A Cup of Coffee at the Starbucks Circus

Going to a coffee shop to do some work or to relax a bit is a very popular thing to do in New York City, especially after the 12+ hour work day that most of us endure. And, while I am sure that there are local options for grabbing a cup of Jo or tea and hitting the interwebz on your laptop, “a coffee shop” here refers almost exclusively to Starbucks, seeing as how the Seattle-based chain has a virtual monopoly on WiFi-providing, nonalcoholic beverage-offering establishments in this city. Perhaps it doesn’t have an actual monopoly on this market, but it sure has the appearance of one. Starbucks stores dot this city like freckles on a redhead, and finding one is as easy as stepping outside of your apartment and simply opening your eyes.

With Starbucks’ popularity comes a downside, however. Getting a seat in a Starbucks in New York City is like winning some sort of lottery about which you get way more excited than any adult should about a chair. The number of customers looking for a place to sit and sip their drinks is astounding, and most Starbucks have a relatively constant line and a perpetually occupied floor of tables and chairs. If you are lucky enough to win one of these golden seats, you have also won the privilege of being stalked by vulture-like creepers who pace about the store, lingering around particular tables and staring, waiting for you to get uncomfortable enough to surrender your seat. Some people even approach you, letting you know that they have decided that it is now their turn to sit in your seat and use your table as if there were some sort of unwritten time-limit or perhaps they have been declared Ruler of the Universe without your knowing about it.

The best part about winning one of these highly-coveted seats is the free ticket that comes with it. You see, New York City Starbucks stores are actually part of an apparent traveling circus in which various acts mosey around Manhattan and the other boroughs performing their side show routines for anyone needing a little impromptu entertainment along with their drink that is inevitably way too hot or way too sweet to actually enjoy.

Here are some of the observations from my New York City Starbucks adventures so far:

  • A tiny little old Asian lady in a sailor outfit was standing by her table at a relatively busy Starbucks angrily yelling at the employees and customers. The thickness of her accent made it basically impossible for anyone to understand what she was saying, but I’m pretty sure the gist was this: She was mad. It was our fault. The End. And, I know you probably think that I made up the part about her wearing a sailor outfit. I didn’t.
  • A man, ostensibly homeless, with soiled clothes, a long yellow-tinged beard, and an incredibly dirty backpack decided to get a cup of coffee and rest in a Starbucks. He was filthy, and so were his belongings that were sitting in the chair opposite him at the table. Because of the incredible busyness of the store, an employee came over and very nicely asked the man to remove his things from the chair so that other people could use the unoccupied seat to sit down if they wanted. He responded by saying that he doesn’t like putting his bag on the ground because the ground is “dirty.” The very confused employee looked at him, looked at his filthy bag, looked back at him, paused and quietly walked away. Ostensibly Homeless Man – 1. Starbucks – 0.
  • A man came into Starbucks once and set up his post at a table near the door. He took out a miniature Christmas tree, placed it on the table, and then began pacing back and forth across the restaurant mumbling to himself. Every so often, he returned to his seat, removed something else from his bag, placed it on the table, and then continued pacing. I never saw him purchase a drink. His Christmas tree was beautiful.
  • A strange old lady frequents the Starbucks at 75th and Broadway. She carries large grocery bags full of who knows what. She finds a table, sits down, and places her bags on the floor. She has a walkman, circa 1990, that she uses to listen to some sort of music while she rocks back and forth and stares at everyone. Making eye contact is the equivalent to openly challenging her to a staring contest, which she will win. Every. Time. Also, I’m pretty sure she uses a red Crayola marker to apply her blush.
  • Some of the baristas prefer that you order twice, once to the drink maker and then again to the person at the register when you get up there to pay. This is especially useful at the busier stores because they can go ahead and get drinks started while customers are still waiting in long lines. The problem here lies in the fact that this is not a universal policy or practice, and you never know when walking into any given Starbucks whether you are going to be expected to order once or twice or to whom you should direct your one or two orders. Naturally, most people assume that the register is where you place your order, and usually, they would be right. But, I have seen many a barista yell “Hello!!” or “What do you want!?” or “Hey! Excuse me! Hello!? Hey! Sir!” at many an unsuspecting customer who has no idea what to do because there are now two people taking his order and he doesn’t know how to react. Pick one, Starbucks. Do you want me to order once or twice? Getting yelled at is embarrassing. And, yes, “many an unsuspecting customer” is me.
  • Many people who go to Starbucks in New York City are incredibly impatient. They spend four whole minutes reciting their unnecessarily complicated and pretentious drink order at the register and then go stand at the delivery counter that all of us know and love. Even though they see fifteen other people waiting on their drinks, all of whom were there before them, these impatient folks continually ask the barista if the grande coffee in a venti cup with 2 pumps hazelnut, 2 pumps vanilla, 2 pumps caramel, 2 equals and 4 sweet and lows filled to the top with cream, with extra cream on the side, double cupped with no sleeve, a stir stick, and stopper put in the top is ready. No. It’s not. So how about you go stand over there where I can’t see you and wait patiently like the fifteen other people that were here before you are doing? Hm? It’s either that or I slap those fake Gucci glasses off your face and give you a noogie in front of all of these people while they cheer me on and shower me with confetti. You choose. Ass.

