Starbucks (Downtown)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Starbucks is not a coffee shop. If it weren't for Starbucks, coffee shops wouldn't be here, but in being the coffee shop qua coffee shop, Starbucks is another thing altogether. One need only walk in during the rush of customers after a play to see this.

Because of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, from March to October its downtown foot traffic comes in waves. Whenever a play ends tourists spill onto the red bricks between the Festival's buildings and make trails to the parking garage, to the hotel, to the plaza, and to Starbucks, conveniently located right next to OSF. There's even a second door so that one may walk more directly from a play to the Starbucks counter. (In the summer while wandering around town I used to sneak in that door to access the bathrooms. They have since locked the doors and make keys available to customers.) The play-goers come not for coffee, but for Starbucks. For a customer the appeal of a franchise is its consistency. One knows what Starbucks contains.

There is a comfort in the known thing. There is a kind of brashness that comes in, say, Denny's late at night. In one corner are five friends telling each other the most hysterical stories, at least to them. They are not the least bit self-conscious. They seem not from around here. What Ashlander has a golden leather purse and dresses mainly in black?

This morning my house was frigid. Some might say that sixty derees farenheit is not that cold. Some even keep their houses normally at that temperature. I find it difficult to want to do anything. It feels like the house is not a place lived in but a relic. With the furnace broken, that small taken for granted thing sequestered in the crawlspace, life feels like it's pushing me into a smaller and smaller space, finally into bed where it's warm. From this I escaped to Starbucks, where there is warmth, there is someone to clear away the clutter, and there is a sense of others' involvement in life. Is this why one comes here? To exchange the dreariness of one's own life for a dream of comfort and liveliness?

There is a mural here spanning an entire wall in the main seating area. It depicts first of all a warm scene: everyone is wearing loose robes, dresses, togas, and sarongs. It is a safe, politically correct scene: the men are naked from the waist up, the women with breasts loosely covered, and children are modestly naked (the child is turned away from us so that we only see his bum). It's a classical-cum-New-Age scene. They're surrounded by green Mediterranean (or Californian) hills. Next to a stream they luxuriate among Corinthian columns and under a trellis of coffee trees. Bronze urns of cofffee are strewn about, and they hold modern ceramic mugs held like ancient Greek wine kylixes. Some have wreaths of flowers and ivy. It's a hippie utopia of an outdoor coffee shop: a straight, white, middle aged dream of tolerance, neopastoralism, and the nuclear family. People of all ages and races are here placid and smiling in very comfortably conservative arrangements.

On the right side blackness and whiteness are addressed: there are two couples , one, a white man and a black woman, and the other, a white woman and a black man. The latter is an older couple with greying and white hair, and the former is younger, with a baby laying between them. Hurrah, the mural announces, love is colorblind!

Two other representives of categories from the American racial imagination: Asian and Hispanic. The Asian man with his hair in a bob, a sarong around his waist, and one hand on the counter receives coffee from a man with a turban. The Hispanic woman leans on the opposite end of the small, white-tableclothed counter in a violet dress tied with gold cords, looking smugly down and holding a mug of coffee.

The least explicable character here is the bald goateed man with a purple sash with a feathery mask as if for a masquerade ball. In one hand he delicately holds a cupcake aloft as if it were some kind of magical object rather than something to be eaten, and in the other, a pink rose. But then I suppose he's no stranger than the camel, the elephant, the mermaid, and how on the extreme left side there is a woman who looks upward at seemingly nothing. Is she looking at the pillar, at the trellis, at the Asian man, what? And her face, rather than looking content, looks numb.

Otherwise everyone is utterly serene--there's not an ounce of tension in their gazes, their faces, or their bodies. In this cafe dream those who serve the coffee are living the fantasy their labor produces as much as the patrons are. One's consciousness here knows only what one does, and does not wish for anything else. Dreams are unnecessary to the inhabitants of the dream. There are no conflicts here, within or without. Self and other are one in the same.

The two musicians at opposite sides of the painting, one with a violin and one with pan pipes, could be father and son. Both are white with long dark hair parted in the middle, a lanky physique, and what I'm tempted to call a Pirate-y face. They are the bookends, the guardians of the frame. To enter the cheery pastiche world of the mural you must walk between them. The younger man on the right is looking to the left, perhaps at his wife, and perhaps at his father.

Two pillars form another frame: they are drawn flat, in a perfect isometry devoid of the distortions of perspective, and their tops are aligned perfectly with the top of the mural. They hold up the mural's wooden frame. All objects within the mural are in front of or behind the plane formed between the two pillars, which is parallel with the wall the mural is painted on. The mural thus extends into and beyond the room through the pillars' plane. We customers sitting in the room sit among the people of the mural. The mural isn't in Starbucks; Starbucks is in the mural, childishly painted in gaudy colors and broad strokes.