Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: Starbucks

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.

Poor Ireland

Last night, officials from the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank arrived in Dublin. This morning they will begin creating a bailout loan and a forced cost-cutting program, expected to cost about $81,000 per household. As unfortunate as an economic  crisis such as this would be for any nation, for Ireland a European bailout comes with humiliating historical ironies.

Already, a Brussels official referred to the loan as the “Oliver Cromwell package”, referencing the British Lord who invaded Ireland in 1649 and, as The Globe and Mail points out, “it is a particular badge of dishonour, for a people who marched under the banner ‘neither King nor Kaiser’ in the last century, that Britain and Germany are extending their hands most generously”.

But what other choice does the country have? The drastic cuts implemented by Taoiseach Brian Cowen were not enough to calm their European Union partners, a financial brotherhood which first much-benefited the small emerald isle during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ boom. That boom is a distant memory. As The Globe summarizes, “Ireland’s banks are close to insolvency; an estimated 200,000 homeowners—affecting about a fifth of the country—face default on their mortgages; unemployment has topped 13 per cent and the government’s budget deficit has reached 30 per cent of GDP, largely because of bank bailouts.”

But all of that sounds very theoretical. Weren’t you just in Dublin, Max? What was it like actually living there?

The most unnerving thing about an economic downturn is you can’t always tell.

Sure, I had trouble finding a job. Luckily, I was eventually hired at a Starbucks at a posh mall right outside central Dublin. And storefronts in downtown, which would be snapped up in an ever-expanding city like Toronto, sat oddly vacant and melancholy.

But human beings are funny creatures, set in our ways and slow to adapt to shifting environments. There are countless places I would have seen more economic devastation if I had lived there, but living in latte-sipping Ranelagh (sort of like the Annex of Dublin) and working at Dundrum Town Centre, serving frappuccinos to wealthy women, bangled arms weighted down with shopping bags, and their spoiled daughters (speaking with a distinctive Irish-Valley Girl swoopy accent), you could almost believe that everything was going swimmingly.

I venture to add that, as terrible as the American economy is, you would get a very skewed view if you lived in New York.

I venture to add that I have a skewed view of Canada’s economic health living in Toronto.

Of course, this Marie Antoinette distance from reality can’t last forever. After having a labour shortage and welcoming in my Eastern European, Asian and Middle Eastern Starbucks co-workers (“The Irish don’t want those jobs,” a native Irish person told me), the government is scaling back on who gets in. And Starbucks closed about six locations in the greater Dublin area, as good an indication of any that people are cutting expenses and guarding their money.

If I knew more about economics, I would draw a lesson about not letting banks run amok with mortgages, not letting housing developers build like wild men, not letting governments go in to debt because they bizarrely and ahistorically believe economies continue to grow indefinitely.

For now I’ll just sign off with the hope that when Ireland pulls itself (or is pulled out) of this marshy economic quagmire, that the lessons hard-won will help the sun shine again.

An Open Letter

Dear Lynne Rosenthal,

I learned from the New York Post that you are a professor of English, having received a PhD from Columbia University. Congratulations! I hope that you are using your position as one of our sparkling intellectual lights to illuminate the minds and guide the souls of the fresh generation.

Full disclosure: I worked for Starbucks in both Toronto and Dublin. It always struck me as interesting that Starbucks is a celebrity brand with more people reading about the stores than patronizing them. For these reasons, the Huffingtonpost headline “English Professor Kicked Out of Starbucks for Ordering ‘Incorrectly’” intrigued me. Especially considering how business has been, Starbucks shouldn’t be throwing customers away for calling a ‘grande’ ‘medium’.

But it wasn’t Starbuck’s notorious cup sizes that caused the problem, was it?

You ordered a toasted multi-grain bagel and, rather than just hand it over, the barista dared to ask if you wanted butter or cheese on it. Now, as an intelligent woman Lynne, you probably realize that for most of us, those of us without degrees from Columbia who waft through life not seeing the linguistic underpinnings of our bagel-purchasing transactions, would have just said “No thank you” and moved on with our day.

But not for Lynne Rosenthal, who the Post claims “blew her top”.

“I just wanted a multigrain bagel,” you told the reporter. “I refused to say ‘without butter or cheese.’ When you go to Burger King, you don’t have to list the six things you don’t want.”

Valid point, Lynne, although you may still have to answer if you’d like to ‘super size’ it, so prepare yourself for that ordeal.

“Linguistically, it’s stupid, and I’m a stickler for correct English.”

Socially, you’re insane. Plus you’ve managed to mix two of my biggest pet-peeves (being rude to service workers and grammar Nazism). Want to throw in some misogyny while you’re at it?