Over time, I hope to add to my crazy-things-I-have-seen-while-minding-my-own-business-at-Starbucks list. I have a feeling that updating this list could become one of the highlights of my existence.

More to come.

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If I Were a Meat-Substitute Hotdog, I Would Most Definitely Eat Myself.

I grew up in the South, in a suburb of Nashville, TN. We ate meat. Lots of it. I am not sure that my mother ever prepared a meal that did not in some way include some form of meat, no matter how small. In the South, a meal without meat is a snack, not a meal. To my recollection, I never even knowingly met a vegetarian until I moved to Memphis to go to college, and even then, I only knew a couple. After moving to Chicago, I met several more vegetarians and was introduced to new dishes and ways of eating. And, while living in Spain, I decided to convert.

I always get the weirdest reactions, “What!?!? You don’t eat meat? Why? Wait a second, aren’t you from the South?!”

I made the transition to vegetarianism after having spent 24+ years gnawing on every type of meat you can think of. I grew up in one of the “foodiest” regions of America, the South. In the South, everything that you do involves food, and refusing to eat is more frowned upon than clubbing a baby seal with a kitten. Southerners fry everything, and it’s even better if you have to kill it before you have to fry it. I spent eighteen years eating momma’s home cookin’, which always included meat of some kind, four years eating barbecue and fried chicken in Memphis, two years eating hotdogs and meat lovers deep dish pizzas in Chicago, and then I moved to Spain, a meat-loving country if there ever was one. If you can kill it and eat it, they do, and they do it well. For the majority of my time there, I ate all that they had to offer, and I loved every second of it. But, over time, I started to get curious about the other side, the people, who for reasons that were once foreign and nonsensical to me, choose not to eat meat. Admittedly, my best friend in Spain was–and still is–a strict vegetarian, but her vegetarianism only made me curious about the idea. That curiosity sparked a desire to educate myself, and the results of that self education led me to make the final move.

It is important to note that I have no moral issues with eating meat. In fact, I think that eating meat is a perfectly fine thing to do. I just choose not to. Like most people who investigate the world more than simply turning on the local news or browsing the front page of the local paper, I do have my qualms with the meat industry. But, those qualms aside, I am not actually against the actual act of eating meat.

Health is my motivator. The process that your body must undertake in order to liquify, digest, and absorb meat is violent and intense. Meat is tough, and your body must work extra hard to break it down. Meat is also heavy, often loaded with fat, and full of excess calories. Yes, there are health benefits that come from meat, namely protein, iron, and certain vitamins and minerals, but those key nutritional elements are also found in plant-based foods. (The food regulating bodies of the US government suggest otherwise, but a quick glance at the ridiculous conflicts of interests that swirl around these entities will cause any logically thinking person to reevaluate what motivates their decisions how much they trust those suggestions.)

