That Starbucks

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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  1. I love early mornings now. It’s when my mind is abuzz with fresh thoughts and most of my writing happens. But back then, I couldn’t pull myself out of bed. I was much more of a night owl.

    1. Mornings really are great for me too. And I’d say that even if it weren’t the time when I drink a ton of coffee ;)

  2. This was so beautifully written. I’m a fan of early mornings; I like feeling like I made the most of the daylight hours, even if I’m exhausted by 8 p.m.

    I think when I was younger my Starbucks was always downtown Chicago. The experience of taking the train station and seeing the skyline through the fog. I always knew I wanted it to be a daily experience, and I’m lucky it worked out that way.

    1. The few times I rode the train in the early mornings were special for me too. I remember taking the train early downtown one morning to pick up my husband from Union Station when we were dating, and it was such a special time. Chicago is a pretty amazing place anytime, but it has a mystique in the morning.

  3. Love that story! It’s so true how we take for granted little moments until they show themselves somewhere down the road. That reminds me of returning with my family to live in the city I went to university in. It felt like a weird mix of past and present because I’d changed so much. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you for reading! I know the feeling of bringing your family to a place you know from a past life. Everytime I return to my hometown with my daughter, it takes on a very different color.

  4. Nice post Emily – here’s my reflection after reading it, how it made me feel. I realize I’m older now. It just doesn’t seem that long ago that I was your age. When I was your age I had recently changed jobs and hired into ‘corporate’ America (think mega Blue chip, stuff all around your house you use all the time…everywhere!). Yes, that place. I was the youngest in every crowd, bright like you. It’s tough sometimes being 50+, (God I’m almost on the other side, heading towards 60 now, gulp), because I still ‘think’ young. I understand now why older people feel left out at times. They still think young, but we others make them feel old by looking at them and then treating them accordingly. I see that today when I meet with our young interns or new hires. They look at me and I can feel that ‘he’s old enough to be my dad…or God forbid – my grandpa’ vibe. My wife’s a young 55 like me. Our ‘crowd’ we hang out with are all in their 40’s. I don’t know why I’m writing this and as I am, I can see I’m beginning to ramble so I’ll desist and leave you with this:

    As you age you will come to realize one day, (like I have), that you are still young inside. You will also realize that you get to take only 2 things with you when you leave this place, (no not your blog site silly, I mean your life) – two things: Love and Memories.

    So make lots of love and retain as many memories as you can.

    Thanks for sharing a memory with me. I hope you check me out to see ‘an old guy’ memory from time to time. ;)


    1. I love your “old guy” memories, Rob ;D I’m pretty sure I’ve said this to you before but it deserves repeating: I am so glad you have been participating in this blog hop because you *totally* get what we were going for when we started it. Memories are so important because they are a document of the fullness of life and all the possibilities they contain.

      1. I do get it! It’s perfect for what I have set out to do. I hope folks are enjoying them. :) And I love being included with all the hot young chicks, like YOU!! :)

  5. So now I just really want a Pumpkin Spice latte.

    Things do feel different in the morning. But being NOT a morning person in general, I don’t often get to appreciate it in a still moment. Nowadays, if I’m up early, it’s all kid centered. And if the kids aren’t up early, then neither am I. But those rare moments when I am up and have some moments to myself are so wonderful that I tell myself I’ll do it more often. But I never do.

    1. I wouldn’t really catalog myself as a morning person either, especially now with a kid who has yet to appreciate the joys of just sleeping through her internal alarm clock. But I kind of feel like *not* being a morning person helps me to savor those moments when I can just wake up and be my own person more. Ugh, that totally doesn’t make sense. Speaking of coffee, I need some. Now.

  6. Mornings seem to be emotional for many of us. I’m not a morning person, much like many of us here, but when I rise early, before my daughter and husband have, I make my tea, and I have a moment of quiet reflection, it just seems as if I feel much more deeply than usual. I’m pensive, reflective, introspective…all of that.

    I’ve never had strong emotions attached to Starbucks, but this one time I met this girl at a Starbucks in Memphis and she was by far the best thing about that Starbucks, and probably any Starbucks ever. <3

    1. D’awwwwww ;D That was a pretty special day. Did you know that that one Starbucks location used to be a Pancho’s? I am pretty sure it’s been a Starbucks for at lease 12 years now, but I always remember that it used to sell fantastic cheese dip.

      1. I would really prefer cheese dip to coffee ANY DAY.

  7. This reminds me of the “third place” concept I learned about watching the special features on the “You’ve Got Mail” DVD, and interestingly enough, the third place they were talking about was Starbucks. I always wanted a place like that but never found it. The closest for me was eating in the cafeteria during college with a group of friends who were mostly my “dining” friends–we didn’t necessarily have classes together or live in the same dorm, but we always came together for meals in the cafeteria. And yes, there are lots of warm, fuzzy memories associated with those times!

