memories

Starbucks: the first job I loved.

The first real job I had was in a fur shop. I can't have been older than 15, and my next-door neighbors owned the shop. I spent a summer sitting on a stool, behind a counter. Occasionally greeting a customer, taking her coat, entering her information in the computer and tagging the coat for warm-weather storage. But mostly chatting on AOL Instant Messenger.

 

But the first real job I ever loved was at Starbucks.

On the first night of training, they told me to order any drink I wanted, and I'd never had an espresso before. I feared coffee, so I ordered what seemed to be the sweetest item on the menu: Mocha Valencia. Five pumps of mocha syrup, five pumps of orange syrup, whole milk and three shots of espresso that barely made a dent in all the sugar.

My Jeep flew down State Line Road back home to the Kansas side that night, my hands shaking on the leather-wrapped wheel.

I learned how many pumps went in a grande, how many shots in a Venti. The numbers: 18 to 23 seconds for a usable shot, 180 degrees for satisfactorily steamed milk. A nitrogen cartridge, heavy whipping cream and six pumps of vanilla syrup to make the whipped cream that still sends me into a Pavlovian fit.

 

My store was brand new, in a beautiful neighborhood of Kansas City that was largely uncharted territory for chains, and the residents let us know we weren't welcome.

They spray painted the windows. They superglued our locks. They left threatening fliers on fluorescent copier paper. They walked past, all nose rings and sleeve tattoos, always sneering and often flipping us off as we minded our own business behind the bar.

 

A man came in one night and stole our tip jars. I don't remember him flashing a gun, but I do remember we'd turned on opera that night to clean before we closed, and my supervisor had gone in the back to count the tills. I was as scared then as I've ever been.

I also remember my hair after every shift, brown water swirling down the drain as I washed the day out. I remember my coffee- and milk-stained aprons because they're still in a kitchen drawer, starched to this day and emblazoned with that unchanged image of the brand's signature Siren.

I remember my first chai, and spending my breaks sitting with a huge mug of it — and a piece of coffee cake — every Sunday before the after-church crowd came in.

I remember, too, discovering how much I love people. At 17 years old.

 

Starbucks didn't have its names-on-cups corporate policy in place yet, and because I worked so infrequently, I never grew to know any of my regulars — if there were any. But the couple of minutes I had with each person as I rang them up or made their drink — that little chance to say hello and give a smile, or hear about their day if they were awake enough — amazing.

Even if we screwed a drink up, handing over a coupon for a free drink that cost us nothing but meant everything to the person we'd just made it up to? Again: amazing.

And I got to know my coworkers. Especially Brian, a bald-headed poet who I still call my friend today. He introduced me to LiveJournal, where I started my first blog, and later to Kat, the woman he would later marry and have a gorgeous child with.

 

Today, that Starbucks in the neighborhood of hip antagonists always has a line, and those baristas know their loyal customers just like my baristas know me.

Today, I still find myself saying "we" when I talk about the corporation. I still remember the number I punched in to track my hours and get my employee drink discount, and I could still probably make most of the drinks in my sleep.

Today, chai still tastes like warm, spiced heaven, and I still think about going back to work at Starbucks on days when I'm plagued with writer's block or crave human interaction.

And most of all, today, I still look for ways to delight people as much as I knew I could then with a green and white cup full of their particular brand of caffeinated poison.

It's not as easy as it was then, but even on the days I fail at first, there's usually enough caffeine and hope in me to keep trying.

My blue period.

Before every new school year, no matter how much remained of my stockpile from the previous year, my mother and I would make a pilgrimage to the office store to buy a fresh batch of school supplies. Every class in every grade had its own list, but the items on those lists were open to a certain degree of interpretation.
For a few years, it was Lisa Frank pocket folders. Later, I lusted for a Trapper Keeper — but my school had banned them for their noisy Velcro closures. We bought spiral-bound notebooks in different colors for each subject, college-rule loose-leaf paper and binders with clear plastic sleeves so I could design my own covers.
My taste in writing utensils grew with me, starting with Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils that smudged instantly as my left hand dragged across the page. In high school, my cramped cursive demanded the finest point, in Pilot’s deepest blue ink. I upgraded to mechanical pencils, with lead so skinny they snapped under any pressure, when I became one of the hot-shot eighth graders who took geometry at the high school.
Unrelated: We took our own bus back to the middle school after the high school’s first hour was over; my best friend and I sat in the back and drew signs that said, “HONK IF YOU LIKE CHOCOLATE” then lamented that all the commuters had lost their taste for cacao.)

