Chasing the Familiar

I’ve been there 100 times in dozens of different locations. I’ve spent money, I’ve used gift cards, and I’ve ordered things I never quite understood. And while I might have had the sensation many times before… I don’t think I actually realized it until just recently: I find a kind strange familial comfort in Starbucks.

A couple of weeks ago when we were first starting rehearsals for my upcoming play, I had met my actors at a Starbucks to read through some lines for a couple of hours. It was early Sunday morning when I emerged from the subway in midtown east.

It was one of those delicious fall mornings in Manhattan when you want to walk for blocks and never stop. I was chewing on my love of the weather when I walked into the Starbucks and immediately I was transported back to college.

Even though Starbucks had become ubiquitous long before I left for college. During high school I had spent plenty of time shooting the shit with friends over hot chocolate when we just needed to get out of house.

I would grab my coat and keys to leave the house when my mom would say:

Where are you going?
Mike and I are going to grab some coffee at Starbucks
But you don’t drink coffee...
I know, it’s a saying. I'll have a hot chocolate.
Then why do you say…
Bye Mom!

We had the exact same conversation almost every time.

Sometimes we’d drive to a different Starbucks just because we could. It seems we spend the first half of our lives looking for something different, and the latter half looking for more of the same.

But for as much time as I spent in Starbucks in high school, the first inhalation I take when I walk through the door always puts me on the campus of Arizona State University.

When I got to college I got a meal plan. There were points you could use for dining in the cafeteria or flex dollars you could use pretty much anywhere on campus. Those flex dollars made you feel like a member at any of the places you used them. Like you were above cash or credit. One of the places I went regularly was Starbucks.

Starbucks was where I discovered you could get a peppermint shot to kick up your cocoa. It’s where I discovered chai. And it’s also where I discovered too much chai could make my eye twitch for a week.

It was this easy breezy beverage dispensary that was almost always completely different inside the doors than outside of them.

Outside the familiar green lady looked at you with seemingly open arms. Inside it was almost always a little warmer, (or in the blistering Arizona summers, a lot cooler) it smelled wonderful and the music was mellow with just enough pep to make your foot tap if you were prone to such inclinations.

I think about the college friends I chatted with while at Starbucks. I think about the girls I dated and sat for hours with. I think about killing time before and after class.

But when the weather turns cold Sarbucks almost always makes me think of the holidays.

Just as Macy’s puts up its Christmas trees in early October, and Rockefeller center has their ice skating rink up by Halloween, Starbucks cues up the season with decorated windows, holiday cups and limited time seasonal flavors just as the leaves start to hit the ground.

Pumpkin spice, gingerbread, hazelnut and peppermint are the four horsemen of the holiday season.

Maybe it is the fact that in the winter time I almost always end up there with a loved one, huddled together while swathed in multiple woolen layers clutching those paper cups trying desperately to get warm.

And I am pretty positive my hot chocolate intake would be a fraction of what it is today without Starbucks.

Starbucks is where I discovered new Christmas music by old artists, or old music covered by new artists. It is where I discovered my affinity for their exotic smells and renewed my affinity for whipped cream.

It’s the familiar dark wood and faux iron furniture. The occasional couch when you find one and it happens to be empty. The green straws. The recycled napkins. The sounds of steaming, spitting, machines doing god knows what.

I make fun of my parents for being in love with The Panera Bread Company, a cozy chain restaurant known for its soups and sandwiches. When they moved to South Carolina they bemoaned the loss of Panera bread the way most people remember a long lost friend.

And when a Panera finally opened down the road from them, they told me often how when I came down to visit we could go there. Strange thing, going down to South Carolina to go to a restaurant I had been to dozens of time in NY.

But upon closer inspection my affinity for Starbucks was really no different. The familiar layout, regular menu items, sounds, and smells were the same hooks that tied my parents to Panera.

I was traveling in Paris one summer while backpacking in college. I was walking with a friend who mentioned having to stop off at the "American Embassy."

Imagine my surprise when she ran into a McDonalds to use the bathroom. I suddenly understood the reference.

If McDonalds was her American embassy then perhaps Starbucks is my college embassy. It is a place that I will always enjoy going if only for the fact that it reminds me of a time when my psyche was clay, my eyes were wide and my story was very much unwritten.

And also for their whipped cream. That helps too.