The Oncoming Starbucks Conundrum
Life in New York City includes being on frequent scouting missions for public restrooms. Most subway stations did have some at one time, but those are now closed or off limits to actual paying passengers. If you live and have a social life in New York City, you will also likely become adept at public urination at a certain level.
Clean public restrooms are a sought-after commodity for people in the city. There are even mobile applications for smart phones that help people find the nearest public restroom. This phenomenon is not exclusive to New York, of course, but like everything else, it is more of an intense challenge here. There are too many people vying for comfort and ease in our Gotham, and breakneck competition for the good life means someone has to lose.
Starbucks was the subject of good-guy America’s two-minute hate a few months back when two African American men were arrested a Philadelphia location after using the bathroom and refusing to order anything. The Seattle-based coffee chain closed 8,000 of its stores in the U.S. this past Tuesday for “a conversation and learning session on race, bias and building of a diverse welcoming company.” One note: while it closed all of its “company operated” stores, its 7,000 “licensed stores” at airports, hotels, major grocery stores, and universities, remained open.
Maybe the whole mess could have been avoided if some of the people who objected to the arrests had bought the two men some coffee, but apparently the fight for justice is worth shooting video with your smart phone but isn’t worth springing for an $8 latte.
Outrage quickly spread and there were calls for boycotts of the ubiquitous coffee chain. I was way ahead of the curve before it became uncool to get coffee there. Starbucks injects unneeded pretention into buying coffee. I refuse to use its bogus jargon that calls a small coffee a “tall.” Just let me order a large coffee (which I never see on their menu; you have to know to order the “coffee of the day” if you want to get anything resembling a regular cup of coffee—please spare me that nonsense). I prefer to drink the free coffee they have at the office where I work. If I’m going to get coffee from a store, I’ll go to 7 Eleven or to any local corner deli or bodega, which usually have decent coffee and will be happy to take your money without putting on airs.
Just about everyone agrees that arresting people for loitering in a coffee shop is excessive. If police arrested everyone who went into a Starbucks just to use the bathroom there would be more Americans in jail than out of jail.
Starbucks’ continuing mea culpa included a public announcement that anyone can use any Starbucks bathroom at any time without making a purchase.
That’s both good and bad news. The good news is: If you are starting to get desperate for a restroom you know you can walk into a Starbucks and stand on the (now likely longer) line to access a legal toilet. The bad news is: Now everyone knows that. The company is going out of its way to welcome people who are not customers. When people can’t be turned away, the kind of people who show up are people who would normally get turned away.
This will make everything more crowded, and will also bring in more homeless people. This will get worse in the winter time, and if homeless people can’t be dissuaded from camping out there, customers will start turning away.
A few months ago, I met a friend for coffee at Grand Central Terminal, where they have tables and several coffee shops. The MTA has let the homeless problem at Grand Central get out of hand again, and while I was able to find a place to sit and have coffee with a friend, the presence of the homeless was everywhere.
Another issue that arises with unlimited bathroom access is that of drugs. We are in the midst of a drug use crisis that few have seen in their lifetimes involving opiates. Will Starbucks be the new injection site for addicts? The bathroom lines will be even longer when more people start overdosing in them.
One issue that’s become lost in this discussion is the welfare of Starbucks employees. Their jobs are tough enough, especially in light of this recent publicity, and they now have to clean up after a bigger swath of the general public, including more homeless and drug addicts. All official hand-washing aside, do you want someone who just cleaned a horrendous restroom to be handling your iced coffee and banana bread? Me neither.
If Starbucks becomes an overcrowded mess as America’s new homeless shelter or heroin shooting gallery, it will no longer be America’s preferred “third place.” Why shouldn’t people bring a bagged lunch when they visit the city and take advantage of the space, bathrooms, and free Wi-Fi at Starbuck’s? So what is the plan to counter the potential deluge of homeless and drug addicts?
I wish the chain the best of luck in navigating this. I will add them to my own mental list of available public restrooms, but only to be sought in desperate times, and I’ll try to buy something.
The Benefits and Dangers of Being in a Forgotten Zone
It’s frustrating when you live someplace that’s not on the map. It is doubly frustrating when you live in one of the largest metropolises in the history of human civilization and you find your neighborhood has been dropped from the map.
This phenomenon is well-known to anyone who lives far enough out of the popular centers of New York City. Manhattan maps might end mysteriously somewhere above or below 125th Street, and many tourist-centered maps of Queens don’t venture much farther than Astoria or Long Island City—not including the airports, mapped separately. Staten Island may have this the worst, as the most popular destination of their borough for tourists is the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. Staten Island wears its “forgotten borough” hat with pride; respect.
