This is a post about the little things that we find to be big things.
The older I get, the more I am amazed by the persistence of mundane, trivial aspects I remember from the chapters in my life. For instance, at my dad’s funeral, I remember my aunt giving me a small bottle of lotion specifically formulated for eye puffiness and severe dryness. The skin underneath my eyes had become so raw and sensitive from crying and wiping that I had thought enough to mention the discomfort I was in. As my entire extended family waited in this anteroom in the church before proceeding into the sanctuary for his funeral service, she gave it to me. And that’s what I remember. It’s a good memory, a memory of feeling cared for and listened to in a time of complete chaos, and it has outlived the memories of what anyone actually said at the services that day.
While not as drastic and pivotal as my memory of the lotion at my dad’s funeral, I often find myself thinking a lot about a Starbucks I went to in college. The place itself was not really remarkable and nothing Earth-moving ever happened to me there, so if you’re looking for some shocker in this post then you may as well stop reading now. But the images and feelings I have tied to this one specific location in midtown Memphis have stayed with me even though some of the more “important” things I did during that time have now been replaced in my brain with the minutiae of pediatric appointments and the English names of my students in Korea. The person I was when I would go there before class has become intriguing enough that I often revisit her.
The early mornings often remind me of this Starbucks. There’s something auspicious about mornings for me, and it’s the time when I feel the most deeply and fully. It’s that window of the day when I am most able to take the world in and become sensitive to all its moving parts working in harmony. My life at home with C has a schedule and a rhythm, and it doesn’t usually include going out early in the morning unless she has an 8AM doctor’s appointment or playdate. But back in college, I rose early because I drove my then-high-school-aged brother to school and then went to this Starbucks before my own classes. Thrusting myself out of the house when the day was just starting made me feel like I was part of the pulse of society. The music I heard before 9AM was fuller, the things I tasted more delicious. I liked parking myself in one of the chairs at this Starbucks and feeling symbolic. Of what, I don’t know, but I liked being there early.
This Starbucks kind of bucked the image I now go to when I think of the chain. Now, Starbucks is little more than a drivethrough for me, but back then, it was an ecosystem. There were regulars who seemed to be drawn back each morning because they sincerely enjoyed each others’ company, and not just because there was space for laptops on the tables.* Many brought books and newspapers along to peruse over their morning brews, and if they didn’t, it was probably because they came prepared to talk to whoever was around reading something else. This was slightly annoying to me at first because I always brought whatever reading for the day I hadn’t finished the night before and hoped that I could get through it there in the hour or two before my first class in the morning. I remember vividly reading The Divine Comedy there, switching back and forth between the Cantos and the footnotes in the back of the book by holding my fingers between the pages and trying to sip my coffee at the same time. An older black man who was sitting adjacent to me saw me reading and asked me where I was in it, and while I put up a brief effort to be terse and demonstrate that I had a lot of very serious reading to get done before class, I ended up talking to him about Dante throughout the entire semester. Other people soon joined our morning conversations, to the extent that now I remember more about talking Dante in that Starbucks than I do in the actual classroom.
*This was back in 2002 when Starbucks may not have even offered wifi. If they did, it certainly wasn’t free.
Each time I went there, the exact same soundtrack was playing, an upbeat set of remixes to songs I had never heard before or since. I only know that these songs existed outside of my own mind because I heard one of them years later once at a gym I was going to. I loved walking in and knowing that I would hear the same thing every time, and that was part of why this place has left such a solid impression on me. The mornings I spent there were largely uniform in that I always heard the same things, ate and drank the same things, and saw the same people. But its predictability highlighted its quirks and provided a backdrop to the odd things that happened to me there. One time, the newly-elected county mayor was in line ahead of me for the sugar and cream station, and he turned around and smiled and wished me a good morning. I was twenty and this made me feel important. There was another time that I randomly drove one of the barista’s kids to school. I don’t remember whether she flat-out asked me to or if I just volunteered, but I do remember some polite seven-year-old in the passenger seat of my car being shuttled to school that morning by me, the Dante-reading, coffee-drinking coed. It almost feels like it didn’t happen, it is so vague and ethereal in my memory.
My time at that Starbucks was so specific and nichey. Once, I suggested to a friend that she meet me there one evening so we could talk about some pressing matter. And as I entered the coffee shop that night probably around 8PM, I felt like I was entering the Twilight Zone. The entire place looked different during twilight, it was staffed by strangers, the music was different, and my Dante discussion group was nowhere to be found. It was oddly disconcerting that the place was not being held together for me by the coffee it purveyed. Because of that one night, I don’t think I’ll ever tempt fate and go back to that Starbucks looking for a nostalgia fix because I know I won’t get it. I’m not in college anymore. That kid I drove to school is now probably adult. The Starbucks Corporation has given them new music to play over their stereo. The staff I knew and the regulars I spoke with have surely moved on, and even if they haven’t, they likely wouldn’t recognize me nor I them.
But I’m OK with that. This is what memories are for. They are to be luxuriated in. They are there for us to write 1,200 words about in an hour and be transported back to a place that was far more special at the time then we ever imagined.
What was your Starbucks?
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