Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Drive thru shootings

It would begin as a simple task: proceed to Starbucks and acquire one venti black drip coffee.

I set off for Clarkston, Washington, our quaint little business friendly neighbor to the west that we share a border with across the Snake River. This town has got it together. Not only did they lure mighty Walmart out of Lewiston (much to the chagrin of the Valley's finest business high-brows) where the world's largest retailer will open a behemoth Super Walmart right next door to Costco, Clarkston also has Starbucks double-dipping on Bridge Street where one store anchors a strip mall across the street from Albertsons (with a Starbucks inside).

Comedian Lewis Black likens this to the universe swallowing itself. On one corner you have a Starbucks, and you turn around and look across the street and stare at -- double take -- another Starbucks.

"Hi, welcome to Starbucks," a friendly voice offers from a tiny speaker on the drive thru sign. "What can I get started for you today?"

The greeting alone is a cut above other drive thru greetings. Even my kids notice that about Starbucks, which is saying something, because Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston surely have the most drive-thrus per capita than any other western blue-collar area in the US.

Fast food is fine dining here, as evidenced by the carb-laden grease gauntlet referred to as 21st Street. Many sit down restaurants come and go while franchises pop up like spring dandelions and thrive.

"What's your coffee of the day," I ask.

"Pike Place," she replies.

Crap. Pike Place is used aircraft oil; it assaults the palette like a World War II beach landing: in your face, overwhelming and certain death if not dealt with appropriately and with sufficient counter measures. It's an abysmal cup of Joe, and I can't figure out who mandated Pike Place as Starbucks' mainline drip coffee, served almost exclusively except for holiday specials like Christmas Blend -- probably some latte-sipping nancy boy who hates drip coffee.

We all know Starbucks is struggling since the era of Pike Place took over. It's obvious, right? I'll grant the possibility that maybe Starbucks overshot its penetration goals just a tad (see above about the two Starbucks stores on Bridge Street). But I think it has more to do with the dripping battery acid called Pike Place. Like a scientific experiment gone horribly wrong, Pike Place is eating away precious Starbucks profits and costing many cushy executive jobs in Seattle.

Wake up, Starbucks! Please pour one cup of the hot monkey urine and take a sip. Taste for yourself the injustice in your mouth. Do it! Control your gag reflex and reflect on what you've done to your customers. Save us from this wretched swill!

"I'll take two large -- I mean venti -- cups of Pike Place," I order. "Black."

What the ...? What am I going to do with two cups? My soul-sucking migraine tells me to drink one -- as black and disgusting as it was -- and do it fast, then whatever I wanted with the second one.

Trapped behind six fellow Starbucks customers, unable to maneuver out of the drive-thru line, I ponder my lack of conviction and willingness to cave to the caffeine gods. It was a long eight minutes self loathing.

Finally reaching the drive-thru window, I put the truck in park and reach for my gift cards. I was getting my game face on because I knew in a few moments my taste buds would be doing battle with Pike Place. Fumbling for the right card and offering it through the truck window, I was immediately struck by the sparkling, most penetrating amber eyes I'd ever encountered in my life.

"God, you're pretty," Migraine and me instantly agree, but silently (to our credit).

My mind wanders a little bit as she checks the card balance. I stare distantly through the windshield at the intersection, all the while a little bit smitten and embarrassed. True beauty has always done this to me. I'm unable to just appreciate it when it's staring right back at me. So I look away.

Migraine laughs at me because another weakness got exposed in the span of only a few minutes -- coffee and beauty. Being married is another solid reason to not leer at a beautiful woman.

"You owe me three bucks," she leaves hanging in the air for only a second but felt like a lot longer. "Sir, you owe me three bucks... this card is empty."

Laughing, eyes darting, and probably sounding just like one of the many nut-jobs she has to serve at the drive-thru window in a shift, "I've got this one too."

I watch this time, because I need to act concerned and that enough of the gift card is available to cover the purchase, and reassure that I'm not a street bumb in a Tundra looking to rip off some Pike Place.

"This one's good," she reports with a smile, and hands me the coffee.

Soul-sucking Migraine informs me that I'm leering this time, "You idiot, what about the tip?"

Oh right, the tip. Serving coffee is hard work. And good people, regardless of beautiful amber eyes or charming, should be tipped. I only had two lousy bucks, but at least the math was good ($2.00 tip for $3.00 worth of coffee... 66 percent gratuity). I don't tip at any other drive-thru except Starbucks... weird.

"Ahh... that's sweet," she laughs. "Most people don't tip at all."

And that was that. Done. I continue on my way thinking how great Starbucks is, and what a pleasant experience it was just getting coffee. As Starbucks coffee is always really hot, I allow it to cool a bit and replay the experience in my mind a few times. Her eyes would haunt me for a short time. Reflecting, I pick up the coffee largely with my guard down and take a big swig of Pike Place.

"Holy crap that is bad coffee," I scream in the truck, gagging the euphoria and jerking me back into reality.

"Welcome back to your life, loser," soul-sucking Migraine taunts from his happy place.