Even the “Not For Tourists” map guide that includes Flushing for Queens stops a few blocks away from the building where I live. That’s too bad for the not-tourists, since there are delicious 24-hour Korean barbecue restaurants not even half a block from where the map ends.
Living in a lesser-known area of the city has a lot of benefits. One is cost of living and small rentals, not necessarily home prices. People pay a lot of extra money to live in a neighborhood that is popular or sounds impressive or hip. That’s why realtors have developed bogus neighborhood names that reference more popular areas. A few years ago, “East Williamsburg” was realtor shorthand for Bushwick, but now even Bushwick has become a popular destination for gentrifying newcomers. Maybe East New York (a higher-crime area not blessed with any in-crowd interest thus far) will be called “South Bushwick” or “Jamaica Bay Coast” or something ridiculous.
If you’re not in easy walking distance to a subway, consider yourself in a forgotten zone. The prices will be lower but the commuting to work in Manhattan will be long and miserable unless you’re able to take an express bus or railroad and pay the extra money for the honor.
Also, being in a neighborhood that is a best kept secret is a bit thrilling. I lived in Inwood for a little more than a decade, and while it was frustrating to have to explain where I lived for that long, it was nice to experience all that the far north end of Manhattan had to offer before people found out about it. Now Inwood has all the trappings of an “up and coming” neighborhood including overpriced rents.
One drawback to living in a lesser-known neighborhood is the fight for resources. The political calculus that determines how money is allocated is determined by political power and opportunity, and if your neighborhood doesn’t have the cache to woo the powers that be in City Hall, you may be out of luck.
Local Flushing and Whitestone parents are trying to rally support to keep a Parks Department children’s program located nearby – the Parks Department wants to relocate the program to Kissena Park, about three miles south. A group has organized Families for Bowne Park and sought the help of local elected officials and is even planning a Kids Rally for Bowne Park on June 1st.
Bowne Park is definitely off the radar. It has a nice playground and pond, even some bocce courts. While in the past this may have helped the park stay a quiet gem in a local neighborhood, its success may have led enough of the wrong people to take notice and decide to move the Parks Department children’s program.
I wish this group all the success in the world, and while we may not always want to struggle for neighborhood recognition, we’ll go to the mattresses to make sure our area gets respect.
New York: Accept No Substitutes
I was in Atlanta for work this past week and I wanted to go someplace for lunch. I was working in a very modern office that had some free pizza for lunch, but I wanted something healthier and to get out of the office for a little while.
Atlanta is not a pedestrian friendly city and my options were limited unless I wanted to take a cab someplace. A coworker recommended a shopping center a little way up the hill in the corporate park where we were, so I walked there.
My options for lunch were a Subway (no, a Subway worker once tried to put mayonnaise on a meatball sub and once you get past a certain age the smell of their bread is disgusting), a salad place, and a New York-style deli. For some reason, I picked the New York-style deli place. I thought maybe they would have good sandwiches.
The walls were painted with images from New York: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and the like. It was a poor imitation of a New York deli. People waited too long at the counter and too long for table service. Maybe they have brilliant pastrami or hot dogs but the sandwiches I saw pass by were pretty paltry and would not have made it across the counter at a quality deli in the Big Apple.
I tried to eat a healthy option so I ordered a salad and a side of cottage cheese. I also ordered an egg cream because it’s rare to find those anywhere, so when I see one offered on a menu I feel I should order it. The egg cream was only OK: again, it would be way below par at a place like Ray’s Candy Store, where I’m proud to have taken people for their first egg creams.
This kind of fraudulent “New York” is not limited to outside New York. But if you’re within the five boroughs or even within a hundred miles of the city and you stumble upon a restaurant or deli that makes grand pretention to how “New York” it is, you can usually count that as bogus. If you’ve got to advertise it, you’re not the real deal.
Atlanta, and the South in general, has some of the best food in the world. I’ve been to outstanding barbecue restaurants, had soul food, Cajun food, and many varieties of Southern cuisine that are mouth-watering just to think about. I know there is better fare on offer in Georgia. Sadly, the metro-Atlanta area has undergone rapid growth that has scrubbed away meaningful culture, leaving it with a lot of the mundane corporate subdivision architecture. You see what this kind of consolidation has done to the New York suburbs and parts of the five boroughs as well: there’s an Olive Garden making money in Times Square while independent Italian restaurants in Little Italy struggle to get by.
I did not find an authentic New York restaurant in Atlanta. Maybe I never will, but that’s OK. The search for the real New York is enough of a herculean task at home. My children may have a radically different idea of what makes for a true New York experience than I do. As generations make changes and the demographics of the city churn through neighborhood after neighborhood, what counts as a true measure of culture fluctuates.
I made it back to the office after wolfing down my salad and cottage cheese. I had to get more work done before flying back to New York.
