Starbucks (Albertsons)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Let's face it, if you're still reading this blog, you aren't coming here for truthfulness. Not only do I warp, stretch, and willfully misremember facts to have something to say at all, but I actually make shit up. To continue in the supposed tradition I began last week by pointing it out: psychocafegraphy is reaching to find dramatic, usually somewhat specious things to say about Ashland and its denizens. For instance: Ashland has a North side and South side, and the boundary between them holds sociocultural importance. South Side Tattoos acknowledges this delineation, although it is actually North of the railroad tracks. This, ladies and gentleman, is the wrong side of the tracks.

On this side are the interstate and almost all of the chains in town: Taco Bell, Rite Aid, Bi-Mart, Subway, Goodwill, Albertsons, and there used to be a Pizza Hut. (The former building of which, oddly, now houses Heartsong Chai.) More suburbia than small town, everything over here is what the downtown core repels and yet relies on. You could, for example, get your kitchen gadget from Alyson's (well, could've gotten--it has recently gone out of business) downtown, but you can get it cheaper at Bi-Mart, over the little bump of Ashland Street's railroad overpass. Downtown is an idyll, a touristic semblance of a whole town, full, basically, of everything you don't need, and over here is where its strict aestheticism takes a dump. (Of course, this begs the question: what exactly is a "whole" town? Taken to an extreme, the "__ local" movement would have it that such towns or cities unto themselves exist, or ought to.)

I assume that almost none of this existed before the interstate was put through it. But then, why did this spot in particular get chosen as the intersection of Ashland Street (which here becomes Highway 66) and Interstate 5?

To a dweller of the interior of the North side there is a certain poetry to these outskirts. Their spaciousness and decay were often the subjects of my teenaged camera. The yellow grass, the railroad tracks, the crickets, the contrails of airplanes made visible from lack of trees. Just to the other side of the tracks is a park where I've had picnics both by myself and with a friend who used to work at Shopp'n Cart (where my grandmother used to shop, forget that she already went shopping, and go shopping again, filling her kitchen with a large cruft of duplicates), right next to equal opportunity housing. With wide parking lots and without the crowds of pedestrians, people look at each other differently here. The gaze is more indirect, and incidental voyeurism is mostly lost. All of which, of course, casts this side of town in the same rosy light as a traveler does another country. He forgets the loneliness of travel.

Actually I am not at (one cannot exactly be in) the Starbucks in Albertsons at the moment, and thus to write about it I must imagine that I am there. To be there you must do the reverse: you have to imagine you are elsewhere. There to be "present" or "in the now," like the Zen gurus with which Ashland is elsewhere replete, would be disastrous. In fact, this is why Starbucks is here: You buy your cup of comfort to protect yourself from the cold fluorescent lights. Unlike the haunts of the more generously moneyed, Albertsons does not shove its own fantasies down your throat. Rather its very barrenness is a potential breeding ground for a variety of needfully alienated consciousnesses. Bring your iPod.

There is a beer-bellied giant with a child on a leather leash. Apparently, children have leashes now. The child runs ahead, straining his lead. The giant laughs and ducks his balding head of long white hair under the door frame of the automatic door. Albertsons is the stuff of cheap horror, or at the very least Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Unwitting employees nearly trundle into me with massive carts on my way around the corner of an aisle. Inside the public restroom, the door is violently jerked--stopped loudly by the deadbolt--as if some hungry animal is trying to bash its way in. If this really were a horror film I would be frantically prying the air vent to escape the unseen beast.

In film there's a tradition of ironically setting cheery music to gruesome scenes of innocents being torn limb from limb. I have heard that the music in supermarkets is intended to put you in the mood to shop longer. The music in Albertsons--at the moment a man warbling incomprehensibly at the top of his sappy lungs (think "I will always love you" but somehow more relentless)--seems rather designed to drive customers out. Technically the in-store Starbucks might qualify as a cafe because there are two sad little tables to the side of it, next to the magazines, but I can't bring myself to sit there for more than five minutes because of the music. Not only is it depressing; it's actually difficult to think. So much for my theory of fertile emptiness.

Not everyone can rush in and out of Albertsons as quickly as possible. I wonder how the girl at the Starbucks counter, or for that matter everyone else who works in this store, manages to stand listening to it all day. She does seem awfully bored.
"How's your morning going so far?" she asks.
Is this the kind of perfunctory politeness suggested in employee training, or a question from someone looking for any viable distraction?

Fleeing the music, I sit outside in the sun at a nearby Subway table, filtering through the recent memories of my brief experience in Albertsons, placing myself there. Of course, I'm not actually at the Subway table anymore, but on the Bloomsbury patio. Or I was; now I'm at home. At home imagining myself in a place which one must imagine is another place. I may as well just be in my room, sitting in the dark. The Starbucks here is hardly even a cafe. It's an armory at ground zero. Or at least, I would like to think so. That would be more exciting than the reality.