Saturday, March 28, 2009

Review: How Starbucks Saved My Life

At the advice of Beth, readers' services librarian at Wheaton Public Library (who has her own blog here), I just read How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else by Michael Gates Gill.

I half loved it. It was a great airport/airplane read, and this week I spent a lot of hours in transit. The author/protagonist, son of New Yorker writer Brendan Gill, left Yale and went to work as an executive at the nation's largest ad agency, J. Walter Thompson (now JWT). Along the way he met lots of famous people and made piles of money. He also ignored his family, lost his job, set up as a consultant, couldn't get clients, had a son by a woman he met at the gym, lost his family, lost his house, ran out of money, lost his health insurance ... and did I mention that he had a brain tumor?

Well, if you read the book jacket--or saw Mr Gill on CBS or CNN or read about him in The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times or any number of other places--you know that, in his 60s, he got a menial job at Starbucks. He had to commute an hour and a half each way by subway, and he spent a lot of time cleaning toilets. Schadenfreude! How are the mighty fallen! And how good it feels, hearing him say that he's happier and wiser as a working man than he ever was as a high flyer!

So why did half of me not love the book? OK, maybe only a third of me. Or a fifth. It really was fun to read. But still, a nagging little voice--echoed, I learned, by a number of people who left comments at Amazon--kept wondering, Mr Gill, have you really changed all that much? Yes, you've learned how to do physical work, and you've made friends with people of other races, and you now feel guilty about the way you treated your wife and children.

But doesn't it make you feel good to tell us that, unlike the people you work with now, you once worked with Jackie O, and unlike the coffee purchasers ("Guests") you chat with now, you once chatted with Ernest Hemingway? And doesn't it feel awesome to write a memoir that not only is immediately published by a major New York house, but also is reviewed by most of the major media and is now slated to become a movie starring Tom Hanks? And hey, you don't suppose Starbucks might figure out that you really love everything about them and maybe will start selling your book in all their stores, do you ... ?

Sure, you've learned important life lessons (which you divulge in a sometimes annoyingly cheery ad copy style--but then, writing ad copy was your m├ętier), and you tell reporters that even if you were offered big bucks to go back to corporate life, you'd stay on at your Bronxville Starbucks. On the other hand, you have no family to support--and not all that much contact with the families you've left behind--so your situation doesn't really compare with that of many of your coworkers. Besides, you now get Social Security and are working only part time.

Yadayadayada. It's easy to carp. Whatever his faults and the faults of his little book, Mr Gill has been through a lot and survived. He may not really be living like everyone else, but he's serving others--literally--and is happy with his life. His book offers a lot of wisdom and quite a bit of humble pie. And maybe its real take-away value isn't so much its paean to downsizing as its first-hand evidence that a hard-working creative guy can turn even the most desperate situation around.

Two and a half cheers, and in a few minutes I'll return the book to the library so you can check it out.

One delightful feature: each chapter begins with an inscription on a Starbucks cup. Here's my favorite, from chapter 7, "Turning Losers into Winners":
The irony of commitment is that it's deeply liberating--in work, in play, in love. The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around as rational hesitation. To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life.
--a quote from Anne Morriss, a Starbucks Guest from New York City,
published on the side of a Grande Caramel Macchiato

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