It’s good to feel inspired, when you’re trying to write a book-type thing, or even a witty article or blog post, to achieve lofty goals. You want to think big. Like, what if you invented your own language? And made everyone speak it, and be goddamn grateful for the privilege? From truck drivers to hedge fund managers to teachers, road workers. and aspiring thespians?
Too lofty, you say? Not so. It’s been accomplished by Starbucks.
If you want Starbucks product, you need to speak its pidgin form of Italian. None of the planet’s 24,000 Starbucks are in Italy — though I guess one’s finally in the offing for next year — but that doesn’t signify. You can say you want a Grande, a Venti®, or because America’s a supersizer, now a Trenta®. Also a Frappuccino® — about as Italian as a Big Mac, but the –uccino thing is clearly Italian flair. Or even a Fizzio™. (That one, name-wise, may be a bit of a misfire. It fizzles.)
Lo these many years ago, when I first crossed a Starbucks threshold — I’m in my mid-40s, so I can boast about a quarter-century of sporadic Starbucks patronage — I had the innocence, the arrogance to resist. Not the drinks themselves (because I’ve always found the Americanos pretty tasty, I won’t lie) but the pidgin Italian. No, I said churlishly to my private self, standing in line, waiting to order. No. I will not do this thing. I’d been to Europe, and I liked it, but my thinking went: this isn’t Europe. This is an American caffeinated beverage chain. So when I got to the register I’d say something like: “I’d like a medium coffee, please.”
I’d get a raised eyebrow and a rephrase for clarity, and I would nod stiffly. You may speak your franchise Startalian, I thought grumpily, but you will not visit it on me.
Later, in the tempered wisdom of maturity, I’d come to recognize Startalian as a simple variation of McDonalds- or Burger King-speak, an upwardly mobile version of basic food-chain branding. I mean, would I stand at the register in Mickey D’s and order “one of those burgers with two patties?” No, I’d say a Big Mac. In refusing to say “Grande” I was suffering from petty reverse snobbery.
But the truth is that when you’re ordering a Grande, and the lights are low, and the décor’s making a gesture at good taste, with furniture in dark veneer and sometimes sage-green or rust-red upholstery with discreet swirly patterns on it, and the chairs are comfortable, you do feel a certain elevation. You may have just pulled a long-haul all-nighter from Sheboygan, but here you are, speaking Startalian and, through your casual mastery of the lingo, acquiring a fine-tasting drug, in a vaguely opium-den setting, that’s also perfectly legal. There may have been a few naysayers back in the ’90s, a few who dismissed the Starbucks juggernaut by lumping together liberals, lattes, and Volvos, but those days are past. Nowadays, citizens of any stripe will belly up to the barista and feel a little classy.
Still, there’s a big difference between a Venti® and a Whopper®. And I don’t mean the ingredients. In taking fast-food language and décor in the direction of, say, high-fashion clothing emporia along Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive, Starbucks makes an overt appeal to our vision of ourselves as refined consumers with a taste for the finer things. And the finer things are European. Or pseudo-European. You may not feel you have the bank balance to shop for couture by some Italian designer with a shingle in Beverly Hills, but damn if you can’t treat yourself to a Grande — every day, even, for 16 years. It’s a wallet death by a thousand cuts. And it feels pretty good.
When you step into Starbucks, you step into the boudoir of the upper middle class — or if you’re not there yet, your upper-middle-class future. Doesn’t matter that the beans and dairy arrive in mammoth trucks along the asphalt arteries of the nation: you have a brief illusion of sipping your poison in a surrounding of luxe, or as close as a global-chain coffee purveyor can come. Which makes Starbucks an ideal place to sit with your laptop, if you’re the aspirational type. Starbucks is littered with laptop-typists. Sure, locally owned cafes with non-branded beverages are hipper, but when they’re not available — er, possibly driven out of business — Starbucks can serve.
Because there’s no inspiration sitting in a Mickey D’s. You’re not going to linger at a table there, beneath the flatness of bright light, surrounded by polymers in primary colors, listening to families squabble at the register over the kids’ sodas or whether they’re allowed to get large fries, and feel you may possibly be typing out a work of ascendant genius. Ditto for Burger King, Carl’s Jr., Wendy’s, etc. Starbucks has some food, that’s true, but the smell of fryer oil is not pervasive, and if there are kids around they’re likely teenagers, snapping pics of their misspelled names on whipped-cream drinks to post on Instagram. They’re too cool to argue and they don’t make much noise.
Plus, coffee is thought fuel; burgers and fries are couch-potato fuel.
All of this means that Starbucks adds up to more than location + coffee; Starbucks is a success model, far more so than the Golden Arches or its meat-marketing mates. Despite its food offerings, the place with the weird mermaid logo remains first and foremost a seller not of nourishment but of predictable, controllable rush. A rush that produces, a restaurant chain that produces — not only coffee, but you. The green-and-white mermaid is a mythic figure, a styling of pure fantasy: and that’s the genius of Starbucks and its Startalian. Here you can become one with the furnishings and the product; here you also can embody a successful fantasy, a sheaf of straw turned into gold. You too can be — if only while you linger — a boutique idea, translated to a mass market.
Image Credit: Flickr/poolie.