Through college I worked part-time as a New York City barista in a struggling neighborhood coffee shop (yes, I too, the great bloggeur, know the bitter toil of wage work). While I could probably submit a hefty collection of autobiographical sketches to any quasi-reputable school of sociology studying “the banality of evil”, I will reduce today’s entry to the subject of coffee.

Every day, without fail, some dude (seldom, in my experience, a woman) would waltz into my place of work, with the following inquiry, “Do you have coffee here? Like, just a simple cup of black coffee? Heh.”

Of course he and I both knew the answer to his question is yes, but I still had to tell him so. It’s then his cue to repeat the initial desire, “it’s good to know a guy can get a simple cup of coffee in this city! Sheesh.”
“Uh, one plain cup of coffee please.”
“Heh.” (This last bit is my “please-stop-talking-to-me-service-laugh”. One part compulsory, one part professionalism–a dash of mildly discernable hostility. This nifty brew usually is just unsettling enough put a swift and merciful end to small-talk).

Why must this relatively elaborate exchange take place in order to aggressively underscore his simple good-ol’-boy taste in beverage?

Starbucks is the primary symbol of the rise in American coffee culture. It’s hard to imagine that twenty years ago, most of us didn’t speak fluent coffee shop lingo (latte, frappuccino, double soy cappuccino, etc.). Starbucks not only gave us a place to sit and do work, impulsively purchase Sheryl Crow CDs, and slink into D-grade public restrooms/crack dens, Starbucks gave us a way of life. Past tense.

Starbucks, relatively speaking has fallen upon hard times. Obviously, we’re in a recession, so that’s pretty straight forward, but “hard times” doesn’t explain is the anti-Starbucks discourse as exemplified above, which has little to do with (more valid) “capitalism is evil” standpoints, but rather conspicuous eye-rolling and renunciation of the frou-frou associations of coffee culture.

Just like David Kutcha’s theory of the “great masculine renunciation” by aristocratic and bourgeois men in the 19th c. as a reaction to the growing opulence of consumerist culture (always feminized), the Starbucks backlash is a reaction against the pull of the “sissy masses”.

The self-fashioned asceticism of masculinity is violated in Starbucks’ consumerist space, which has become shaped by feminine demands—the Hear Music rack, for example, is the epitome of the low-middlebrow taste class women dominate (pre-packaged culture, easily accessible and casually consumed–see my Basement and/or Oprah posts for more). Further, the excessive variation of drinks caters to diet-conscious feminine consumers, while the Venti cup as fashion accessory becomes ubiquitous on the pages of US magazine.

I’m not suggesting that the diminishing of Starbucks is sexist per se, but the imagined aura of masculine dignity surrounding black coffee (which is so underscored by its smug champions) rests decidedly upon the implied indignity of feminine bells and whistles.

That said, it is nice to know you can get a plain ol’ cup of joe in the town. As long as I’m shelling out $3(!) for it, and not raking in as much by the hour to make it for you.