Are you having your chai today?
My friend Susan introduced me to fast food. She was a senior, arriving for her last year of high school in Iowa City from California in a move designed to keep her out of trouble. I was a junior, back in the school district I had moved out of and into more than once in the previous eleven years. We had French together and one day Susan brought a box of Girl Scout cookies, Thin Mints, to class. I had never done anything as decadent or outlandishly against school rules as eating cookies in class, nor had I ever eaten a Girl Scout cookie. Susan was my corrupting agent on both scores and we finished off the entire box.
From that point on, Susan took it upon herself to enlighten me regarding any number of gastronomic experiences I had never before known. She knew what to order at every fast food restaurant in town—baked potatoes at Wendy’s, curly fries and French dip sandwiches at Arby’s, nuggets at McDonald’s, and flame-broiled Whoppers at Burger King, her personal favorite. After school we’d climb into my Jeep and raid one of these places, or we’d go to A & W for rootbeer floats or the grocery store for brown sugar cinnamon frosted poptarts and copies of the National Enquirer. If I wasn’t expected right home, we’d get our treats to go and head to Susan’s house, where we’d tuck in while watching the brand new phenomenon of MTV on the color set in her room.
Susan came to mind as I started to ponder writing about my current guilty pleasure, Starbucks. I would tell you that I don’t really watch TV and I don’t eat fast food; but I’m addicted to watching DVDs while I walk on my treadmill, and it’s a rare day when I don’t stop in at my “third place” for a chai (specifically, a tall chai, made with nonfat milk and no water, steamed extra hot, and topped with tons of foam). Most of the time I don’t have to order—the baristas see me coming and ask if I’d like the usual. One day last winter, I lingered chatting with a friend in the entrance between the doors, and Katie delivered my drink to me. More recently, my friend Nora came over for a chat and promised to bring caffeine with her. She didn’t have to ask me what I wanted—she just said to the fine folks at the counter when she went in, “whatever Robin usually orders.” My drink was perfect.
I am not the only person who loves Starbucks. A recent Living Social coupon deal, pay $5 to get $10 to spend at Starbucks, capped out at one million five hundred thousand sales in less than two days. It’s no surprise that Starbucks is the largest coffeehouse chain in the world, with nearly 20,000 stores around the world in 59 different countries. Of the 23 in and around the greater Des Moines metropolitan area, I’ve visited more than two-thirds. When I first looked to see how many there were here, my immediate thought was—maybe I should make it a goal to patronize all of them! My second inclination was to think better of the idea. I am, after all, awfully fond of “my” Starbucks.
On a recent morning at my coffeehouse home, Nora was moving inside from her summer perch at a tippy outdoor table because of the fall chill in the air. We walked in together, the doors swinging as customers arrived and departed, the Friday morning sentry at his usual table, chair facing the door, greeting each new person as he or she walked in. Along the far wall, a familiar face scowled at his computer, earbuds wedged, as they always are, firmly into his ears. One of my neighbors breezed in, said hello, then stopped to talk to a man I’ve seen in the store any number of times. The line at the counter moved quickly and when I stepped up to pay, Bret was already writing my order onto the outside of my cup.
As vices go, mine isn’t terrible. I rarely go up a size and hardly ever do I fall for any of the delicious-looking baked snacks temptingly arrayed in the glass case at the counter. (Ten and Thirteen are all too happy to indulge, but since there are no high fructose corn syrups, artificial flavors or dyes in the baked goods, an occasional Starbucks stop with them, albeit costly, feels reasonable.) My drink, according to the Starbucks app on my phone, has 160 calories, 34 grams of carbohydrates and 6 grams of protein. If I want to justify it a little further, only 20 of those calories and 14 grams of carbohydrates are the chai concentrate—the rest is the nonfat milk, one of my dairy servings for the day.
Another friend, Johanna, reminds me that every day you should give yourself a little present. My chai is like a party in a cup, delicious from the first sip to the lingering foam that I always sweep out of the bottom with my forefinger. I look forward to it, often plan my day around it, and don’t even cringe (too much) when the balance on my well-swiped Starbucks gold card (member since 2009) gets low and automatically reloads.
I suppose we can justify anything we really want to do. Even now, I’m half-hoping that I’m writing toward wisdom, something redeeming about unexpected friendships—each of the women mentioned here have been unexpected and yet delightful friends—about the comfort of rituals and routines, about treating ourselves right. But honestly? It’s Saturday night and I’m pondering going out to knock off a couple of errands I have so they don’t linger over into Sunday. But if I do, I think to myself, what will be my convenient excuse to head out Sunday morning and make sure my chai is a part of the route? Am I drinking the marketing Kool-Aid, tragically hooked, or enjoying a small freedom and pleasure in my life? To answer that, I’m going to need a chai and a table by the window.
We’re inbetween the new moon and the fall equinox, dear readers. May you enjoy your vices and extoll your virtues and glide through the transition to fall. Thanks, as always, for being here with me overneath it all, Rxo.