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Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Corporate Cup of Coffee

I was walking down the hallways of the St. Augustine Center ("SAC") at Villanova one afternoon when I saw a paper Burger King cup taped to a professor's door. The cup was placed in such a way that a little blurb of text was visible to anyone wanting to stop and read, a smug and "witty" epitaph congratulating the purchaser of said cup for choosing the large size, rather than the small or the extra large, commending the character of one who so wisely chooses such a humble median in the difficult task of beverage selection. Tacked to the door, pointing at the cup with a sharp, harsh arrow, was an angrily-written post-it: "This is corporate humanism!"

To be honest, I'm not even sure that that was the phrase on the door that day, but that phrase and the thoughts it conjures remain vivid in my mind, and while my label for it may in fact be different from that long-vanished yellow stickie, the ideas are the same: there’s a lot of psychological manipulation and image massaging going on to make us forget that we're not individuals, we’re not people, to these companies; we’re consumers, we're a stubborn link in the profit chain. And this manipulation hides the darker aspects of the product you’re buying.

I love coffee. I love the smell of it, I love making it, I love drinking it, I love blogging about it (whoa! meta!), and when I find a place to live that is a little more permanent, I will buy a coffee roaster and buy my own green beans from a source as close to the growers as I can find. Walking around Hong Kong last month, I realized I needed a cup of that stiff bitter black nectar, and the only place I found after a few blocks of walking was my avowed enemy: Starbucks. I walked in (almost) unwillingly, furious at myself for even being there, my face a grim lemon-eating mask of a frown, prepared to viciously bark my order at the pitiful peon who dared ask what I’d like to drink. Big cup, black coffee, no sugar, no cream, I want real coffee you poncy assimilated shill!

And then my eyes glanced up to the tender, colorful chalkboard, which pronounced my doom in the gentle flowery script of the cup of the day: double mocha macchiato.

I’ve been back to Starbucks a few times since. This drink just gets me; it understands me, the way insulin understands a diabetic. (For some reason, I fear that will be fatally ironic in a few years.)

So I was sitting in Starbucks this afternoon, sipping my first dMM in a month, when I saw it: a carefully crafted series of photos hanging (as chicly as paintings can hang) on the wall, informing me of what a cool, hip, and above all responsible person I was for enjoying this fine cup of coffee, and that I was above all welcome to “relax, create, work” and presumably drink coffee at this here humble lil’ franchise.

My eyes struggled down to the cup in my hand, flashing back to that dim Villanova hallway as the cup (the cup, my cup?) reminded me that coffee was ninety-eight percent water and that Starbucks uses only the finest etc. I sat back in my chair and listened to the music softly pumping through the speakers, a dim and distant echo of actual good music, melodies pre-approved (of course) by Starbuck’s own record label; I turned to behold a whole host of Starbucks brand coffee filters and juice drinks and assorted crap. This is my humble little coffee shop.

So what? Of course Starbucks employs corporate humanism: their goal is to make you think that every time you enter one of their locations (such a charming term!), you are tricked into thinking you’re just waltzing into some neighborhood coffee shop. Don’t be surprised, Matt, don’t be na├»ve, the reason you can get coffee at all in Hong Kong is because of this great big globalized machine of marketing, industrial streamlining, cost-cutting, and franchising. And every time you enjoy a double mocha macchiato, you’re affirming these techniques, reinforcing this way of doing business. It can be Burger King or Starbucks, every time you buy, you’re telling them yes, I believe in this illusion, yes I will pay you to lie to me yes I want this to be true yes.

Esoteric Joycian allusions aside, I don’t like this. I won’t be getting another cup of coffee at Starbucks, because I know they rake in millions of dollars selling me this lie while millions of coffee growers wallow in poverty, locked into a cycle of desperation that forces them to sell the coffee beans they raise with blood and sweat for pennies.

It’s not right, god dammit. It’s not right that the myriad injustices rife in the industries that prop up fast food companies and multinational coffee (and oil and mining) corporations are swept quietly under the carpet as our attention is diverted by marketers and other liars selling us an image of smug self-affirmation. How many African laborers died to get you the gold and the diamond in that ring? How many immigrant meatpackers were maimed (and then fired, crippled and unable to work, for being injured) to cut the beef that went into that whopper? How many Mexicans had to try to sneak into America to look for work because they dared ask for two dollars a pound for the coffee beans they broke their back planting and harvesting? Two dollars a pound; four dollars a cup.

I will not drink another double mocha macchiato again.


DCLXVI said...

Sometimes, a cup of coffee is a cup of coffee.

A hamburger is just a hamburger.

And I hope you see the irony in your own logic, when you post words like "prepared to viciously bark my order at the pitiful peon" and then talk shit about the "humanism of consumerism".

Matthew Fitzgerald said...

Wow, you're right! My unspoken thoughts are exactly like the ruthless and inhumane practices of billion-dollar multinational corporations! Like, exactly!

NYARCH said...

You're beginning to sound like me now...

I'm not picky...I hate everybody.

Matthew said...

hey flatulence breath.