by Chris Ledford
I used to think I’d join the Peace Corps or Teach for America. Instead, I spent my first post-college year working at a Starbucks in a “transitional neighborhood” of Atlanta.
On my first day I watched a series of training videos that explained the “Starbucks culture.” Starbucks has its own language, I learned, a doublespeak that combines Dale Carnegie management jargon with sensitive, neutral phrases you’d expect to hear in a family therapy session. For example, Starbucks doesn’t have employees, it has partners. No one is ever fired from Starbucks, they’re simply separated.
The last video was called “Workplace Violence.” I expected a brief, obligatory clip giving instructions on how to act if a disgruntled employee — excuse me, “partner” — goes postal, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, the video focused on robberies, assaults, and acts of customer aggression. In each case, protocol was the same: avoid confrontation at all costs. If they have a gun and ask for money, give them the money. If a fight breaks out, stay away and call 9-1-1. If a partner attempts to intervene, he or she will be separated.
An assistant manager asked if I had any questions. “So, let me get this straight,” I said, “here at Starbucks, we’re against workplace violence?” I smiled and waited for her to laugh and compliment my biting wit. Instead, she folded her arms and groaned as my face filled with little needles trying to poke their way out.
“You’d be surprised what can happen here,” she said.
* * *
The first act of violence I witnessed happened around Christmas. It started with a complaint: a lady in giant furry boots approached me at the register to tell me she couldn’t taste any peppermint in her peppermint mocha. People asked us to remake drinks all the time for all sorts of reasons, but what made her complaint unusual was that she accused me of deliberately skimping on the peppermint, as if I meant to sabotage her Starbucks experience.
“I’m sorry, I promise I didn’t mean to,” I said, trying to diffuse the situation, “I’ll put a few extra pumps in there for you.”
As I went to fix her drink, I heard her mutter something about me being a “loser.” It was an accusation I felt hard pressed to refute, but couldn’t come up with a good rebuttal, so instead I just gave her what she asked for. I put ten huge pumps of peppermint syrup in her drink, handed it back to her, and said, through gritted teeth, “Here you go, ma’am,” making sure to put a little stink on the “ma’am.” I’d become a master at this subtle form of passive aggression towards rude customers. It was pathetic.
She avoided eye contact as she took her drink and calmly walked back to her seat. I watched her take a sip and stare out the window, almost in a stupor. I sensed that the crisis hadn’t been averted; we were merely in the eye of the storm.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, as a man walked by her on his way to the bathroom, she jumped up and started screaming. “You tried to rape me!” she shouted as she threw her recently modified peppermint mocha at him. The cup exploded on his chest like a chocolate molotov cocktail, but he must’ve been in too much shock to feel the burn of hot liquid seeping through his shirt. He put his arms up and yelled, “I didn’t do anything! I don’t even know you!”
“You tried to rape me!” she screamed again, jabbing a finger in his face. “You’re a dog!” She turned to address the frightened onlookers and shook her finger at them. “You all tried to rape me!”
For a moment, I felt a strange relief to know that an attempted rape hadn’t just happened, that she was just crazy. She then picked up one of our controversially secular holiday displays and flung it across the cafe. Customers ducked under tables and my manager ran to the back office to call 9-1-1. “You’re all a buncha dogs!” she shouted as she hurled another display holding gift cards and ornaments. She stormed out the door and continued her psychotic episode outside in the parking lot, screaming and tossing garbage cans until the police showed up.
In her wake she left a floor littered with the debris of seasonal merchandise. It took at least half an hour for me to pick up all the Michael Buble CDs and Advent calendars (the most overtly Christian item we sold). Through the window, I watched two cops try to subdue her and get her into the back of a squad car.
* * *
Not long afterward, I began hearing rumors about an old homeless man named Cliff who wandered the shopping center day and night causing havoc. He threw a shopping cart through the window of a nearby nail salon. He exposed himself to customers inside Trader Joe’s. He chased the six-foot-two, rugby-playing manager of a pizzeria around the parking lot. In all of the stories, his most terrifying attribute seemed to be his elusiveness. He disappeared each time he struck, just before the police could apprehend him, giving him the aura of an evil Slenderman-like apparition.
He showed up one day during our morning rush. I was steaming milk at the bar when I caught a glimpse of his bloodshot eyes and long white beard, which made him look like a Druid priest in a trenchcoat and basketball shorts. He paced around the store, grunting and mumbling obscenities. My coworker Bill saw him and went for the phone to call the police. Cliff must’ve seen this because he immediately went berserk, arms flailing and yelling gibberish, and darted behind the counter.
Bill stood defiant like Gandalf in front of the Balrog, phone in hand, shouting, “Out! Out!” Cliff took a swing that just missed his head. He then sprinted out the door and into the parking lot while the long line of customers stood stunned. Bill, a semi-professional actor, took a bow and said, “And scene!” The audience let out a nervous laugh and then went back to buying coffee as if nothing had happened.
A few days later, I heard that Cliff had tried to ransack the brunch place next door where he was tackled and held down by the all female staff until the cops arrived. His reign of terror was over.
* * *
Then, there was a notorious local pimp who tried to make our store his base of operations. His name was “Chicago,” or at least that was his nom de guerre. He’d show up everyday around opening at five-thirty in the morning and stay until we closed at ten in the evening. I learned he was a pimp from several regulars who told me he’d been hanging around the neighborhood for years. Besides, he didn’t do much to hide his profession.
