Suspended, and Standing on Its Head

When we were kids, my parents would occasionally take us to play in a park that had a jungle gym.  My sisters, two and four years younger than myself, would love nothing better than to mount the monkey bars, traversing from one end to the other, hand over hand, swinging like orangutans all the way.  Fat and lazy, I had no interest in any activity remotely athletic, and would look about for somewhere to sit and watch.  My father would record the action on black and white film or with a Super 8 movie camera, occasionally swiveling around to zoom in on me, sitting at a picnic table and staring off into space.

At home, we had a standard issue suburban swing set in the back yard.  My favorite part was the glider, because the bench was wide and I didn’t have to perch as one must on the swings or teeter-totter.  Big plus:  It was nearly impossible to fall off the glider.

My sisters, by contrast, preferred flying as high as possible on the swings, preferably in a standing position, or grabbing the top bar to perform all manner of one-handed and two-handed flips and gyrations.  When not on the swing set, gymnastics was their thing.  They could do cartwheels and somersaults and walk on their hands, but our mother wouldn’t allow them to do the split, claiming it would damage their insides and give them trouble when it came time to have babies.

When my grandparents came to visit, Grandpa and I would sit on the back deck or descend the stairs into the yard, watching my sisters’ acrobatic antics all the while.  “Can you do that?” he’d ask me sarcastically upon observing some gravity-defying flip.  I’d glare at him with hatred.  If only I’d had enough guts to ask whether he could imitate my sisters.

Among my sisters’ most amazing feats, at least in my opinion, was the headstand.  They’d often ask me to hold their legs so that they could get into the proper position without tipping over.  Then I’d step back and they’d be able to hold the pose for longer than I thought humanly possible.

I was reminded of this recently while playing with my little grandniece, holding her legs up so she could stand on her head on the soft couch.  I guess I’ve always found something appealing about flipping upside down, standing on one’s head to view the world from a different perspective.

One thing I’d like to invert and stand on its head is the Suspended Coffee movement that has gained some press in recent years.  The idea is to help the poor by performing a particular random act of kindness, namely paying for an extra coffee so that someone who cannot afford one can later come into the coffee shop and get a drink for free.  It’s supposed to be a feel-good kind of thing, not unlike paying for the order of the car behind you at the Starbucks drive-through.  Even though this costs businesses nothing (the “free” coffee being given out has already been paid for), most coffee shops won’t have anything to do with suspended coffees.  Certainly the big chains, such as Starbucks Coffee and Peet’s Coffee and Tea refuse to get involved.  I’ve read that coffee shops complain that it is takes too much time and effort to keep track of how many coffees have been paid for in advance.  Even in the shops where suspended coffees are available, I can’t help wondering whether a homeless person dying for a cuppa joe must settle for plain black, or whether he can actually glom onto a caramel macchiato.

Today I looked up the nearest location at which I might purchase a suspended coffee for someone in need.  The place is 116 miles away.  Despite the fact that some businesses around the world have latched on to the suspended coffee movement, the fact is that in most places it simply is not available.

Considering that the coffee is paid for first and poured later, the reticence of coffee shops irks me more than a little.  After all, we’re not asking them to donate anything.  Not that asking them to donate to the poor would be out of line, when one realizes the obscene profits that the coffee chains earn each year.

I say let’s stand the suspended coffee movement on its head, much as my sisters loved to do as kids.  Let the coffee be given out to those in need, and let a mark be made on a chalkboard or in a ledger for those who wish to contribute to pay for it later.  After all, there are a few establishments where those with little money can have a snack or a meal and pay what they are able.  Panera Bread has done this successfully in some locations, giving the lie to the notion that huge corporations must necessarily value profit over community.  Those who can afford to pay more than the cost of their meal do so, which offsets the cost of the food of customers who can pay little or nothing.  Some economists insist that this model cannot work in the long run, while others shy away from the pay-what-you-can idea as “socialism.”

Slogans for the pay-what-you-can movement include “take what you need, leave your fair share” and “so all may eat.”  The idea that food should be a right, not a privilege, is an old one.  That this is viable within a profit-making businesses, courtesy of generous customers, is what is new.

And yet food service businesses balk and scoff.  Why give out a free coffee and hope that someone else will pay for it at an unspecified later time when such time may never arrive?  This attitude indicates a lack of faith in our fellow man.

National chains (and small local establishments, too) justify their actions by claiming that they engage in charitable giving annually and that it’s their choice to stay away from the pay-what-you-can “gimmick.”

But what do you expect?  When coffee shops refuse to join the suspended coffee movement in which products are paid for in advance, I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect them to stand on their heads and give out food that may or may not be paid for by others.

The bottom line is that it’s just so much easier to simply say “no” to those in need.



Starbucks Blues


It’s so unfair.

Why am I dreaming about Starbucks now, just when we’re going to be all broke and poor and unemployed?