According to the Post, you “next began yelling at the staffer to hand over [your] plain bagel, until the manager finally called the police.”

After what you’d already been through, what with having to answer if you wanted cheese or butter, to then be pulled away by police! How embarrassing!

“Starbucks staff said Rosenthal incited the face-off by hurling profanities at the staffer.”

How could they say that?! Clearly, you were not hauled away like a crazy person for being disruptive and abusive to the minimum wage worker who was just doing their (sorry, Lynne, his or her) job. No, your childish tantrum was entirely justified in the cause of preserving the English language from assaults like ordering bagels in the negative.

As anyone familiar with Starbucks policy knows, they say ‘yes’ to almost anything, so for them to go to the extent of calling the cops you must have been causing an EPIC scene. I want to thank you, Lynne, for now I have the image of you being escorted out of the store, with or without your unbuttered bagel, in my mind for all eternity.

So rather than “English Professor Kicked Out of Starbucks for Ordering ‘Incorrectly’”, the Post’s headline should have read something like “Insane Customer Believes Anal Eccentricities Warrant Screaming, Abuse”. But you can’t blame the Post for phrasing it as they did. Who’d want to read that? It doesn’t fit the popular meme of Starbucks baristas being uppity bitches about cup sizes. And it happens every single day.

Eduardo and Sorcha

Eduardo and Sorcha

Despite being a visual person, I have mostly shunned images on this blog or used them sparingly. This was as aesthetic choice as well as a professional one. I think that if you have a blog primarily to showcase your writing the main thing on the page should be text and not slow-loading pictures. But when this photograph showed up on my facebook, I couldn’t resist sharing it with everyone. I don’t know who took it, but it’s of my friends and Starbucks co-workers from Ireland, Eduardo and Sorcha. Great names, huh? I remember complimenting Sorcha by saying that her name sounded “juicy”, which probably sounded weird.

I love the way they’re posed. I love that the over-exposure of Sorcha’s face reduces it to the features, including shockingly blue eyes. She looks like an angel, while Eduardo is the devil. Eduardo has a habit of going all James Dean in pictures, furrowing his brow and looking disturbed. The contrast it produces here is great. I even like the texture of the background wall. The finishing touch is the green facepaint which links the two faces together. I think it’s from a bar in Dublin where everyone wears ‘tribal’ make-up, a gimmick I doubt you’d ever see in Toronto.  

Other People: Siobhan Murphy

Siobhan Murphy made my shifts at the Starbucks in Dundrum Town Centre (a posh mall in Dublin) much more enjoyable. With her sexy, deep voice, sarcastic sass and habit of whispering ‘suck my balls!’ she brightened up my days. From her, I learned some Irish pronunciation (like her first name, which sounds like ‘shev-von’) and in turn, I introduced her to gay culture, through ‘The Birdcage’.

MM: What are you studying in school?

SM: Politics and Art History

MM: What would you like to be doing in ten years?

SM: To be self-sufficient, not to have to worry about money. Not that I want to have a lot just not lose sleep over it.

MM: Describe your absolute worse day at Starbucks.

SM: I remember I had a horrific cold one day and they couldn’t get a replacement so came in any way. I could only do the washing up because I looked so sick and my nose was red and runny and completely gross. Washing up is hot work since Dundrum is so busy and it was just torture trying to keep up with the mountain of dishes but in fairness the boss man was pretty nice to me and the other staff were good too. Just the customers and their annoying ways that made me bitter and twisted.

MM: What book should everyone read?

SM: If This Is A Man by Primo Levi.

MM: What are people’s biggest misconception about the Irish?

SM: We drink too much.

MM: Are there any funny cultural differences between you and your Scottish boyfriend?

SM: Accents and words. Like “Yes” is “Aye”. When you’re in a supermarket and the lady at the checkout in Dublin says, “That’s 26euro love”. In Scotland she says, “That’s 26pounds hen”.Other than that nothing major. The Scots are pretty similar to the Irish with the weather, drinking habits, distaste for English glory: in the words of Tommy Tiernan [Irish comedian], “We like to see them beaten in things like football and war.”

MM: Where would you like to travel next?

SM: Korea, Hong Kong, somewhere that side of the world.

MM: What comes to your mind when you hear ‘Canada’?

SM: Max! Toronto, Quebec, people who speak French with a Canadian accent, red and white, famous actors who you think are American but on further study turn out to be Canadian.

MM: List your top five favourite swears.

SM: Nice girls don’t swear but if i had to pick one, we all know what it would be.

Canadian Barista in Ireland

I moved to Ireland at age 24 to start over on my own and connect with my ‘Old Country’ culture. Instead, the international friends I found there turned me into a citizen of the world.

