La Misérable

Amid the recent fanfare Howard Schultz’s adroit publicists have stirred up around Starbucks’ new “We Pay for College” policy, many former critics of the mega-corporation are now waxing downright sycophantic.  Their mission statement – “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, one neighborhood at a time” – has become a sign of genuine hope for a downtrodden nation.  Youngsters can hope for a better future by signing on with Starbucks, a life without debt, a life where a college education is as simply acquired as working a few hours each week for the Starbuck benefactors then going home and logging on to Arizona State University’s online classroom.  Raise a cup of Joe to the All Powerful Schultz.

But make no mistake, if you work for Starbucks, and if you don’t want to be ruined in the workplace, you must tread carefully.  And if your manager doesn’t like you, even if your manager is incompetent and vindictive, you may be screwed even if you are careful.  But one thing is clear: there are no mistakes that might not be punishable by banishment from Starbucks, and the Corporation is at liberty to deny you so much as a second chance. My beloved daughter Erin knows firsthand how easily a “partner” can be betrayed.

Erin took a job with the Astor Street Starbucks in 1997, when she was still a student at NYU.  For four years, she worked for the Corporation, enjoying the work which allowed her to balance her efforts to attend auditions, to study her craft, and to feel useful in the workplace.  She was a cheerleader for Starbucks, and her managers universally loved her.

As she moved about, Erin applied for and easily achieved transfers to other locations.  She worked for a long time in the original Times Square store, which did not have bathrooms or seating but did have long lines and a high level of stress.  She excelled as a barista there, and when she moved back to her family home upstate, the company gladly offered her a transfer to her hometown Starbucks.

Still attending auditions in The City, still attending classes at Second City and the like, Erin applied for a shift supervisor position, and the promotion was automatically granted.  For over a year, she worked in that capacity, and she attracted a following of local regulars, who set their Starbucks visits by when she was on duty.  She, her co-workers, her fellow shift supervisors, and her manager got along famously, and they all agreed that they had the best Starbucks team in the country.  Andrew, the Store Manager, averred that they had, to his estimation, the best working team of any kind anywhere.

But Andrew completed his MBA and left Starbucks to take an administrative position in another company.  The regional office rushed into hiring JoEllen, who had recently joined Starbucks from a national clothing chain, and she was vocal from the start about how much she disliked the coffee business.  Her dissatisfaction with her new responsibilities were evident to everyone, but she made Erin her special project.

For reasons Erin was not clear about, JoEllen went out of her way to schedule Erin at exactly the times she requested that she not be put on.  Erin loved to open, but she requested that two days a week, the mornings after her late night classes in New York, she be allowed to work later or to be off.  JoEllen persisted in putting Erin on, and Erin went to work without complaint.  But because Erin was  very critical of everything Erin did, Erin was constantly terrified that she would make a mistake.  Self-fulfilling prophesy.

One morning, after returning from New York in the wee hours, Erin failed to hear her alarm.  When she awoke and realized she was late, she rushed to the store and opened ten minutes late.  She was terrified of JoEllen’s rebuke, as the manager had been increasingly hostile and demeaning in recent days.  She jumped the clock, changed the time, and she signed in on time.

JoEllen did discover the cover-up – a customer had complained that the store had never opened late, and she could not understand why it did so on this one day – and she summarily fired Erin.  “You might have well as dipped your hand into the till and stolen money from the company,” she told Erin.

Erin acknowledged her error.  She tearfully apologized, begged forgiveness, even got down on her knees in wailing supplication.  “I was only trying to stay out of trouble,” she said later.  “I never intended to steal from Starbucks.”  But JoEllen was obdurate.  The firing stood.  She had stolen the equivalent of $.06 from the corporation.

Contrite and miserable for her theft, Erin appealed to her regional manager.  The regional manager apologized to Erin, acknowledged the fact that Erin had had a perfect record for the five years she had worked for Starbucks, congratulated her on her accomplishments as a barista and a shift supervisor, but she told Erin that she was powerless to do anything to reverse the firing.  “The company has a strict policy that Managers have control of their stores, and to that end, the company will uphold any managerial decision, especially a firing for cause.  This is considered a theft.”

Five years of Erin’s work history became unusable.  No one wants to hire a Starbucks reject, but no one will hire a woman with experience-empty years on her resume.    Erin could not find a job.  So she appealed to Corporate Headquarters.