And then there were the crayons.
In that yellow box covered with black squiggles and that round, squatty Crayola font.
Once upon a time, cardboard-backed, disposable children’s storybooks outnumbered trashy tabloids in grocery store checkout aisles — and there were coloring books, too. With monochromatic shells of characters that sprang to life as I turned their shirts red and hair…purple. Actually, that’s a lie. As free spirited as I’d like to think myself, I was always a rational, realistic little girl. And I hadn’t learned about punk yet.
I learned a coloring strategy from my father — not something he actively taught me but that I saw him do, like most of the lessons I’ve taken from him: Trace the crayons, pressing hard, along the page’s black outlines, then fill in the lines with a lighter shading in the same color. I felt like a real artist when I stood back from the refrigerator to admire my finished work: how grown-up, how beautiful it looked. And clearly, the artistic bug that bit me as a child has crawled out of my system altogether now.
Class supply lists never called for more than the basic box (few projects, let alone the simple minds of most children, would ever call for the nuanced shades that more than 24 could provide). But it was the box of 64 crayons — with the sharpener on the back and a top that flipped open like a display case — that grabbed me. Hell, it grabbed every kid; it was the Cadillac of crayon packages. You never knew you needed four different kinds of pinkish-red until you saw them lined up there, each blushing in its own way. Over time, the distinction between Raw Sienna and Burnt Sienna became abundantly, laughably clear. In a corner of the box, there were metallics, always reserved for special occasions: holiday cards, the glint of a princess’ precious jewelry. And white? Never necessary unless you were working in a truly advanced medium. Like black construction paper. Still, it was there.
As the years passed and I moved farther from the creative pursuits of elementary school, I came to love English and chemistry instead, and my supply lists ceased to include crayons. But I’ve always loved them: the tiny colored dots along the cardboard box top of a new package; the perfectly aligned, flattened points of the rainbow of colors. The matte paper wrapping that matched the shiny wax perfectly. Wondering why I had to push harder to get the same intensity from Cornflower as I did from, say, Periwinkle. I wonder now why I would even want to demand that same intensity of poor, watery Cornflower.
More than all these things, I remember when Crayola introduced Cerulean in 1990. (I was 7.)
I woke up yesterday thinking about it.
Specifically? The first time I picked up Cerulean, wondering how even to say the color, it looked like just another ordinary blue. But one brisk stroke to the page proved this wrong. A hint of green, a beautiful translucence. A wild bird. The deepest part of the ocean off a perfect Caribbean island, when the light hits it just right. Just…gorgeous. And so surprising.

That one color out of 64 could stick with me like that, 16 years later, seems silly. But I give it credence, the fact that I woke up thinking about it, because nothing in my life seems to lack meaning lately. The idea of something — or someone — seeming so like the rest then surprising me with its beauty is comforting and thrilling at the same time. It can even hurt a little, though it must be clear I'm really not talking about crayons anymore.
So much to learn that years in school couldn't teach me — but maybe that big box of color can lend me a little more insight.

Snapshot.

I come from a family that does spectacularly well on paper. I certainly don’t carry the pedigree of some of the kids I grew up with — none of whom would have me in their social circles, anyway; we lived in a one-story house, for Christ’s sake — but from bank statements and real estate deeds to boastful letters hand-signed and lovingly placed in Christmas cards, we look good.

Picture perfect, even.

Family portraits line the mantel, crowned by an elaborate oil painting, in my grandparents’ formal living room — which is important to note, as they actually have three living rooms: the formal living room, carpeted in flawless white and accented with a shiny marble fireplace; the library, with floor to ceiling bookcases and an unabridged dictionary sitting open to the same page, forever and ever; and the “green room,” which isn’t green anymore. It’s wallpapered in a heavy coral hunting-print toile, anchored by two worn chairs with sunken cushions and smells of pipe smoke from lazy, three-newspaper mornings and before-dinner Scotch.

