The Third Place


There’s not much to tell you about my work. The Ketchup Spice Latte hasn’t been embraced by my adoring public so, until then, I’m not exactly working at a gold mine for the blogging slagpile.

That said, I’ve met some interesting people.

NOT a customer. I hope.

She comes in every morning around 10 and speaks softly, in her heavy coat, and a heavier lilt. She says she’s from Argentina, but I’ve wondered at times if I’ve detected a German accent. She reminds me of words like cabbage, and long-johns, and astringent. She has a pleasant smile and orders a small thermos of decaf coffee. We always charge her 42 cents, because it’s easier than trying to explain that, no, the standard coffee in a personal cup is $1.94.

What? She’s old!

She pays with exact change, smiles to the cashier, and settles into a huge leather armchair to read her King James New Testament. she occasionally reads the paper, and waylays me to point out articles I might find interesting: once, how I should make sure my wife is getting her annual pap smear; another time, an expose about how the Egyptian pyramids grant us all supernatural healing powers. I nod, smile, and clean the countertops with a damp rag.

ALSO not a customer.

Once a week, she approaches one of the partners and asks if “she comes to Starbucks too much.” She doesn’t want to be an imposition. She begins to cry softly when we explain that, no, she’s welcome to be at the coffee shop and to spend all the time she likes.

Once a week, she approaches us with a slight. Once she told me “that one over there–he made like this to me…” and stuck her tongue out. She began crying. We gave her a hot chocolate; on the house.

Once I was cleaning the restrooms. I knocked. The ladies’ room was occupied.  I cleaned and restocked the men’s room, and knocked again. OCCUPIED! the voice shouted.  I went back to what I was doing. A few moments later she flung the door wide, and shouted at the unlucky woman who was standing near the bathroom! “WHY YOU ARE ALWAYS KNOCKING?  KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK! ONLY TO TURN THE HANDLE YOU ARE NEEDING!” The stunned customer began apologizing for God-knows-what. I told them it was my fault, I was sorry I interrupted; I needed to clean the bathroom. She began crying when she realized I was the culprit. We gave both of them their drinks; on the house.

Whenever I ask her how she’s doing, I get a list of her aches and pains. She begins to cry. Her family lives far away. She can’t drive anymore. The staff might be her only family. If not, surely this woman is why Starbucks strives to exist. The Starbucks Third Place, a term so ubiquitous that it becomes meaningless, sometimes hits home. Especially when on Tuesday, when a co-worker asked her how she was doing, she responded with two words: “I’m dying.” My colleague quickly shushed her and said “Please don’t talk like that. I don’t want to hear about such things.”

I stood in shock. Okay, that’s not quite true: first thing that happened is I laughed. It’s so like her to carry melodrama to such heights. Then I thought of the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody (hey–I’m weird, all right?)

Too late, my time has come
Sends shivers down my spine
Body’s aching all the time
Goodbye everybody – I’ve got to go
Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth
Mama, ooo – (any way the wind blows)
I don’t want to die
I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all

I don’t think she knows the song. She wouldn’t have appreciated the allusion to a 1970s British glam-rock band. But my brain isn’t fair. It thinks of stuff like this all the time.

Ahhh patriotism.

THEN I stood in shock. Did my co-worker take care of the situation right? Was she really dying? Was she being overly-dramatic? As Freddy sings: “doesn’t really matter to me.” Should I treat her differently because she is (or isn’t) dying? Isn’t this woman exactly the reason Starbucks strives to create a Third Place?

I’m proud to be part of an organization that, even from its headquarters in Seattle, gives a darn about human beings. I’m proud to serve an old woman 42 cent coffees every single day, and not be hollered at by corporate accountants. Whenever my back aches, or a customer snarls at me for knocking on a bathroom door, or shares a newspaper clipping about a man who believes he makes love to ghosts, I think, hey, when it comes down to it, we’re ALL here, and we’re ALL dying, but we can make the world a slightly better place while we’re drinking hot water and roasted central American beans.

Well, I’m off to invent the ketchup latte. Don’t hold your breath or anything. See you on the caffeinated side of things.

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6 thoughts on “The Third Place”

  1. Love this one! Don’t know how I missed seeing it until now, but I too would love to read more about your interesting customers! You have a knack for this…

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  2. I’m proud to be the mother of a Starbucks, Third Place, barista with a heart like yours. Your description of her, (long johns, cabbage and astringent), helped me to see her more clearly. Please, forget about the ketchup latte! And if I get a flag tattoo I’ll make sure my flag is facing left on my right arm so it gives a prouder wave! 🙂

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  3. Ok… alright already! I’ll call the doctor tomorrow to schedule my pap smear! And should I get an American flag tattoo too?
    Love you. Good post.
    the Wife

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