Open Letter

To: Starbucks Italian

From: A Secret Dreamer

Re: Shhhhh

10 • 15 • 05

Dear Starbucks Italian:

You probably don't know me, but I see you a couple of times a week. It usually goes like this: I enter a café. You're sitting near the ceiling. As I approach the counter I look at you, or I don't, but I know you're there. I know that the sizes of the beverages on offer are expressed in you, so I know the option of ordering my drink in Italian is available to me in a way that ordering in, say, Gaelic is not.

I choose not to order in Italian. I order in English, my mother tongue and usually the ambient language surrounding any franchise I enter. I ask for a large or a medium. (Alas, I do usually want large or medium; if only I wanted a small I could be spared this whole ordeal since smalls are inexplicably called talls. But that has nothing to do with you, Starbucks Italian.) The person across the counter says, "Ok, a grande?" I then say "yes" or "no." Or maybe "The larger one, please." "A venti, then?" "Yes. Thank you."

It used to be even worse. My linguistic imprecision would sometimes get me and the frustrated individual behind the counter to the point of physical cup display: "This is a grande cup. This is a venti cup." "That one, please." "This one?" "The one in your left hand."

This humiliating process must appear pointless to outsiders. It would appear even more pointless if they knew the facts: I know what the sizes are. I know what the cups look like. But like someone faking aphasia for attention, I just will not say the words I know will mean the things I mean.

I hasten to note that my reluctance to employ you is not political. It doesn't come from anti-corporate sentiment (of which I will admit to a certain amount: two parts rational skepticism, one part knee-jerk). And I don't resist you because I resent the shipment of standardized signage from Starbucks head office to 6,000 franchises worldwide (the old "keep it local: say it with chalk" movement). I don't even resist you because I am a proponent of the anti-fancy-coffee backlash. (Indeed, I find this movement insidious in the extreme. It is obviously anti-urban, anti-intellectual, homophobic, xenophobic, and probably other things too. Those brutes will never convince me that I am soft-handed, effete, and symptomatic of the decadence that will one day destroy us all just because I ordered a coffee with an extra syllable in its name.) No, if it were not for you I'd be happy to order a beverage involving organic soy milk, unbleached cane sugar, and fair trade vanilla beans, and to consume the whole thing out of the white paper cup of the hegemon.

I resist you, Starbucks Italian, because you exist to humiliate me. Not only do you seek to expose my vulnerability and stupidity, you ask me to announce them myself, to speak them aloud in crowded public places as though they were points of cosmopolitan pride. No, it's not that I'm afraid to pronounce words from other languages. I order food with appalling incompetence and perfect equanimity in many languages--and in any case I'm pretty sure I could stretch my mouth, horse-like, around a "grande." The humiliation is of another kind, deeper and more terrible.

Starbucks Italian, we all pretend when we buy things, which is why we have so many more things than we need. There is no end to fantasy, and self-storage (yes, they really call it that) has now surpassed Hollywood in revenues. You know as well as I do that whether we like it or not, whether we are suckers or not, consumption is aspiration. Take you, for example: you just flog coffee. But you do it (with dizzying success) by pointing to an image of your mother country projected into the heavens by a floodlight of North American desire. In your venti-sized travel mug of signification we find: tradition, slowness, authenticity, old-world quality, charming sidewalk cafes and sun-dappled town squares, exoticism, Mediterranean passion and uncomplicated lust for life. Perhaps more than anything we find a sane kind of hedonism--the ability to pleasure the body without the cheap excesses of the New World: gluttony, childish giddiness about sex, addiction born of puritanism, appetite born of emptiness. Well done, Starbucks Italian! Conveying all this in so few words, you are truly a wonderful specimen!

That said, it looks like I'm the one who's going to have to tell you: you have two fatal flaws. Rule numero uno, Starbucks Italian, is don't make me say it. Rule numero two is don't make me say it in front of people. There's some redundancy in the rules; I didn't make them up. But I am willing to explain them, in reverse order of importance:

Rule numero two. Fantasy is private. One doesn't just walk up to any stranger and ask them to call one Batman. Nor does one interrupt a meeting to request that a colleague "say my name." We may not be alone in our sad and abject longings, but for the sake of everyone's comfort and dignity, we must pretend that we are--assiduously and at all costs. (N.B. If part of one's secret fantasy involves the sharing of that fantasy with strangers, it is entirely acceptable to go to a special club where an agreement is in the air. Starbucks is not such a club.)

Rule numero uno. No one wants to announce, even to themselves, that on some sub-rational, cellular level (oh, yes: cells read Italian), they believe a cup of coffee will purge them of the gnawing fears and dissatisfactions in their lives. This is why Jenny Craig doesn't sell a "Please god I will never marry if this doesn't change" program. This is why they don't name cars the "I am constantly filled with corrosive rage SL" or the "I don't care how much it costs just please please love me...or I will fucking kill you with this thing (4-wheel drive)." This is why you never see a renovation store host a "Maybe when this is done I won't hate coming home" sale event. And this, Starbucks Italian, is why you are such a grave violation of everything North American consumers like me hold dear. The whole point of signification through consumption is that you don't have to say it. Even to yourself. Ever.

Listen. I know. I know I sometimes want to be somewhere else. Somewhere with less hurry and nicer light. Somewhere with a family estate ("Oh, it's not much, but it's been in the family for nine generations..."). But for the love of god don't make me say it out loud in front of all these people lined up for a cup of coffee.

Medium please,

A Secret Dreamer

P.S. If you ever run into those lululemon bags at a party or anything, can you tell them I want to talk to them?