But the portraits, like so many aspects of my family, look so much more perfect captured on film than the real life they suggest. We wear unbearable clothing — take, for instance, the stiflingly hot, matching red corduroy dresses and strings of flawless white baby pearls that my sister and I were wrestled into before we even had all our baby teeth — slap on forced-natural smiles and contort our bodies into poses that no one should have to endure for even a second. For minutes at a time.
Just after Thanksgiving in 2007, my mother’s side of the family was corralled into that coral toile living room to take what my grandmother, ever the imposing matriarch, threatened could be her last family portrait ever for that year’s Christmas card.

We had argued, lamely, for weeks beforehand about the day’s attire. My grandmother was adamant that we not only match one another but the room’s décor as well. Meaning we would all wear neutral colors: brown, tan, khaki, eggshell, ecru, winter white, maybe a splash of dusty brick or baby pink. We would make Sherwin Williams and Ralph Lauren proud. My sister had spent half the morning in tears over what she would wear; I complained until the last minute that I had not a stitch to wear in those colors. But discovered a chocolate-brown sweater and plaid pants buried in my closet at the last minute. Topped off with a hand-strung pink pearl necklace, I was a picture of upper-middle-class white privilege.

That morning, the green room’s vaguely pleasant, stale scent of lingering pipe smoke had been replaced by the acrid stench of fresh cigarettes; my mother’s sister and her husband — for the moment, anyway — had been chain smoking since they arrived, never bothering to consider that my stepfather is horribly sensitive to it. They’d also been drinking since they arrived, likely stressing over their not-adopted-yet-but-hey-we’re-giving-it-a-try son; he was running amok through my grandparents’ house, playing with antique African tribal flutes like they were Star Wars action figures.

At least 12 of us sat for the photo, sprawled across the plush carpeting in various states of kneeling, sitting and standing, manhandled by the flamboyant photographer and melting under his bright, artificial lighting. In the shot that went out in the Christmas card, no one blinked. We held our smiles; the pleats of the men’s pants were smooth, and the women’s hair was collectively parted just. so.
Seated in the bottom left corner: me, always camera ready with the same coruscating smile. I am a bigger mess than most people I know, yet I've found I can conveniently blind most anyone to it with a white smile and a coy word or two. There's a silver Tiffany bracelet dangling from my right wrist; I wore it every day while I was living in New York; my mom and sister each have one that matches.
My sister is next to my stepdad, who I'm pretty sure she tried her damnedest to drive away until she realized her efforts were futile — his love for my mom was too strong to be torn apart by a little girl's petulant fear of change.
My mom's smile is inexplicably sincere, the still frame of the photo betraying her left hand's increasingly intense tremor from the Parkinson's that began to shake her life when she was only 39. Just before my dad met someone else, refused to work through it and left us all in a lurch that we've never recovered from.
That little nucleus — my sister, mom, stepdad and me — seems huddled together off to the side, united more than even by our collective hope that it would all be over soon.
My aunt is next to to my mom, her sister. She wears a sassy, Cheshire-cat grin on her face; her husband (my sort-of uncle) and the not-yet-adopted boy form a triangle in the middle. Her husband looks uncomfortable; maybe he had some inkling that she was about to go off the deep end and kick both of them out of his dead mother's house. I hear they're trying to work it out.
My sort-of uncle's two children look like afterthoughts in the photo, their faces missing the family resemblance and possibly wearing a bit of relief that there's no blood relation there; they've come and gone from our family gatherings year by year. They've never quite understood our penchant for complicated Christmas crafts and obsessive adherence to tradition. (My father, it seems, didn't either.)
His daughter, just a few years older than me, lives in Chicago too. She has nothing to say to me.

My male sort-of cousin, a lawyer for some elite segment of the U.S. military, had recently left his wife and newborn baby for another woman, whom he elected to bring along that day. She was perched awkwardly on the arm of another sofa in the room, her eyes shifting quickly as we grew progressively frustrated, torn between the commanding voices of the overpaid photographer — whose résumé could have given Annie Leibovitz a run for her money — and my grandmother, who barked orders incessantly despite her lack of expertise. Both demanded total compliance, one for the sake of his portfolio and the other for her reputation.

I pitied that “other woman,” the only outsider permitted to watch the chaos of my family’s supposed perfection in the making. Such a process to assure others that all is as it ought to be.

Yes, that's right: Envy us.