Well, that project never came to much because the newspaper was just too disorganized and it sort of fell apart midway through the semester. But I've been playing around with the story and some of the ideas in it so I'm going to post the first portion of the story, which leads up to that point:
The day the Finn shot himself in the bathroom was one of the worst the store ever had. It was probably fairly bad for the Finn too, but unfortunately no one had a chance to ask him how he was, or indeed why he shot himself. Mark suggested it might be because he was Finnish, a line that met with awkward laughter until we remembered that Finland had lost its quarter-final round game in the World Cup to Bahrain. After a quick search the internet to ascertain whether Bahrain was a real place, the store turned its attention to the more pressing problem of what to do with a self-created Finnish corpse.
Starbuck's has manuals and procedures for every eventuality. The company's overriding policy was “Just Say Yes,”as in 'Can I get two coffees instead of one...Yes! Can I get them for free because I had a bad day...Sure! Will you bring them to me on a gilded tray in porcelain cups and then shine my shoes...Absolutely! Unfortunately this didn't help as the only question the Finn might have asked was “Can I shoot myself in your bathroom?” and that particular path of action had already been settled.
Oddly, Starbucks doesn't have a concrete policy on in-store suicides, so we had to ad-lib it1. The police were nearby, and after assuring the customers that everything was under control and perfectly safe, we resumed business. After all, as tragic as the death of the Finn was, it paled in comparison to what might happen if we denied our clientele service for an entire afternoon. There were recorded instances of physical violence in response to unscheduled closings.
So we called the cops and stood around awkwardly. People would come in for coffee, and, not knowing what else to do, we sold it to them. That’s what we were there for. We had been programmed, like a cadre of automatonic hipsters, to vend coffee to any and all passerby. The mere fact of life and death playing out a room over, while disturbing and tragic, wasn’t about to throw us out of our rhythm. Indeed, the police sirens, EMTs, and firemen attracted such a crowd that we did record sales that day.
As consolation, we all got $75 dollar mental stress bonuses in our next paycheck and an extra day of paid leave. I suppose that was to help us cope with the psychic damage that the suicidal Finn had thoughtlessly inflicted on us. In reality, the only lasting impression of the incident was the reddish stain we were never able to thoroughly excise from around the toilet. In what we judged to be typically Scandinavian fashion, he’d blown his brains out directly into the bowl. I guess he was trying to spare us the trouble of cleaning the whole room.
We never did figure out why he chose our store to end his life. It wasn’t as if he was a regular or anything. Or maybe he was a regular and we’d just never figured it out. I fancied that maybe his whole life was like that, a permanent fixture at a job, a gym, a coffeeshop, maybe even in his own home, never recognized from one day to the next. Just a tall, blonde cipher drifting through life.
My reverie was interrupted by the manager politely but firmly2 asking me if I didn’t have anything important to do. Sometimes, waiting at the register, watching people approach and then retreat as if testing your defenses, you doze off a little and find yourself staring into space, counting the cracks in the brickwork or the stains on the ceiling.
At Starbucks, you learn not to work too fast. I guess it’s true of any retail job. Do nothing and you’ll get something horrible to do. So you find something that’s time-consuming but mindless, and then lose yourself in it. As long as you can claim that you are busy aligning all of the cups so that the logos are straight or rearranging the bags of coffee by region, you have a protective amulet against being forced to scrub grout out of tiles behind a dairy fridge.
On this particular occasion, I was making sure that each and every tray of sticky, nauseatingly sweet pastries was perfectly straight when I turned around and bumped into one of my coworkers carrying a pot of coffee. She dropped it into the sink and breathed a sigh of relief that it hadn’t gone on to the floor. It was at this moment that, perhaps in response to some primitive defensive instinct, looked up and was hit in the face by an encyclopedia.
To be fair, it was only one volume. The other volumes were busy tumbling down amidst the urns, grinders, brewers, and assorted paraphernalia of the coffee business. In some distant Paleolithic era, when the store had only just been converted from Joe’s Coffee or Jack’s Beans or whatever into a Starbucks, some enterprising manager had sought to lend the place an air of intellectual authenticity by stacking rows upon rows of books in the store. At ceiling level. In rickety wooden bookcases. Indeed, it was a miracle that the literary downpour we were currently experiencing hadn’t happened earlier.
Standing amidst clouds of decade-old dust, shattered spines, and dust covers lying half-in pools of dingy water, I heard a voice oh-so-quietly saying…”excuse me?”
I turned around and found myself staring at a pretty, timid-looking young girl, half-wrapped in a bright yellow balaclava and peering at me from behind a pair of thick-rimmed, square glasses. Her hair fell across her face in a diagonal line, as if someone had been cutting her hair and suddenly slipped violently to the floor.
“Welcome to Starbuck’s,” I replied. “How can I help you?”
I worked but I didn’t manage to find satisfaction. That was Boston’s fault. This town had dulled me with its persistent winds, and I was slowly wearing away in the rain, the snow, the battered sidewalks and cracking roads. In this city, every thing was a defense against the elements, every day was a task. And the people, clannish and irritable, could become as cutting as shards of glass. Every one shuffled around in coats and scarves, each a castle, a fortress, with layers of battlements and almost never visible. Boston wore at my soul and I could not escape.
A vast melancholy swept over me as I sat on the embankment, waiting for the train to take me home. It was one of those cold New England nights where your breath comes in freezing clouds that glow in the stainless steel moonlight. I could see the train coming half a mile away along the tracks, its running lights reflected in long beams down the rails. The track ran straight and then curved at the last minute before the station, so as it approached all I saw a was three flashing lights bearing down on me with an increasing roar. The cars blew by in a blast of hot air and roaring diesel that splashed through my mind like an ocean wave.
On the train, I sat facing the wrong direction, watching Belmont and then Waltham slide silently by. Staring through the scratched glass of the windows, I watched the tattered remnants of New England's industrial past slide by – battered redbrick buildings covered in cracking paintwork and dying ivy, junkyards filled with rusting trucks and stripped tires, men standing around in flannel shirts and dirty workboots the color of old wheat, smoking cigarettes. I looked down at my own shoes, chestnut boots polished to a waxy sheen, and then at the shoes I wear at work, scuffed and filthy with cheap leather. Why did I feel the need to change them every day before I left?