Cows, chickens, and pigs, our three main sources of meat in America, are all fed awkward diets that are laden with a food that is not natural to them, corn. Cows’, chickens’, and pigs’ consumption of corn leads to unnaturally rapid body growth and to a meat product that is not particularly healthy for humans to eat. Feed lots are cesspools that are controlled only by massive distribution of antibiotics that has the adverse effect of promoting the evolution of new and more dangerous diseases. Individual animal carcasses are processed in plants that process thousands of other animals at the same time. In other words, each hamburger that you eat contains the meat of countless cows, maybe as many as a couple of hundred or more and all of whom spent the last three months of their lives wading through their own excrement and the excrement of their bovine friends. If any of those cows happened to have been sick, good luck.

The meat industry these days is atrocious, a small fraternity of enormous companies that controls virtually every aspect of animal farming and meat processing. Blinded by grandiose dreams of economic domination, these companies have made numerous decisions over the years to raise their profits while providing a dangerously unhealthy product to their customers and progressively lessening their standards regarding the treatment of their animals.

I do realize that the rest of the food industry is not much better. We eat so many processed foods that our bodies are constantly trying to figure out what in the world we are eating and what we expect our insides to actually do with it. Over 70% of the 40,000+ items in your typical grocery store contains some type of genetically modified organism (GMO), and that GMO is almost always corn or soybean. And, while genetic modification is an age-old practice that began with crossbreeding, it has become a chemical-based endeavor, the eventual consequences of which are still largely unknown. Cancer rates are on the rise, and virtually every credible scientific study on the issue points to an undeniably direct correlation between one’s diet and his or her probability of a cancer diagnosis at some point in life. These days, avoiding these GMOs is almost impossible. They are in so many different foods listed under so many unpronounceable aliases that we all eat them everyday without even knowing it.

The main goal of my relatively newfound vegetarianism is not just about avoiding meat; it’s about eating more healthfully. Not eating meat is actually the easiest part, while avoiding processed foods is like avoiding tourists in Times Square. I try to eat a lot of raw vegetables or lightly cooked vegetables with very few other ingredients added. I do eat tofu, which is processed, I know, but it’s full of nutrients and I have determined that its benefits outweigh its costs. I try not to eat much candy, but I do occasionally splurge. I avoid sodas most of the time and drink lots of water, juice, and the occasional beer or glass of wine. I check the ingredients of anything processed and make a conscious decision to either purchase it or not by analyzing what is inside, almost always avoiding items that contain high fructose corn syrup, the worst of all GMOs in my humble opinion.

The reaction to my vegetarianism is always interesting, as I briefly indicated earlier. Most people are shocked, many are confused, and almost all have never met a man from the South who doesn’t eat meat. In Spain, most Spaniards didn’t understand it at all. Back home, my family thinks it’s a bit odd, but they don’t say too much about it. In New York, most people are still shocked that I, the Southern man, am a vegetarian, but they are mostly unfazed.

Finding accommodating restaurants and meatless dishes is a great adventure, widely enhanced by the plethora of food establishments that dot this massive city. While I have only lived in Madrid and New York during my young vegetarian life, I can reflect on my experiences in other places and say with relative confidence that New York is the best place in the world to live as a person who doesn’t eat meat. Virtually all restaurants in this city are more than accommodating to those who don’t eat meat, and with the progressive culture here, finding other people with vegetarian tendencies or at least other people who are open to the idea is quite easy.

In the end, everyone must make his or her own decision about what to eat or to not eat. I do not think that my choices are in any way better than anyone else’s; they are simply the best choices for me at this point in my life. While I do not eat any red meat, pork, or chicken, I do still occasionally consume highly processed foods for the sake of convenience or because they are just that damned tasty. I’m not perfect, and I don’t expect anyone else to be.

