Have you ever formed homicidal thoughts while sipping that dark roast panacea at Starbucks? Me neither, I guess. I do get conflicting thoughts about the human condition, however, as I sit there gazing at the cappuccino freaks, espresso geeks, and caffeine fiends lining up to nudge their snout in the trough. I alternately feel like Dr. Hoffmann on a bicycle or Mr. Kurtz at the innermost station. In one moment I’m bedazzled by the kaleidoscope of absurd, featherless biped mammals who parade before me spouting off on the latest office gossip. In the next minute I’m a deranged Marlon Brando wanting to decorate my sanctuary with their dangling, rotting corpses. It must be something in my drink.
At other times still I fancy myself a safari hunter espying the wildebeests, rhinos, and zebras at the waterhole. Take for example the condescending, wristwatch-conscious gentleman on his way to some boardroom meeting, eyeballing the young barista, making sure the poor girl does not deviate from his specific instructions. “No, no, no, sweetheart. I said I wanted only one extra shot and skim milk with just a splash of sugar-free vanilla syrup, not two shots and 2%. And I wanted a Grande in a Venti cup. Obviously I don’t want room for cream. I don’t understand what’s so difficult here.”
What about the soccer mom who has evidently glued her Blackberry to her ear. Why should I finish off my Orhan Pamuk novel when I can learn about her sister’s pituitary gland or the fun she had in spraying various shower gels on her arms and face at Bath & Body Works? I also assume that she was trying to break a Guinness world record on the number of words she could stuff into a ten-minute phone conversation. Once in a while she would start whispering loudly, presumably about something she construed to be more personal, like Jerrold’s internet porn addiction. As her non-mellifluous voice resonated throughout the coffee shop, all I could think about was whether Jer-Bear was her son or husband.
The ubiquitous Starbucks logo has in a way replaced the double arches as the cultural symbol of the American imperium. More fundamentally, the coffee franchise has become the priestly tent wherein we perform the central rite of our secular religion. To the propitious gods of materialism, prosperity, success, debt, and good intentions we pour libations over the altar, the barista counter, and utter our Italic mantras: Venti, Grande, Espresso in nomine sanctu pecuniae. The heavenly aroma seals our communal solidarity.
I am exempt of course from these morose musings, for I am the Enlightened One traversing the narrow road—a bodhisattva who has temporarily relinquished paradise to bring other souls along the path. That’s not entirely true. Actually, I fell asleep in the coffeehouse sofa chair again and, in a new version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, have awakened as another benumbed automaton of contemporary bourgeois culture in America. Alas! Those fair trade coffee beans have seduced me, not a large seed pod forming an alien version of me.
In those rare moments of moral clarity I damn Starbucks and its imitators. I curse their five-dollar coffee, their pastry poisons, and the hapless caffeine mongers they entice. Perhaps customers will die of cancer from their cell phones or of high blood pressure from their dead-eye mochas. Such hopes give me only small consolation. I guess I lied about homicidal thoughts. Barista, pour me another cup and set sail this lugubrious soul on a sea of dark brown oblivion.