    1. I think a lot of memories and warm fuzziness is centered around food and the somewhat random people we end up enjoying it with, so the bonding of you and your cafeteria pals totally makes sense. Thanks for reading and commenting, Shannon! ;D

  8. I am soooo not a morning person, maybe because I’m a night owl, but I do go to bed thinking about my coffee the next morning. I love how you point out that the routine and predictability created the backdrop for everything else. I’ve never really thought about that before, I can see how it allowed for the people to make more of an impression on you. I’m new to the blogging thing, but I’ve really been enjoying reading yours!

    1. Thank you, Gretchen! Yeah, the thing about the predictability of the place was something that I never really noticed either until I started writing this. I love writing because I can tease out some of those details that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have recognized.

  9. This post was phenomenal. Hard to explain further than that, but I absolutely loved it.
    And now I am craving some very sugary coffee.

    1. Awwww, thanks. My husband makes fun of how much sugar I put in my coffee. Lulz.

      1. When I want sugary coffee or relief from constipation, I go to Starbucks. (they need to hire me as a spokesperson)

  10. Loved this one, Em. It is atmospheric and nostalgic, without getting maudlin. I can feel the Starbucks, but not completely, because it is yours. Love that element. It’s strange how some places, some simple gestures, brief moments, stay with us… always. Beautifully done.

    1. Thanks, Dawn. Your words about this post mean a lot to me because I was kind of channeling you when I wrote it. The writing you do about your past is always so evocative and familiar, and I have a lot to learn from you. A lot of the time, when I write about my childhood and past, I am overly jokey-jokey and take the easy way out by just making fun of myself. I tried not to do that here.

      1. I am (sincerely) touched and honored. You’re a really talented writer, Emily, who I look up to. It’s an honor that you look to me, for anything. ;-) That said, it really showed in this post. The “jokey-jokey” was distinctly muted, and I could feel the place, and the sacredness of it in your life. I can really relate to that state of mind, as I hold certain places, people, experiences so dear… in the context of the life I’ve lived. I try to write without filters, when I go there. I think you’ve done a beautiful job with this post. Mine will be up, shortly.

  11. I loved this one too! It took me back there with you. :)

  12. I am an early riser, not naturally but by choice. I always feel more pulled together when I’m up and at it. Bit like putting on lipstick or high heels….

    1. That’s a really good way of putting it! It is kind of like giving ourselves the best of ourselves. I rarely regret it when I get up early and shower and dress before the rest of my family is up.

  13. I am ore like an evening or early morning and I think that is because I suffer from Major Depression. I need coffee too and glad that I have such great reading to do here.

    1. Thanks for reading! ;D

  14. movingbackwardtomoveforward · · Reply

    My mornings now consist of baby breakfast and waiting for nap time. I miss waking up early and getting ready for the day! Now a blow dryer is a weekly experience. Beautiful post!

    1. Thanks, Annie! I completely feel you on the little luxuries that you miss when babies enter the scene. It’s a big deal for me even when on Friday afternoon my husband comes home from work early and I can go to the grocery store all by myself.

      1. movingbackwardtomoveforward · · Reply

        Grocery store by yourself? Fancy!

        1. I know! I think I may put some lipstick on today ;D

          1. there was no “like” button to this comment….so “like” (made me laugh)

  15. […] post is part of the on-going blog hop hosted over at The Waiting and Are You Finished Yet. Writers follow the prompt “Remember the time… (new topic each […]

  16. What a lovely post. My mind rebelled initially because it was about Starbucks. But then it was about Dante and you won me over. Having spent years as a barista while I was at uni, I was on the other side of that and we loved seeing the regulars, had their drinks ready before they’d even got to the till. While I partly hated the job, it was the atmosphere that you talk about that made it fun.

  17. Hi,

    I only discovered your blog today, through this share of some other account, interviewing you about your blog. I think it turned to be one of the best discovery for today :) I like the way of your writing, and how you said you started writing blogs for yourself, even if some of the first posts were unpolished. I also like writing because of that. I only started to make it more public through blog online; so I am sure I am still shy with the whole concept. Writing about your daily thoughts, sharing some pieces of your life online is rather still strange to me; but I am glad to see yours is among ones that does not try to give out intellectual advices on a range of different topics. It feels more personal, and more connected; which is how I believe words can do. Anyway, I am also a fan of Starbuck, despite how many people say it is quite mainstream. I also like mornings, even if I like sleeping, and most of time staying up late. But I tend not to talk so much when I wake up, I like a quiet peaceful cup of coffee, before starting a day. :) Thought it would be great to share some of these with you in this comment.

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