There are certain places I tend to avoid when I return to my hometown after a year away at college. The notorious town watering holes: June graduation parties, the grocery store on Sunday evenings, Starbucks. These three places can all be classified by their likelihood of neighborhood small talk, typically conversations that often prompt questions concerning my own college experience.
Still, I acknowledge these exchanges are inevitable when you leave a place that knows all the sticky PB&J crumbs of your childhood (including a Bangles talent show routine and cringeworthy floral headband phase) and then you return to find a local cavity of knowledge. So instead, I do my best to see the people with whom I genuinely owe a candid conversation, and for those brief interactions at the watering hole, I rely on my rolodex of prepared responses.
I spent the summer quite successfully adhering to my plan. That is, until a good friend invited me for a cup of coffee at the third destination on the list of places I avoid in my hometown: Starbucks. When she picked me up in her doorless Jeep, I knew that discretion was not going to be the vintage of this excursion.
Starbucks. The town square for 21st century suburban life.
Besides a corporate guarantee that no matter which Starbucks location you visit your nuanced drink order will taste the same, there is also a latent promise that you will run into at least three people from your life. Going to Starbucks is akin to posting a social media photo in real life. The experience is specifically crafted to let the world know you were there.
Think about it. There is a reason beyond caffeine that people feel the need to walk into a meeting with the ubiquitous mermaid-stamped cup in their hand.
The convoluted drink orders are like the personalized photo edit settings of your VSCO feed — a strange mix of pride and mystery veils both. The Lululemon clad mother in front of me orders, “I’ll have a caramel macchiato, venti, skim, extra shot, extra hot, extra whip, sugar free.” I haven’t had a “go to” Starbucks drink order since seventh grade when everyone drank chocolate chip frappuccinos. For those who are unfamiliar with this gem on the Starbucks menu, a chocolate chip frappuccino is what you drink when hot chocolate becomes a faux pas circa fifth grade. It is the middle school drink of choice. You know, when you need all that caffeine to finish reading “Crispin.”
It is my turn to order and I am already flustered. I have taken Spanish for 12 years yet my acquaintance with the romance languages still does not prove useful when trying to decode the Starbucks menu. “Umm, I will have a medium Earl Grey tea.” The barista is staring me down when she asks, “You mean a grande?” I have never understood the logic behind the Starbucks drink sizing. You would think “grande” would mean “large” but it doesn’t — it implies medium.
I reach into the depths of my Vera Bradley wallet (the occasion called for it) and hand over a dusty Starbucks gift card left over from a high school secret Santa gift exchange. “There are only 43 cents left on this,” the barista says. Forty-three cents left on the $5.00 gift card — matching the subtle five points of a star and the $5.00 price tag that paints the chalkboard menu.
The signature scent envelopes me as I carry the $5.00 cup of tea. The distinct aroma of a Starbucks — nodes of java beans and burnt cheese — become my perfume for the rest of the day. Everyone knows where you were after you spend an hour sitting in a Starbucks. No need for an Instagram geotag.
My friend chooses a seat on the storefront patio to soak in the dog days of summer before we both head back to school. She asks if the seat is okay, given her awareness of my preference to avoid the inevitable neighborly interactions of a Starbucks visit. I reply that the seat is perfect, mostly because I don’t think it is possible to be a fly on the wall in the bustling hometown coffeehouse.
I smile and nod as the overlapping figures of our past wave, approach the table and affectionately question us both about college. A trademark Midwest politeness threads each conversation, which instantly warms up my cold aversion to their questions, just like chicken noodle soup from the crock pot on a subzero snow day.
Admittedly, these impromptu college recap Q&A’s that have become routine upon a year at college are a privilege in itself. The opportunity to talk about personal interests and academic achievements are questions to which I am lucky to have at least some version of an answer. Even if those answers rival the incompleteness of the 1000-piece puzzle that sits on the dining room table all summer.
I asked my friend why she choose Starbucks as the venue for our final goodbyes. She laughed and explained how in her mind, docking in Starbucks for an afternoon lets everyone know she survived a year at college. That she is alive and well. She calls it “letting them know she has a pulse.”
As I processed her response, I began to wonder, maybe I had been viewing the genre of college recap conversations wrongly. We live in an age trademarked by the pressure to share with people where we are and what we are doing — it’s the very ethos of the Starbucks experience. But, for those brief interactions at the watering hole, maybe small talk is a rare chance to tell the Hollywood version of the story: to share an elegant, G-rated, 90-second exchange about the college experience. Your high school algebra teacher, the mother of kids you use to babysat and the peers you graduated with all know college is hard. Small talk shouldn’t be too.