The savage madness of New York City Pre-Kindergarten
Having children in New York City means a life of deadlines and bureaucratic navigation. While every child is guaranteed a public education, it takes immersion into byzantine administration in order to ensure your offspring can access the best schools available, and the grapevine is full of horror stories and cautionary tales of kids being sent far from home to sub-par schools.
My wife and I are waiting to hear where our older girls will attend preschool. Universal Pre-K started several years ago and it’s free to all kids the year they turn four years old. We are lucky in that we live in an area that has good local schools. A lot of younger couples have kids and then find themselves racing a clock to get to a better neighborhood in or out of the five boroughs that has suitable education choices.
I am blessed with a great asset in making sure my kids get into a decent Pre-K: my wife. She was the one who did the research and learned how to traverse the absurdist labyrinth of rules and applications (e.g.: applying to only one or two schools won’t work, if you do that, the system will automatically fill in the other choices for you, so your attempt to limit the choices may backfire big time). She figured out which ones were closest and had good ratings, and came up with a list of preferences that will mean our older girls are likely to be in a good place.
The schools we applied to include both public and private schools close to where we live that run public Pre-K programs.
One of those public/private Pre-K schools is a place called Holy Mountain. This school does not have any religious affiliation that we can discern. It has a mostly Asian student population, but so do most schools in our area (we live in Flushing, Queens, an area known for its large Chinese immigrant population; it has a large Korean population as well).
But the name Holy Mountain will always first make me think of the 1973 Alejandro Jodorowski film, The Holy Mountain, which I first saw projected onto a wall during a punk rock show many years ago. It is an art film filled with strange and bizarre images, even watching the trailer many years later is to step away from reality for a few minutes. One of the most well-known and memorable images of the film include a parade of crucified dogs that have been skinned and disemboweled.
So now whenever my wife and I discuss Pre-K for our kids and we note that Holy Mountain was one of our top choices (it’s nearby and it has high ratings with a Montessori-based teaching style, so what if it has a weird name), all I can think about is my older girls parading down 31st Road in gas masks while carrying crucified dogs.
This week, the results came in: and our girls will be headed to Holy Mountain in September. Mutilated canine parade, here we come! I now need to watch that film again. I’ll have to find a time when the rest of my family is asleep, as I am the only one in my household who has this big a taste for eccentric cinema.
We are lucky to live in an area where such services are available within walking distance. For the value it returns, no investment in public education can be too big.
When you become an indifferent monster
I was at a conference for work where people were going to be talking about important things that could affect my job, the line of business I work for, and the company I work for. I had to be there for certain speaking panels and a regulator’s speech. I had to take copious notes and report on what was said. I needed to be there to talk to any journalists that might be asking questions of our company’s executives.
I work in corporate communications. I like to think I’m good at my job, or at least have a good work ethic and honestly try to do my best. It was after lunch and I was loading up on coffee to make sure I stayed alert. Since I had consumed enough caffeine to give an elephant a heart attack, I really wanted to try to get to the restroom between two panels that I had to be present for.
To my luck, the program at the conference added an extra speaker between these sessions and I saw this as my chance to head to the bathroom. As the conference organizers asked us to stay for this speech, I was darting out of the conference room to get to the men’s room.
Outside the auditorium, closed-circuit televisions were broadcasting what was happening inside, and I saw that I had walked out on a young teenager who was recovering from a horrible form of cancer. People in the lobby watched the young man on television recount his struggle to live a normal life while fighting a horrible disease.
I stopped for a minute to listen, feeling like the worst kind of corporate monster for walking out on the most heartfelt talk of the entire event. But nature, and my need to be back in time to take notes on the next panel, called, and I continued with my plan and made it back to the auditorium with just enough time to not miss the required discussion.
Cody Strong for a Cure is a charitable organization that helps support children with cancer and their families and raises money to fund research into pediatric cancer. I missed a brief talk by the inspiration for the charity, Will Cody, who is thankfully in remission after being diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia two years ago.
After priding myself on having good priorities and not being blinded to the truly important things in life, I had become the indifferent monster I had always despised. I consoled myself in that I had already donated to the charity raffle at the event, using all my raffle tickets on the prize for a free trip to a Rangers game (I didn’t win).
There are times when life gives you a punch in the gut that reveals how unimportant so much of what we think about is, and our carefully tended self image comes crashing to the floor in a jumble of jagged shards. This was one of those times. No matter what was said or done at the conference that affected my job or the company I work for, none of it amounts to jack shit compared with a child stricken with a terrifying illness.
I stayed up late that night typing up my notes for work, and I have no idea how many people read them. One of my colleagues said I did a great job with them, but they will always be stained with a dark self-knowledge. At some point in our lives, we see a side of ourselves that we despise.