss.

So when you’re standing in a lineup at your local coffee joint, steaming hotter than the espresso machine ’cause the teenager serving you seems a little dim and slow, remember what they taught us at Starbucks’ school—it’s only coffee.