America the caffeinated

I spent a couple of years overseas in the mid-Nineties.  When I returned, the entire United States of America had been taken over by Starbucks.  I felt like a stranger in a strange land:  I was coming home, but had to master a new language.

“Tall” meant small.  “Grande” meant medium.  “Bitty” meant huge.  Shame and humiliation ensued – not least, after I laughed when someone calling himself a barista demanded $4 for a tall mocha.

The meaning of “Starbucks” was clear enough.

But here’s the strange thing.  I didn’t mind.  Not then, not now.  I will pay any amount for my cinnamon dolce latte.  The baristi know it, and keep raising the price.

Now, after so many years of not wondering about it, I know the reason why.  According to this book review (via A & L), Starbucks is “at the center of the hypocrisy of the American middle class.”  I read that sentence several times, thunderstruck.  Hypocrisy.  Middle class.  Why, in the name of Ozzie and Harriet, hasn’t anyone made that connection before?

We are told that Starbucks has “little to do with coffee, and everything to do with style, status, identity and aspiration. . .”  But that’s only partly true.  At Starbucks, it’s the people with earbuds and laptops who have style, status, identity, and aspiration.  The rest of us who have none of those things just sit around and get caffeinated.

We know each other, too.  We’re the ones pretending to read a book, while peeking nervously at the guy in the earbud who’s staring straight at us and shouting, “Love ya too, babe.”  For us, it’s identity crisis.  Aspiration meltdown.

Hypocrisy, on the other hand, is cool – the coin of civilized exchange.  I’d gladly take up the hypocrite’s burden, but the reviewer, who has a random earbud-guy quality himself, suddenly blurts out that we don’t know a whole lot about the American middle class.

Yet we still know too little about the middle class . . . Is the middle class too big and mystical to fully know?

Answer:  No.  The great American middle class is not now, and never has been, mystical.  Between bouts of hypocrisy and panics about status, we may come closest to the condition when drinking cinnamon dolce latte – and that, every fool knows, is never big, only “bitty.”


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