Starbucks, Gay Bars and the Curse of Choice
It would be easy to look back on my undergraduate convocation and picture myself as an optimistic naïf, filled with great expectations about my career and future. Truth is, as I shook hands with Pamela Wallin, the school’s chancellor, I didn’t feel much of anything. I was ready to move on from Guelph, but had no idea of what came next. I had two goals for that summer: to find a job and get a boyfriend. It says something about me that the lack of second dates depressed me more than the lack of second interviews.
Eventually I found a job. To my identity as a drifting liberal arts graduate I added another stereotype: I was a gay boy, living in Toronto, working at Starbucks. My intellectual capabilities were now employed in announcing byzantine drink concoctions, which made the little boxes on the side of the cups resemble census forms.
“I have a venti-soy-half-sweet-sugar-free-vanilla-one-hundred-and-eighty-degree-tazo-chai-latte!”
“One-eighty-five,” the customer corrected, rolling her eyes. “But it’s alright.”
While adults may act like children, the skill of customer service is resisting the urge to treat them as such.
At the same time I learned that, despite what ‘Queer As Folk’ taught me, gay bars weren’t for hooking up; they were for standing by yourself, ignoring everyone, furiously texting. Like an animal forced into new environments because of depleted resources, lack of opportunities pushed me onto internet dating.
On websites like Plenty of Fish and Gay Romeo you are presented with more boxes to check than a Starbucks cup: age; height; hair colour; weight (diplomatically-worded); ethnicity (even more diplomatically-worded); profession; income bracket; interests (food, sports, movies, Britney versus Gaga); whether you want children or not; whether you are married or not; whether you want casual sex or not; and, on occasion, whether you are circumcised. Or not.
You upload a flattering picture of yourself and wait. Sometimes a polyamorous couple will message you for an orgy. Or, it will be some guy in Cambodia. So, largely out of boredom, you start emailing guys who seem friendly and funny and cute, who say they are looking for someone special in the same studiedly casual way you did. After the respectable amount of correspondence, you meet up at Starbucks (where else?), have a few lattes and share a few laughs. Two weeks later, your facebook message unanswered, it dawns on you that you were not ‘that someone special’ and the process starts again.
I did my Masters on the history of sexuality and gender, but Queer Studies disappointed me almost as much as queer men. If I didn’t want to become a prematurely bitter old crank, a crazy cat lady in a homemade snood living with my Mom, I needed a change, and fast.
So I moved to Ireland. As with many with Celtic blood somewhere in their veins, I felt a romantic pull to the ancestral isle. Also, I had a sneaking suspicion that gay men in Dublin might be more fun (outgoing, flirtatious, drunk) than their counterparts in Toronto.
So I followed the rainbow across the sea, but instead of a pot of gold and a little man in a green hat I hoped to find a dark-haired hunk with bright blue eyes (and with the leprechaun’s accent).
The Irish economy, having been driven off the cliff with de-regulation and an insane housing bubble, was in the doldrums and jobs prospects for a Canadian with only a one-year visa were bleak. Fortunately, the Siren saved me again and I was hired full time at a Starbucks in a mall just outside of Dublin.
At the busy store I certainly got to hear many accents. Sometimes I could barely understand Irish customers, who have a tendency to mumble. I misunderstood common expressions: when I would inevitably mess something up and apologize, I would be told “oh, you’re okay” or “you’re grand”, which I took as appreciative words of encouragement. After awhile I learned that “you’re okay” was not personal but just the equivalent of “it’s okay”.
But the biggest difference I noticed in Irish customers is that they didn’t get Starbucks cup sizes. And I don’t mean the tall-grande-venti trinity much maligned by confused Tim Horton’s regulars and people who actually speak Italian. I mean the idea of cup sizes.
“I’ll have a latte.”
“What size would you like?”
“What size: small, medium or large?”
“Oh. Umm… just the regular one.”
