Seraphim, almost nine months full of child, passed by me three times on her way to the ladies’ restroom without once asking me why I was sitting there against the wall, not sipping my usual hot chocolate or writing, just staring into space. She won’t disturb me. She thinks I’m writing and knows not to ask.
She and Sonnet and Rachel and Kyle and Natalie, a team of baristas all, have been trained like coffee bean geishas to smile and please, but they are not robots. All of that sweetness comes at no extra charge.
We’ve become friends — no, family. They are my street daughters. Kyle, my street son.
They tolerate my moods, laugh at my jokes, listen to my stories, even when they’ve heard them 16 times.
I am a writer; they are my muses. Today, they know that sitting here watching the door, I’m doing something different. They don’t ask.
Of course I was doing something. I was counting. In my daily act of trying to look like a journalist when I’m actually only pretending to be a journalist, I am a columnist pursuing material for this week’s paper.
I know this place, and I come here daily to collect ideas. This day, I was counting.
I’m counting how many customers come through the door and go immediately to the restrooms, and then exit the restroom and leave the premises without making a purchase.
Not many do that. Most of them are here because they saw the sign from the highway and breathed a sigh of relief, because Starbucks is known, among other things, for its clean, neat restrooms.
Customers here get their cups of coffee with their names written in black marker on the paper cups. No other coffee shop, to my knowledge, performs that sweet, personal act of kindness. I know it’s a cold, corporate rule, but somehow these young hearts bring warmth to it.
I’m not here for any of that today. I’m here to observe because of an item that caught my attention.
CNN Business Online reported that, in May 2018, Starbucks’ mother ship sent an email to their employees.
It read like this: “Any person who enters our spaces, including patios, cafés and restrooms, regardless of whether they make a purchase, is considered a customer.”
Apparently this dispatch became necessary because of two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks who were sitting at a table without ordering a decaf, nonfat, no-whip mocha or anything else for that matter.
They were just sitting and chatting, maybe waiting for a friend, getting in out of the cold or the heat. In the cafés of Europe and along the Ginza in Tokyo, this would escape any attention.
Apparently in Philadelphia, it did not.
We’re told that the manager, unlike the managers in Paris and Tokyo, called the cops. The men were arrested and handcuffed. Luckily for the two men, leg shackles were an option that was avoided.
All of this, and the two guys didn’t even try to use the restrooms.
The then-CEO, Howard Schultz, bounced the news of this incident up and down for a few minutes and said, “We don’t want to become a public bathroom, but we’re going to make the right decision 100 percent of the time and give people the key.”
Of course, now Mr. Schultz is dreaming of the Oval Office, so I guess the new rule is if you are a person of color, come on in any old time and pee with us white folks?
Wait a minute. “Key?” What key? Starbucks stores are coffee shops, not gas stations.
At least at my Starbucks, no one has a key to the restrooms.
I think I should make this clear. All Starbucks coffee shops are not like Tolstoy’s happy families. Structurally they’re all different. But the rules of decorum and behavior are the same.
Sonnet smiles even when she has a bad headache. Seraphim smiles and chats even though her back hurts from nine months of carrying her first child. Natalie and Kyle sing while whipping up drinkables. If you’re from Philadelphia and visiting our small city, you’ll notice the difference at once.
If you cross the bridge into Maine from New Hampshire, the first thing you’ll see is the sign our new governor, Janet Mills, erected. It’s simple, like most things in Maine. “Welcome Home,” it says.
The next thing you may hear is from one of my chorus of baristas. “Good morning. What can I get started for you?” Welcome home.
J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.