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1-800-how Are You?

Editor’s note: Cindy Lamb last wrote in these pages a year ago, covering chainsaw artist Carroll David Sanders. By the time that story appeared she had moved to Seattle. But she did send us this electronic mail awhile back.

  Just thought I’d pour a cup of coffee and write you a note from Seattle. Not just any cup of coffee, mind you, but a finely brewed cup of Guatemala Antigua-one of Starbucks Coffee Company’s dark-roasted South American offerings. I took a job with the world-famous Starbucks and it’s been a learning experience and cultural adventure. 

  I was hired to work in the Direct Response Center (that’s fancy talk for Mail Order). Yes, I’m one of those “operators standing by” to answer any coffee bean and brewing questions you may have as well as ordering any number of pound bags and other items Starbucks offers.

  If you’ve never been to a Starbucks (and that happens a lot in the United States because they simply can’t build one in every zip code, but they’re trying), it’s a mellow, literary-type cafe where people of all ages and backgrounds gather to enjoy coffee drinks, music, pastries, and chocolates. They even publish a slick magazine called Joe (as in cup of…) The CEO, Howard Schultz, has made his millions creating what social observers call “a third place” in the contemporary urban lifestyle. Not a bar, not a library, not a restaurant, not a club, but a place to go between work and home. You can grab a cup of black House Blend coffee for yourself or linger with friends over cappuccino and muffins. Music from all over the world is always playing-jazz, folk, salsa, rock-which Starbucks packages on CDs for sale in the stores. The bean-roasted aroma is intoxicating and the whirring of the espresso machine’s milk steamer adds to the intrigue of each store. People-watching and slacking is encouraged.

  As for my sterile world of the Direct Response Center, it’s in a large building just south of downtown that also houses special marketing, advertising, and warranty mail order. It used to be the roasting plant but now Starbucks roasts and ships its coffee from York, Pennsylvania. My desk is in a spacious, high-walled cubicle, with a long, curving surface for computer, phone, and paperwork. An ergonomically designed chair treats my rear end, back, and neck to politically correct comfort through my eight-hour shift.

  The office is airy and full of muted colors and splashy art on the walls. Huge murals hang on thick canvases on the way to strategically placed break and dining areas where coffee, milk, and flavored syrups for the coffee, snacks, and fresh fruits are available to employees. It’s nice, what can I say. I’ve learned more about the coffee growing, buying, and roasting industry than I thought possible. Along with 10 or so other hopefuls for the Starbucks “partnership” (we’re not employees but partners…hmmm) I was trained for more than 65 hours in what we jokingly call The Caffeine College of Coffee Knowledge.

  By calling a toll-free 800 number, people all over the world reach my ears with their orders, gifts, questions, or just about anything coffee-related. This is where the job starts to really fit me like a glove. I love talking to strangers. There are little Brownie Hawkeye photographs of me, as a 4-year-old in Russell County, hanging out with my dad on his runs as an insurance claims adjuster. I’d be dressed in either white dress, anklets, and Mary Janes or in my fringed cowboy outfit complete with straw hat and pistols in holster, always in conversations with passersby-Dad’s clients, shop owners, what have you. Now, except for the coffee being stronger and Dad being gone, things haven’t changed much. I put on my headset, pour a cup of Sumatra, and begin.

  “Hello? Starbucks? I just got this card in the mail about a home delivery program?” That’s how a lot of the calls go right now.  
We’re amidst a massive promotion where we give away coffee makers, grinders, and mugs to get folks to order coffee to come to their door on a monthly basis. It’s my job to get their orders, make them feel comfortable, and get them on their merry way. The geniuses in the marketing department have determined the time I need to do this is approximately four minutes.

  Well….

  There are just not many Southern folks in my department and it shows. While most co-workers get their four to seven minutes down pat, I often hit the double digits. Folks are just too darn interesting. I hope they think the same of me.

  After the main questions are asked and answered, customers often lapse into weather talk, notes on their kids, or news of the day in their neck of the woods. Chances are they’ll never meet me or talk to me again so they let it all fly. Sounds of everyday life come through the receiver-I hear the coos of nursing babies on their mom’s shoulders as they struggle to read a credit and not wake a dozing child. I hear a TV announcer screaming about a touchdown on Monday Night Football or the strains of a lawnmower at dusk in Maine. I can almost smell the cut grass.

  Many have coffee concerns, like, “Why can’t I use my PERK-U-lator?” with this grind? Or people who seem to want to get under my skin by referring to “Expresso” blend. Please. As sure as there’s no “r” in “wash” there is no “x” in espresso.