Starbucks has built an international empire on the fetishism of choice. The myriad cup sizes and drink options, and smiling baristas who are taught to accommodate almost any request, is what separated the company from it’s competitors. But Ireland only started to get fancy-shmancy cafes during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ boom of the 1990’s. Before that, your options were coffee or tea. Other than being disappointed when we didn’t have marshmallows for their hot chocolate, Irish customers requested almost nothing special for their drinks. They seemed to desire less options, not more.
And speaking of less options, there were only a handful of gay bars scattered throughout the city. But what they lacked in quantity they made up for in sociability. My first time at The George, the city’s first gay pub, an older gentleman didn’t wait ten minutes to inform me that I was in the section of the bar for mature patrons like himself.
“I’m not trying to chat you up, I just t’aught you should know.” He probably was trying to chat me up, but it was friendly all the same.
When I went by myself to one of the various gay bars more often than not someone would start talking to me. Sometimes they were trying to get into my pants (once, on the dance floor this was literally true and I had to slap a man’s hand away from undoing the top buttons of my jeans), but often it was just because they were curious about who I was and where I was from. After the initial greeting, they’d buy me a pint (I had to get over my fear of being ruffied) and introduce me to their friends.
One night will stand in for many: I met Kevin through a group of American visitors I had latched onto. He was cute in a very blonde, wholesome way. After an evening of flirting (he asked if I was interested in any cute boys I had seen, I told him none other than him) we escaped onto the outside patio. Lighting a cigarette, he quickly leaned in to kiss me. Caught off guard, I some how knocked the cigarette out of his hand, almost burning my arm in the process. Apparently, I was Bridget Jones. When we kissed, it was magical, ‘nothing else matters’ kissing.
That I never saw him again doesn’t change the fact that it was one of the best nights of my life.
But, despite my adventures, I decided to move home. I didn’t want to spend Christmas in Ireland, forty hours a week at Starbucks was exhausting and I was realizing that you can’t run away from your future forever. Considering that I got my internship at WORN soon after that, I think I made the right decision.
I hoped that my experiences at Dublin gay bars would give me the confidence to start acting like the sexy young person I always was inside. Why couldn’t the things I did on the night I met Kevin (introduce myself to strangers, openly flirt, ask for cell phone numbers) work in Toronto?
It pains me to say that nothing had changed. At Toronto gay bars I reverted back to the unassuming and uncomfortable person I was before. There is something diabolically stifling about Church Street and I know I’m not the only one who feels it. Various gay guys complain to me that they never meet anyone, that no one talks to them or, worse, they get glared at.
“Sorry I don’t look like a model!” one friend thought out loud to me recently, reflecting the shared insecurities of gay men which are so easily exasperated.
Toronto has twice the population of Dublin, so it’s fair to say that the size of its gay community dwarves Dublin’s like a pine tree to a shamrock. And yet in Ireland I met and snogged many more people and I never once went online.
Maybe the size of Toronto’s gay community is the problem. Just like at Starbucks (tall-grande-vente) we’ve been spoiled by the endless choice of men (tall-skinny-buff). On Plenty of Fish, we can view page after page of Asian guys, or everybody but Asian guys, or Asian guys who like threesomes. We can automatically block those looking for casual sex, or those not looking for casual sex. We can scroll through profile after profile, never having to even message anyone. Who needs to shower and go to a bar?
At Starbucks, instead of handing you a cup of one-size-fits-all coffee, the multitude of choices leads you to believe there is a perfect drink out there for you. You just need to keep trying different combinations to find it. So the eye-rolling customer becomes convinced she needs a drink that is 185 degrees (that’s her drink). In reality, she’d be perfectly happy with one a little less hot.
We single gays need to try the same thing. The innumerable options on Plenty of Fish combined with the innumerable faces at Crews and Tangoes make us believe there are infinite guys out there. There’s not. You may think you need a Nordic blonde web designer who likes cats, doesn’t like sushi and is uncircumcised. But, if you felt like saying hello, the shy one with glasses sitting at the bar is pretty cool as well.