More to come.

The Ups and Downs of a Nomadic Existence

Moving around is hard. Trust me, I know. New York is one of the many stops in my young adult life, and along the way, I have learned a cornucopia of things about living life on a pogo stick.

For starters, making friends in adulthood is virtually impossible, like actually landing a ring on one of those ring-toss bottles at the fair or making it through a first date without at least one awkward silence. I say virtually impossible because it is actually possible, just really difficult to do. The American way, as we all know, is to work work work and then catch life in little pieces as we find the time. Now, there are definitely benefits to this, namely our economic superiority (our GDP is still over 2x as large as our closest competitor, FYI) and our universally-known work ethic, both praised and ridiculed at the same time and often by the same person. But, on the downside, we have become a society that is only concerned with the “ME” in “TEAM.” Casual conversation is hard to come by, and without an already established social circle and avenue through which to meet friends like a college campus, sports team, or an acceptable pool of work colleague non-weirdos, meeting people is akin to going to the dentist, painful at best. People walk with their heads down and a neon sign on their chests that says “Don’t talk to me. Ever.,” especially in the amalgamated metropolis of New York City.

I have never been one to have extreme trouble making friends. I am not the most outgoing person; in fact, I am quite shy. But, I’m not quite weird enough to scare people away and my southern accent oddly intrigues people. I’ve learned that accents are kind of like Woody Allen films; for reasons that no one can explain, most people like them. Even with those things on my side (lack of extreme weirdness and southern accent), making friends is still proving to be incredibly challenging.

I looked into taking Spanish classes to meet people (even though I already speak Spanish), but they want to claim your first three children and garnish your checks for life as payment. No.

I go to coffee shops and do work, serving the purpose of getting out of my tiny apartment while also thinking in the back of my head that I might bump into someone and somehow strike up a conversation. Nope.

I take walks in Central Park, always aware of the lingering possibility of falling into conversation with a stranger. Not so much.

I have gone to a few gatherings organized by colleagues after receiving the ever coveted I-know-you-just-moved-here-and-have-no-friends pity invite. Ultimately though, I had some conversations with new people but didn’t meet anyone that struck me as “friend material.” Maybe that makes me pretentious and/or picky, but I think that as an adult, being a bit picky is good when it comes to friends.

I had a bit of a romantic encounter that I managed to ruin after about a month, which as you will find out over time, is not at all unusual for me. But, at this point, my social life pretty much consists of playing guitar, watching TV, doing work, and cooking. Alone. With time, I know that it will get better. I will meet more people, make friends, and have a chance to really explore the city; however, none of those things are the case at the moment, and sometimes, I have to consciously remind myself that things will change with time.

Not all is lost, though. In my short time here, I have gotten pretty good at navigating the city. I walk almost everywhere, and when I do take the subway, I know where to transfer and how to zig and zag through the intricacies of New York City transit. I have been to the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and a Mets’ game at CitiField. I have walked all over Central Park. I live next to the Hudson River and can go check out that view any time I’d like.

Overall, I am enjoying my experience in New York and I have enjoyed my experiences in my other cities. Being a nomad at this age has given me the chance to live in several places and to learn about many different ways of life while not yet having to worry about some of the more adult issues that will inevitably crop up as I get older; i.e. wife, kids, real responsibility. The loneliness that I feel when I first move somewhere is admittedly difficult to handle, but I honestly believe that learning to cope with loneliness is a worthwhile endeavor. Many peoples’ fear of being alone is a key motivator in their life decisions, and while I am not in any way knocking that tendency, I would like to keep it out of my personal repertoire of reasons for doing things. I know that when I look back at this period of my life, I will look at it fondly and be proud of the places that I went and the things that I accomplished.

Nomad spelled backward is Damon. If my name were Damon, that would be a cool fact.

More to come.