Song to the Siren. (Or, "Jesus Christ, I love Starbucks")

So, I worked at Starbucks. A long, long time ago. Before I really knew what Starbucks was. I just knew I needed a job, and it was easy to get a job at Starbucks back then.This was in 2000, when I was about 17. I could do the actual math here, but math is hard.

The night of my first training session (there were a few, before I even got the on-shift book work) I piled into my little Jeep Grand Cherokee and drove south, south, south toward a store I'd never set foot in. Actually? I'm pretty sure I'd never had Starbucks in my life at that point. That's a foreign concept to me now, right up there with never having flown or never having judged someone for wearing an awful outfit. When I walked into the cafe, after recovering from my first aromatic sucker punch, the manager on shift told me I could order any drink I wanted before the session started. Any size. Oooooh. Free stuff? I like this job already. So I waltzed up to the counter in all my uncaffeinated glory and ordered the sweetest drink on the menu: a Mocha Valencia. Large. VENTI, they corrected me. Well all right. Just give me the drink, smartass. (For the record? I never corrected anyone when I was behind the bar. Never.)

This drink is like diabetes (and obesity) in a cup: Five pumps of mocha, five pumps of Valencia orange syrup, three shots of espresso just to cut the sugar. And steamed whole milk, because I didn't know any better. Looking back? Disgusting. But that first sweet sip? I was in heaven. I could have stayed in that Starbucks forever. And that was the end of my 'Bucksless existence.

Back in the Jeep that night, my eyes darted nervously from mirror to mirror to mirror, hands quivering on the leather-wrapped steering wheel as I made my way north, north, north back home. A caffeine rush like I'd never experienced. I must have jabbered for an hour about the training session when I got there. I doubt I slept much that night. Gradually, caffeine lost its effect on me. I started drinking espresso for the taste, for the comfort, instead of a wake-up jolt.

Sunday opening shifts were my favorite at my store on 39th Street in Kansas City's Volker neighborhood; that location had just opened, and when angry locals weren't rushing the doors to superglue our locks or spray derogatory phrases on the floor-to-ceiling windows, it was slow enough that I could enjoy a chai latte in a big white mug behind the counter. A berry coffee cake on my break. And the late-morning crowd, dressed in their best and fresh out of the Hispanic Catholic church down Genessee, were the sweetest customers. The little girls in their white patent-leather shoes and lacy bobby socks always asked for hot chocolate.

Sure, there were problem customers. And the superglued locks and spray-painted windows. But the problem customers got coupons to placate them, and locks and windows could always be fixed. There were guys who drove up in big trucks to order a "Frackachiner" or a French vanilla cappuccino (hello, QuikTrip shopper). But they were part of the joyful quirks of working my first service-industry job. To this day, my "happy place" on a bad day of work is behind that counter, wearing a green apron. When I really let myself to daydream, I fantasize about quitting my job, going back to work at Starbucks and writing the great (actually average) American (chick lit) novel. Not because I don't like my job now, but because I can't imagine being any happier than I was at Starbucks.

Until then? I keep Starbucks in business. To call me a dedicated customer would be a gross understatement. Disgusting, actually. I go in at least once a day for a chai (soy, extra hot, no water, no foam, extra pump), or a tea (Green Ginger), or a latte (Skinny Vanilla). Breakfast sandwiches are my new thing. I blame the Knight for my turkey bacon and egg white obsession. I've learned most of the baristas' names, and they know me*. I'm a VIP at least, a friend at most, when I walk in every morning. Last week, when I made those little cheesecakes, I'm not ashamed to admit that I saved the ones I didn't burn (shhh) for my people next door. My coworkers didn't know the difference. The biggest point the trainers drove home when I first started at Starbucks was to help create the "Third Place" for customers. A comfortable space to interact with friends and relax between home and work. I know it sounds lame — it feels lame saying it, even — but for all the complaints people have about Starbucks, it has never failed in its quest to be my Third Place.

This morning, I saw a woman walk out to the parking lot with her drink, a bright red cup peeking out from under the sleeve. Holiday drinks. My favorite time of year at Starbucks. God. DAMN! This day is even better than I thought! After they handed me my drink — black Sharpie cascading down column of modification boxes — I stayed around to chat for a few minutes, waxing nostalgic about my time at Starbucks during the holidays. Yammering just like I did on my first night of training. They were sampling the Egg Nog latte this morning, a drink I could never bring myself to try because the nog made such a heinous, snorting ruckus when it steamed. But those tiny white cups were so lovingly arranged on their little tray, steaming up the big domed lid keeping them warm. I just had to try it. Because the truly GGG barista tries everything at least once.

The caffeine may not affect my system anymore, but that first high has never really faded.

* Part of me likes to make sure the lazy baristas — I run across them from time to time — know I'm a former employee, too. That I'm watching them. That if my drink isn't perfect, I will bring it back. I know what the cross-hatch pattern of caramel sauce should look like on that Caramel Macchiato; I know how hard it is to resist the temptation to put way more mocha in a hot chocolate than the standards dictate. And O'Hare franchise barista? You, the one who tried to make me feel stupid when I knew you'd put 2% milk in my iced chai instead of skim? And you swore you'd used nonfat? Yeah. You can tell from how it sticks to the cup that it isn't skim. That stuff's like white water. And I can guarantee you I would have made it better, even if you had made it right. Impostor.