The ‘Celtic Tiger’ economic boom is over.  I was lucky to be hired by Starbucks at an upscale mall on the outskirts of Dublin. Although I worked for Starbucks in Canada, there were things about Irish customer service I had to learn. Our customers could not seem to grasp cup sizes, and I don’t mean ‘tall’, ‘grande’ or ‘venti’: they didn’t understand the concept of sizes at all. My boss Jason explained that specialty coffee shops were new in Ireland. Not long ago, your only choice was coffee or tea.

My co-workers were expatriates or gregarious Irish girls with non-phonetic Celtic names. In contrast to them, our Eastern European girls were stand-offish. Lenka, from Slovakia, was as admired for her efficiency as she was feared for her icy stare. “Who said this to you?” she demanded when you complained about a rude customer, “WHO?!” 

Varun was a dedicated shift-supervisor from India. He could be obsessive, as when he made me count the mugs to make sure we hadn’t “lost” any, but he left the day’s stresses at the store. He had a goofy sense of humour and if you laughed at his lame jokes he would slyly wink. We developed a brotherly rapport, but we didn’t discuss our personal lives until one night at a pub we ran out of Starbucks shop talk.  He said he had a girlfriend in India and asked if I had one back home. I thought everyone at the store knew I was gay. (Anna from Poland had asked me once, “How do you know when a man is the gay? Because I have NEVER known the gay before!”) Caught off-guard by Varun, I answered, “No. I’m gay.” Barely pausing, he continued, “Well, do you have a boyfriend in Canada?”

If Varun was big brother of our expatriate family, Daria was the rebellious sister. Petite and pretty, with  cutting-age style, she hailed from Mongolia. It surprised her that I’d heard of Ghengis Khan.  “The Irish don’t know about him…” she muttered. She treated Jason like an overbearing father, but he always forgave her for rolling her eyes or opening the store hung-over. She was brutally honest and said whatever she felt. “I didn’t like you at first,” she told me. “But now I do!”

Most of my co-workers couldn’t relate to my occasional homesickness, but Daria gave me a big hug. “I’m away from home, you’re away from home,” she explained, “Sometimes we all just need a hug.”
Sometimes a person fills a void you barely knew was there. I felt I was a good gay role model for my international friends, but I had no one to check out handsome customers with. Enter Eduardo. Tall and with a boyish face hiding his naughty streak, he came from Brazil by way of London, where he spent two formative years of his youth nightclubbing and befriending hip, neo-punk lesbians. I figured out he was gay by singing Britney Spears lyrics and noting whether he joined in. Newer to the city than I was, he desperately needed to meet people and we became fast friends. After a day of wandering the city alone, I could always phone Eduardo and get him to join me.

I even convinced him to go on a weekend trip to Glendalough, a medieval monastery nestled amongst hills and forests, where we trudged around the marshy lakes discussing skinny jeans and Lady Gaga. We walked in the rain for forty minutes to find the town’s lone pub, but when we did it was perfect: a fire place, mulled wine and local men gathered around rugby on the TV. Here, of all places, Eduardo opened up for the first time about coming out, his uncle who made him give up his nose-ring and punk clothes, and his hipster London friends. “I keep referring to them as my best friends,” he confided, “but you’re my best friend now.”

When I decided to move back home, my Irish co-workers insisted on a going-away party. Everyone came, including my boss and the raucous gaggle of Irish girls. Daria danced all night. Lenka cuddled up to me and kept saying, “I don’t want you to go, because I really like you.” Varun stayed until last call, even though he had to open the store the next morning.
 Eduardo, the most upset at my leaving, asked if I was ignoring him. “No,” I said. “If it seems I’m paying you less attention, it’s because you’ll be the hardest one to say goodbye to.” After the bar closed, we stumbled into McDonald’s, the traditional Irish thing after a night of partying. As I walked up Grafton Street with Jason he said it was sad that it took one of us leaving for us all to go out together.

Although I didn’t feel I left an impression on Dublin, I marvel at the legacy I left with my expat family, who are now spreading back out around the globe. Soon after, Varun returned to India to get married, and I missed my chance to experience an Indian wedding.  When I visited the store during my last weekend in Dublin, I learned Anna was pregnant and planning a Polish wedding. I joined Eduardo for his break. As he puffed at a cigarette, we said awkward, unmemorable things. His timer dinged when his break was over.

“Okay, I’m going to go,” I said, not knowing if tears were going to come or if I just thought they should. “I’m going to miss you a lot,” Eduardo said, hugging me.
“Behave yourself!” I said, getting up to leave. “Don’t forget about me!” I added as I walked away, not looking back. 
My expat family will go their separate ways; their influence on me will last.

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