It was Friday, my third week of student-teaching and my 29th week making coffee. I was a Starbucks barista, and I was about to take someone’s order.
At Starbucks, our process of ordering drinks was somewhat complicated. First came the number of shots, then the size, third is the flavor, fourth is the milk (or lack thereof), then the customs (that is, any other changes to the drink) and finally — as if in a postscript — the drink’s name.
I’ll give you an example: triple-tall-vanilla-2 percent milk-no whip-white chocolate mocha.
Not to mention the fact that this drink is at least two column lines long, it is also extremely nebulous for those of us who are not used to choices. But I put my biases aside to help the customer in front of me. Because I worked at Starbucks, and we’re a “Yes” store.
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When I was a sophomore in high school, I traveled for a month through the streets of Northern Italy’s coastal hamlets. At that time, I was old enough to know that one month could not immerse me in everything Italian. I did, however, learn one thing very well: Choice is American.
If you want a hamburger upside down with no meat, you can get it in America. If you want a piece of cheese without the use of cow products, you can find it in America. If you want a coffee without caffeine, syrup without the sugar, milk without the fat — but add some whip cream on top, despite your doctor’s wishes — you can do it in America.
In Italy, where the first espresso shot was poured over 100 years ago, there seems to be only one espresso drink a man can get, and for lack of a better name, it’s called “espresso.” No use in looking for alternatives; I know, because I looked everywhere for them.
My brother and I traveled through seven different cities, inland to waterfront, mountain to flatland. I asked for espresso, and I got one drink every time.
What about the steamed soy or light vanilla? What about organic milk with only two pumps of cinnamon syrup? I looked for an array of cup sizes or a menu board with the day’s suggested alterations. Yet in the end, I always ended up with the same fist-sized porcelain cup, and no menu.
“One choice!” I thought. “That’s all I get?”
The American in me wanted to ask for the customer service number. I needed a comment card; my freedom had been undermined. I had suddenly become shackled by the tyranny of unanimity. I asked for an espresso, and I got a scam.
It was now 6:37 a.m., our first morning rush. I stood behind my IBM touch-screen register, cooped in the corner-half of a South Hill suburban strip mall. I was among stores that could only be described as the antithesis to “mom and pop.” I worked for Starbucks, the caffeinated byword for Americanism. We took our “Yes” policy just as seriously as we took our choice-packed menu board that makes even a one-stop-shopping center cringe.
“Ma’am,” I tried explaining in the kindest of words, “the tall vanilla latte comes with three pumps of vanilla and one shot.”
As I listened intently to her changes, I wondered if the founding fathers were ever this indecisive. Maybe the first amendments to our Constitution were the ominous precursor to the infamous “custom” boxes we now see on drip-stained coffee cups and crumpled cheeseburger wrappers. Ten just weren’t enough.
The customer, standing at the front counter in a fur-lined overcoat with a cellphone held at bay like John Wayne’s six-round pistol in an old Western, was finally done. And then I called the drink.
“Double-tall-one and a half pump sugar-free vanilla, two pumps sugar-free hazelnut- half nonfat and half soy-190-degree, no foam, with whip-peppermint white chocolate mocha.”
Whew, and I thought it would be complicated.
Mario Penalver has master's degrees in education from Pacific Lutheran University and in humanities from the University of Chicago. A community theater director and actor by night, by day he teaches English at Truman Middle School in Tacoma. He is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. On Twitter at @astramario.