When we lived in Fresno, there was a Starbucks three blocks in either direction of the entrance to our apartment complex, and yet we pretended the place didn’t exist.  This was back when we were DINKs:  Double income, no kids.

Then we moved to the desert, my wife ran out her unemployment, and we promptly became SINKs (single income, no kids).  There wasn’t much in our little hole of a town, but we did have two Starbucks, and we started to notice.  My wife became hooked on black iced tea sweetened, the big one (which at first was “vente” until they came out with the thirsty person’s “trenta” size).

I was not impressed.  Eventually, we got to the point where, to feed my wife’s habit, I would head straight from work to the drive-through to bring home her tea.  By this time, we had stopped worrying about cash.  I mean, how would we pay for her giant tea if I didn’t happen to have any green on me?  Which was most of the time.

So we advanced to the next phase of Starbucks addiction by acquiring his ‘n hers Starbucks cards.  Mine was multicoloured, bearing the words for “thank you” in several different languages.  (My favorite is still xiè xiè, which sounds for all the world like the way one would hail a taxi in the teeming capital of a Third World nation.)

My wife, on the other hand, has a gold card.  Now, for the uninitiated, this is nothing like a gold credit card that allows the holder to get into debt of unmanageable proportions.  No, the gold card provided me with edification regarding how Starbucks got its name.  The gold card simply allows one to collect “stars” each time one spends “bucks” at their caffeinated establishments.  Voilà!  Starbucks.  When a certain number of “stars” are accumulated, the holder of the card earns a free beverage.

There were other benefits of the gold card as well, such as free flavoring shots and free soy.  I believe they’ve since done away with these freebies.

At first, we would periodically receive a card from Starbucks in the mailbox at our front door.  “Congratulations, you have 15 stars and the next drink’s on us!”  I guess recycling all those trees and paying all that postage cut into their profits, as the notices quit coming after a while.

“That’s too bad,” I thought, as I know how my wife loves receiving mail, and we’d receive these missives every couple of weeks.  What could be better that getting mail and cadging a free drink?

Apparently, the whole dog and pony show now plays out its drama online.  Whenever the amount of money on one of our Starbucks cards begins to get low, my wife simply visits Starbucks’ website and fills it up to the brim, no foam, extra whip.

For a long time I felt relatively Starbucks-proof, smug in my imperviousness to its siren song.  I owe this to the simple fact that I don’t like Starbucks’ black tea, and I’ve never been able to abide the taste of green tea at all.

I know, Starbucks isn’t about tea.  It’s a coffeehouse.  Not satisfied to have gained the undying devotion of the jittery morning joe crowd, however, Starbucks had to suck in the tea drinkers as well.

Still, Starbucks must be doing something right.  My wife is rather particular about her tea, refusing to drink anything that is not freshly brewed, often resorting to watering down the stuff that could peel paint off the walls that passes for tea in many restaurants.  Starbucks, however, gets it right, she insists.

In some respects, I have to agree.  I don’t do caffeine anymore, so those trentas are definitely out for me.  I do, however, bow to the deliciousness of Starbucks’ Tazo wild sweet orange and passion teas, both sans caffeine.  Fortunately for my wallet, most of the Starbucks locations that I have visited do not sell these flavors in individual drinks.  If they have it at all, it is in boxes of tea bags to brew your own at home.

Another reason that we stay away from coffee is that my wife and I are both lactose intolerant.  And I just can’t see drinking coffee black, decaf or otherwise.  After all, it’s that rich, creamy moo juice that makes the drink worthwhile.

Ever the marketing geniuses, Starbucks has an answer for those of my ilk as well.  They offer soy milk.  Thus, I have allowed myself the weakness of succumbing to the charms of the vente decaf soy latte.  Also available in mocha for the days when I need my chocolate fix.

While I spent years snubbing my nose at Starbucks as I brought my wife her daily tea, in recent months I’ve upped the ante to purchasing a decaf soy drink for myself as well.  “Swipe twice!” has become our sing-song mantra, as we urge our friendly barista to give us two stars rather than just one, to speed the arrival of the Valhalla that is a free beverage of your choice.

Damn you, Starbucks!  As we refill my wife’s gold card again and again, I begin to see how it is just like any other gold card after all, allowing the holder to get into debt of unimaginable proportions.

Like many addicts, I’ve long harbored an approach-avoidance relationship with Starbucks, believing that I can quit any time I want to.  Now that I’ve been laid off from work, we can no longer afford to indulge in this decidedly hedonistic luxury.  Well, we can still pick up my wife’s tea every few days; it only costs a dollar and change.  As for my vente soy latte, we’re talking a hefty five dollars a pop, bucko.  Let’s just say it out loud, shall we?  It ain’t happening.

So why can’t I seem to stop myself from dreaming about gripping that heat-resistant sleeve and sipping that steamy, frothy, elixir of the gods that makes me go ahhhhh?

I’m expecting my first unemployment check in a couple of weeks, and you know the first place that I’m going.

Someone get me a calendar.  I’m counting the days.