A brief history of my relationship with Starbucks
When India’s first Starbucks opened in Mumbai, the line was so long that the local chai-wallahs made a killing selling tea and coffee to those waiting on line for tea and coffee.
I did not find it strange that people in India would wait that long for Starbucks. The glamour of Starbucks was the glamour of abroad, and as a child growing up in India, Starbucks coffee was as legendary to me as the mermaid featured in its logo. Had I never moved to America at age 10, I would have waited on that line, sipping 5-rupee ($0.092) chai. But I did move, 6711 nautical miles away to Closter, New Jersey — a burg with an abandoned school building, rich and not-as-rich parts, a Korea-town, three frozen yogurt joints, five massage parlors, ten nail salons, and a Starbucks.
There used to be an independent coffeehouse on Closter Dock Road called Mr. Rohr’s. The girl who sat in front of me in pre-algebra once told me that if you went there while baked, it looked like Hogwarts. People stopped going to Mr. Rohr’s when the Starbucks opened up in the nearby strip mall. The Starbucks used to be an independent bookstore, and all the people who used to work there now work at the public library.
The first time I got invited to hang out with people “downtown,” we were to rendezvous at Starbucks. I was in the fifth grade, and had planned my outfit five days in advance. It was raining heavily that day. Dressed head-to-toe in Limited Too, I peered into the shop, my umbrella clacking against the window.
“We decided to go somewhere else and didn’t know how to reach you,” my friend told me the Monday after. Only the popular kids had cell phones then.
“It’s really OK!!” I insisted, a little too eagerly. Traces of India still lingered on my voice.
I approached the Starbucks circumspectly for the next few years, expecting disillusionment to smell like coffee beans. I felt more comfortable down the street at Mr. Rohr’s, with their regal lion logo and barista who practiced guitar during his breaks. It may be difficult to chase a lion, but a mermaid does not exist.
I eventually eased into that Starbucks, not without force. I made sure I had a trademark the baristas would recognize me by — a “short” drink order. My friend Camilla and I would lie to substitute teachers about going to the bathroom, go to Starbucks, and return. I studied for my SATs there. I was asked out to prom in the outdoor seating area, and sunk my face into the table’s mesh in youthful misery after my prom date hooked up with someone else. He got a job playing the piano on cruise ships, and I am a freelance writer who still lives at home. I keep going back to Starbucks to work, though I always leave irritated. I guess when you’re alone, even the most perfunctory look of recognition in people’s eyes carries a certain weight.
Sipping on my “short” drink, I stare daggers at the chatty teenagers huddled over their iPhones, who seem to only talk about the conversations they’re having elsewhere, on Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat, though a lot of my conversations happen in those same places (OK, maybe not Snapchat). The Starbucks used to have a simple, forest-green-and-black layout, back when I was the chatty teenager laughing shrilly at my friends’ jokes, noticing but ignoring glares older people would direct at me from behind their newspapers. Now, it has sepia-toned pictures of African men and women working on fair-trade coffee farms, with the occasional indigenous Latin American inserted somewhere in the collage. It makes the shop look more crowded than it already is.
“I think it’s offensive,” my friend told me.
“I think it’s globalization,” I wanted to retort, oddly defensive of this surrogate home of mine, though I agreed with her.
Funny — as I became more of a Closter local, my Starbucks circumnavigated the globe.
The last time I was there, I noticed Mr. Neblung, my 6th-grade world history teacher, waiting in line. He looked handsome, probably in his mid-30s, and had the same oblong face. I realized he must have been my age when he started teaching. I liked him because his name sounded like Neptune, which was my favorite planet. He knew I had just moved from India and showed me pictures of him playing the guitar in the villages of Tamil Nadu barefoot, which did not make me feel less homesick, but I appreciated the gesture nonetheless.
I took an extra long time putting half&half in my coffee to plot the least awkward way I could say hi, but decided to go back to my table and wave to him on his way out instead. I remember that he gave us a lot of creative freedom with our group projects; one group taught the class about ancient Rome to the tune of TLC’s “Waterfalls” (“Don’t Go Chasing Charlemagne”). We erected pyramids out of emptied Halloween candy boxes or Domino sugar cubes. I loved his class for the same reason I loved Neptune, his photos, and initially, Starbucks — it was shrouded in the glamour of elsewhere.
As Mr. Nublung walked past my table, I tried to lift my hand or voice a greeting but couldn’t, as though the words turned into cotton candy in my windpipe. He looked rushed and purposeful, while I inhabited the space like a bitter poltergeist. I watched him get into his car and drive away, imagining what I would have said had time retracted just one minute.
Mr. Neblung? Do you remember me? I edit books now. I cut off all my hair and no longer let people step all over me. India’s first Starbucks opened in Bombay a few weeks ago. Sorry, Mumbai. That’s the post-colonial name. The mermaid has come to Mumbai.