He never changed clothes; always wore an all white tracksuit, a gold chain, and had greasy, slicked-back hair. He spent most of the day sitting in the corner of the cafe talking on his bluetooth, using words like “baby girl” as interchangeable pronouns. Apparently, he was a telecommuting pimp.
Once, he tried to start a fight with a homeless man who had allegedly harassed a female customer. He then tried to use this display of chivalry to put us all under his protection racket, demanding free drinks and food in return for his unsolicited security services.
To my chagrin, some of my coworkers welcomed this new pimp/ho dynamic that had developed between Chicago and our store. One night, during closing, I found Chicago passed out in our bathroom, most likely strung out. After I helped him to his feet and walked him out the door, I asked my manager why we were being so lenient towards an obvious criminal. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, “at least he’s keeping us safe.”
* * *
My girlfriend hated me working there. She worried about my safety and kept insisting I find a new job, or at least transfer to a different Starbucks. I felt like a cop in a movie whose wife wants him off the beat but he can’t resist the pull of the streets.
“I’m worried you’re not going to come home one night,” she said once, as if she was preparing for widowhood.
“Oh, c’mon, honey, it’s just Starbucks,” I said trying to reassure her.
I imagined John McCain must’ve said something similar to his wife on the telephone the night before he got shot down over Vietnam.
It wasn’t the danger that kept me there; it was the comfort, the health insurance, and, most of all, the dread of going back on the job hunt. Looking for work requires a form of self-reflection I can’t stand: reorganizing my resume, mapping burned bridges, tracing the history of missed opportunities and avoided risks that have barred me from the upper echelons of the post-industrial economy.
How did it get to this? Why was I risking bodily harm to serve overpriced coffee for less than a living wage? I would have liked to blame it on capitalism, an economy stripped of all its humanity by greed and automation. After all, it’s easier to pass the buck to baby boomers and robots than to own up to my own shortcomings. I’d much rather quote Noam Chomsky or cite labor statistics than admit that I spent most of my formative years indulging in designer drugs and bad music. Perhaps if I’d put more of my adolescent time and energy into learning skills other than how to categorize shoegaze bands or discern the purity of blotter acid I’d have a savings account by now.
* * *
A man and woman came up to me one day while I was on register and I knew from the moment I saw them that they were undercover cops, not because I had some some street-bred sixth sense for spotting five-o, but because it was just so obvious. Everything about their appearance seemed contrived, like they’d Googled “how to dress like an urban youth.” Both were wearing baggy pants and backwards baseball caps with what appeared to be holstered guns concealed underneath their oversized T-shirts. They flashed their badges and told me they had come to investigate a recent crime.
“Which crime?” I had to ask because there had been so many. Just a few weeks before, a coworker had been stabbed on his way to his car at night.
“There was a stolen bicycle,” said the male officer.
I waited for him to finish his sentence. A stolen bicycle… and? Was the stolen bicycle an accessory to a larger crime?
Nope. Just a stolen bicycle.
The female officer pulled out a notepad and pen from her pocket. “Were you aware of a stolen bicycle on the premises of this Starbucks?” she asked.
“Have you seen anyone suspicious hanging around here lately?” asked the male officer.
I wanted to say, Are you fucking kidding me? Look around, man!
“No, not really.”
“We’re gonna post up over there,” said the female officer and pointed to a table in the back, “see if we can catch the guy.”
“But first,” said the male officer, “which frappuccino would you recommend? Caramel or vanilla bean?”
They came every afternoon for a week, sampling all of our frappuccinos, sitting at a table with notepads out, guns and badges clearly visible. I never found out if they caught the bicycle thief. I didn’t care.
Of all the crimes that occurred at our store, why did the APD pick a bicycle theft, a case straight out of an Encyclopedia Brown book, to put their resources into solving? Why didn’t they give this kind of attention to finding the guy who stabbed my coworker? Why didn’t they set up a stakeout to catch Cliff? Why didn’t they stop Chicago from using our cafe as a hooker call center?
* * *
When I imagined leaving Starbucks, I’d sometimes remember the line from Platoon that Keith David says to Charlie Sheen: “All you gotta do is make it out of here. It’s all gravy, everyday the rest of your life, gravy.”
I did get out, but it wasn’t gravy. I got a job writing for a website that published “family-friendly viral content,” where I spent hours each day writing phrases like, “This video of a baby and kitten playing together will restore your faith in humanity.” My clickbait career was short-lived, however, and within months I was laid off and looking for work. When a friend told me that the indie coffee shop he worked at was hiring, I felt like fate was playing a cruel trick on me. Just when I think I’m out they pull me back in.
I took the job. Only months after I’d hung up my apron under the delusion that I’d left the food and beverage industry for good, I was once again behind a counter. But this place was different; this place was safe. It was a “cool” coffee shop in a “cool” neighborhood. This was the kind of coffee shop where patrons would never think to use their paper cups as projectiles. None of my new coworkers would ever experience the strange comfort of being under the guardianship of a junkie pimp.
Perhaps I was suffering from some sort of shell shock, but I started to miss the unpredictable terror that came from my old Starbucks. I felt like I was now in the Witness Protection Agency, working at a small town diner under a new alias while half expecting an old familiar face, perhaps Cliff or Chicago, to come barging in and pull me back into the seedy past I thought I’d escaped.
Chris Ledford is a writer and comedian from Atlanta. He hosts Song Missing, a monthly music-themed comedy/ lit variety show.