#825: The Poetry of Starbucks

August 4th, 2017

One of the more grandiose dreams of this project is to chart for future historians what Chicago was really like.

I’d like a future researcher to stumble on whatever online archives come, and fall in love some line I wrote about how Chicago in 2K17 looked, sounded, smelled. I want to provide a bit of color, an unattributed quote in some future textbook about the lives and migratory patterns of Great North American Chicagoan in the dawn of the 2000s.

Unfortunately, “what it was like” is less and less “what makes it unique” each day.

So for this blog, this post, this day in the future’s history, I’m looking at a Starbucks.

It’s the Starbucks at Montrose and Wolcott on the city’s North Side, but that doesn’t really matter. The attraction is the chain’s neverending sameness. The people who file in go for the comfort of conformity as much as for the wifi or roasts.

They — we — go because expectations are met. The coffee smells the same in Tibet or Tuskaloosa. They have the same little graham cookies dipped in dark chocolate and green-aproned staff.

It could be at Montrose and Wolcott. It could be elsewhere. Standardized hominess makes location not matter. From the leg widths of the tables to the scripted greetings to the angle of placement for precisely casual signage, a Starbucks is a place with no sense of place. By design, you’re in a Starbucks. That’s all that counts.

An old man with long, gray hair and a tubby tum looked up from his newspaper — he was the only one of us not glaring at a laptop — and asked if that was my phone on the table. It wasn’t. That’s the only conversation I had.

At what point does the ubiquity become an identity? At what point is there nothing more Chicagoan than a Starbucks, a Subway and one of those Baskin-Robbins Dunkin’ Donuts slashies?

There are four 7-Elevens in a three-block radius of my office. Two are on kittycorner city blocks. How can I purport to sketch an accurate view of the city without including those?

Who provides this town more hamburgers? The Billy Goat or McDonald’s?

La Pasadita locations close. We mourn them in line at Taco Bell.

So my question for you, both dear readers and future historians, is if there a poetry in a Starbucks.

I like Starbucks, I do. I try to support the little guy whenever I can, but Starbucks treats their people well, and I too know the joy of walking into a place knowing exactly what the chairs will feel like, exactly how much jolt the coffee has and the exact wifi logon procedure.

I’ll write for the historians of what we did, how we ate at the most convenient stores and all listened to whatever music hit the charts, how life in Chicago was different from life in New Orleans or Cleveland in detail more than substance. I’ll write about our sameness because it’s true.

But is there a poetry in that, or just an accuracy? Is charting Starbucks, 7-Eleven, Taco Bell for my pretend historians capturing something innate about human existence, or is it just, yep, that was a very successful business model.

People who care about art, writing or future historians need to figure out how to handle the Starbuckses and McDonald’ses of the world. Sameness is winning, and if this is the way the city’s going to be, I’d still like to be able to find something I can love.

A poetic moment in a McDonald’s

A story on a Chicago street

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You are currently reading #825: The Poetry of Starbucks by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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