S is for Small

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, May 30, 2010

However much I’m not a fan, I’m standing at the counter at Starbuck’s, the one embedded in a supermarket, surrounded by groceries you won’t want once the caffeine has shriveled your appetite to something the size of a nut. I’m in the mood for a dark, bitter, and creamy beverage, though, so, what the heck. We’ll save money on food.

The barista, a modern-day Donna Reed, is eager to help me.

“I’d like your smallest coffee,” I say, using a line that’s taken me years to develop. (I’ll get to this in a minute.) It’s the only thing to say if you don’t want to walk around sipping 20 ounces — or even 10 — of buzz juice.  I mean, if coffee-maker companies — from Mr. Coffee to Braun to Bialetti — can loosely call a cup five ounces, then why are we out in public ordering coffee by the pint?

The barista freezes — just briefly. Then, marching to the beat of tall, grande, and venti, she finds her three stacks of to-go cups, whips up the smallest and holds it up to me with question marks in her eyes. If this were my game show, a buzzer would be sounding. Nope. I give her a minute.

“Oh, wait!” Her face lights up. She lunges to the other side of her workspace. “Like this?”

I smile. It comes from that separate stack of cups, over in the frothing department. “Yes,” I answer. “Perfect.” Only at Starbuck’s does simple, clear, direct language grind things to a halt. I add cream to the mystery cup, and start making my way through the aisles, grabbing at things quickly before thinking what I know I’m about to think: Who needs food? Why can’t we just live on coffee and books and conversation for weeks and weeks at a time?

A few years back, in the somewhat surreal circumstances of a family reunion (think mini-van excursions and meals in), my niece Camille and I (surely on a condo-bound coffee high) come up with a list Zen koans for Starbuck’s baristas. Stumpers. Best tested with, “I’ll have your…”

Single venti no room. Black and white dry cappuchico. Americano gigolo. Foamy single crema. Wet brevé with whip. Dry grande brevé. Gelatté. Trip cappiotté. Decafe au latté. Double dry café au lait. Mochiato. Regular blonde coffee. Single extra large latté in a tall cup. Americatté, no muffin. Biscotti and a cafe matté. Soy Americano. Double venti to go with a blueberry sconce. Single chico with cream. Frappachica. Single shot of vanilla, coffee back. Americano, no shots.

At some point we’re laughing so hard they separate us in the van. On our yellow pad, we sneak more in later.

Mini venti to go. Mini mocha frap no whip. Hot frap no bubble top. To go grande for here. Cappuchico to stay. Medium roast mocha. Your double Starbatté. Grande double whip, shot in the white. Triple white cloud, Americabana. Venti shot. Whip in the dark. Tall skinny matté. Decaf hazelnut. Short, hot frappaccino with protein powder. Vegetarian latté. Skinny double whip Starbatté. Your Starbuck’s Cabana. Skinny gelaté. Single mochi. Double dark roast.

Camille decides she wants to actually use one in a Starbuck’s down the road 20 miles. “I’ll do Mini venti to go,” she says. When we’re finally there, I have to stay outside, since I know I’ll just fall apart.

She reemerges, holding a venti up in triumph. “She looked at me as if I were a bag lady,” she says, tipping the cup to show me the miniscule amount of coffee inside. “She asked me — compassionately — if what I wanted wasn’t a very small amount of coffee in a very large cup.” Camille, a poet with bone-dry humor genes, is also a therapist. I see from her tiny smile that this barista has passed more than our test.

Even so, these are hardly the good old days of the blue and white and gold Grecian “We Are Happy To Serve You” New York City to-go cups I’ve been obsessed with since the early ‘80s. These are not the days of that one perfect size that fits all and the three ways you can have it, regular, light or black.

No. These are the days of a green split-tailed mermaid wearing the crown of SBUX. A siren telling you to be careful, the beverage inside is hot. A siren telling you the quote on the cup is the opinion of the speaker. A siren telling you: resistance is futile because I’m a siren and my boss, Starbuck, was Ahab’s first mate in Moby Dick, and we run things now.

In short, these are clearly the days to fight the powers that be. Go for simple. Small. And at Starbuck’s or anywhere else, bring your own cup.

[Leslie Buck (Laszlo Büch), a holocaust survivor, retired paper company executive and the designer of the iconic “Anthora” cup died on April 26th of this year.]

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