  And there are the antsy types who call three days after they order and ask why it’s late. “When did the person tell you it would arrive?” I ask. They say, “Well, they said two weeks.” (Silence.) 

  I talk with lonely, non-social folks who would jump through the phone and show me their surgery scars if it would keep me on the line. I can only entertain them for so long before having to move on but we still manage to trade a lot of opinions about good doctors, bad nurses, and pharmaceutical overcharging. No telling how many shut-ins are kept alive by an 800 number. 

  Then there are the shy husbands trying to surprise their wives with a birthday sampler of coffee and music. “Ummm, do you think she’ll like it?” And me having no idea who she is or what she likes. You get them to describe their various mates and girlfriends and what unfolds is mesmerizing. Have a loved one order YOU something via the phone sometime and ask them how they described you to the salesperson. I’ve actually become quite good at equating a person’s personality, tastes, and lifestyle to what kind of coffee blend and grind they’ll need.

  One of the funnier notions of this job is dealing with Generation X or 20-something people. I’m mortified by younger customers (even fellow workers) who describe a “percolator” as if it’s part of ancient history. Coffee connoisseurs these days only seem to know about drip, cone, Mellita, and press. I was raised on Maxwell House and Folgers, brewed in a percolator. Heck, where do you think Maxwell House got that zippy little theme song? I try and take the hands of these youngun’s who treat me like I was at Kitty Hawk, brewing coffee for the Wright Brothers any time I mention I enjoyed percolator coffee. The water is heated in the pot with electricity or fire-whatever’s available-then the hot water rises through the hollow stem and pops over the basket of grounds like a fountain. It soaks the coffee then slowly blends with the water to make anywhere from four to eight cups. I loved the sound of my mom’s chrome GE pot. I loved the smell of my grandmother’s Corningware pot-the white one with the little blue flowers-its orange light was the sign of many fond coffee memories. As a child, I simply enjoyed coffee by smelling it. My grandmother, Tullie Flanagan, would serve us kiddos in the little purple plastic cups-coffee rich with Southern Belle whole milk and lots of sugar. My other grandmother, Lula Alcorn, in Mt. Vernon had a big coal- burning stove. Her coffee perked right along with whatever else was simmering in the iron skillets below. My mom, Juanita Flanagan, and I have had days where we guzzled coffee like refugees in the desert would treat water.

  The best moments are sharing with people who ask me where our office is located. Some ask about the weather (no, it doesn’t rain all the time) and the crowds (yes, people flocked here like cattle in the ’80s and they don’t need any more, thank you) and the view from my desk (the Mariners’ baseball stadium, skyscraper skyline, and outside I hear the tugboats on Puget Sound). 

  I almost always have a second to tell them I’m from Kentucky. This goes over well with customers who are calling from other rural areas-whether it’s Pinetop, Arizona (no Starbucks stores at 7,000 feet), or Lazy River, Louisiana (where Starbucks has overrun chicory in the bayou)-they feel a kinship with me. 

  Suddenly, I’m not this high-falutin’ Northwest stranger. I’m a homegirl to any small-towner who calls. We share recipes, favorite hometown haunts, and current events. One customer in Virginia was trying to quit smoking but was sneaking one on the back porch while ordering on the phone. I called him by first and last names with the sharp trill of a mother hen…”I’ll have your head on a stick if you light up again!!!” He laughed and put it out. 

  Two people have called me from their baths in progress-just splashing around, ordering coffee. I laughed and told them my eyes were closed. 

  Lately, I’ve been chatting with residents of Florida, Georgia, and Carolina coast towns. We talked about Floyd and Gert, hurricanes that will have passed by the time you read this. We hoped for their safety together. I hope they and their coffee deliveries make it okay. They tell me to take good care of myself “out there” and to have a great day. I tell them to keep in touch. Maybe they’ll run out of filters or something.

  In the meantime, I’ll disseminate brewing technique, discuss Jamaican music and dark chocolate, and always attempt to mask the horror of people who are unaware of the days when percolators ruled. It sure does make my mornings to brew a rich carafe of Italian Roast or enjoy pouring hot water onto four scoops of Cafe Verona blend to make four cups in my French coffee press. Call anytime if you’d like to get more information on Starbucks. The number is (800) 782-7282. I may or may not be on the job but somebody there will help you. For crying out loud, don’t ask for me. It will be impossible to connect us once you call in. If I answer the phone, then ya’ got me, for at least four minutes.

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