By this time, JoEllen had been fired.  In fact, she was fired just weeks after Erin was leg go.  JoEllen was actually skimming her store’s intake.  So, when Erin turned to the people at Corporate, she included that morsel of information in her letter.

Again, she received a glowing thank you for your service, but you are screwed.  After all, you did steal from Starbucks. We cannot take you back.

The world has not spun evenly for Erin since that day.  She cannot find a job, and she faces enormous, endlessly increasing student debt.  She had to drop out of school entirely because she could no longer afford to be there, and not having the degree has hurt her as well.

“I was stupid,” she says now.  “I never denied that.  But I didn’t do anything malicious, and even an ex-convict can get a job with Starbucks when h/she gets out.  I feel like a Jeanne Valjean! Shouldn’t there be some kind of statue of limitations on how long I have to suffer for this?”





Ill Will Hunting

Someone tried to kill me today.

Did I incite the near violence?  Perhaps.  But I certainly meant my would-be murderer no harm.

Turning onto Broadway from 125th Street, clearly in a hurry, a young man behind the wheel of a white van failed to slow down for his turn and entered the crosswalk. I happen to know that it is illegal for a vehicle to enter a crosswalk when the walking icon is white, so I pointed to the traffic light in an effort to raise the driver’s awareness.    Then, in my best Dustin Hoffman voice, I admonished, “I’m walkin’ here,” and I smiled.  The driver was not impressed. In reply, he gunned his motor, pointed his vehicle right at me, and accelerated.

I managed to jump out of the way, and my daughter’s Chihuahua, toddling beside me, managed to evade the oncoming wheel, but it was close.  We did not survive because the driver meant to let us go.  He would have relished the kill.

I staggered to the curb and I caught my breath before I looked up to see if I could ID him, but he was already cresting the hill, about to be out of sight.  There was no license plate on the back of his van, so I had no choice but to watch him disappear into the ebbing traffic.

Witnesses abounded, but except for a young woman crossing near enough to us to have been concurrently endangered, no one so much as tsikached in disgust.  The co-walker blanched and shook her head over and over but said nothing to me.

I’ll be seeing that man’s face as I attempt to sleep tonight and for many nights to come.  As I nearly froze in the headlights of the man’s stare, glowing with delighted anticipation, I was aware of some prophets’ omens written on the subway walls.

First, this guy is not the first nor will he be the last to have a death wish for me.  We have never met, and I don’t know him personally, but I am sure he was thrilled at the notion of eliminating an old white woman.  I have lived in Harlem for a number of years, and I am aware that despite the fact that I am not in any way superior to my neighbors in income or quality of life, I look like I am, and I am often the object of their contempt.  It’s the inevitable result of the extraordinary disparity between the haves and have-nots, more salient here than anywhere in the country.  Resentment flourishes, and misunderstandings abound.  11_kensinger_west_harlem_pier_DSC_5936

Columbia University, viewed by the locals as the bastion of the high and the mighty, is spreading through the area, encroaching on any territory their eminent domain allows them.  Rents are rising just as quickly as affordable housing is disappearing.  We are approaching something called a fiscal cliff, which few understand but everyone fears.  People are desperate; unemployment is high, and there is little incentive to curb the natural impulse to take risks, to defy the law, to push the envelope to its tearing point because there is little to nothing to lose.  I often feel like an interloper.

Second, the incident was undoubtedly seen and ignored by the police.  There is never a dearth of officers on 125th Street, but the police simply do not patrol these streets for dangerous traffic violations.  Harlem roadways, especially 125th Street, Broadway, and Amsterdam Avenue are more like freeways than local streets.  Cars and trucks soar at high speeds, and police rarely give chase except after cars driven by the elderly and otherwise slow-moving operators, whom they get for expensive but nonthreatening infractions.  The big things, like speeding or wielding the car as a loaded weapon go unchecked.  Trucks and vans especially burn their rubber with abandon, heedless of posted limits, potholes, foot-draggin children and aged, or any other impediment to excessive speed.

Police are underpaid, overworked and apathetic.  Citizens are harried, worried, pressured by financial insecurities and faced with staggering unemployment. There’s a fiscal cliff that few understand but everyone fears. It’s a scary world out there.

And someone tried to kill me today.