Better latte than never
How Starbucks Saved My Life By Michael Gates Gill Bantam, 267pp, $ 34.95
MICHAEL Gates Gill, son of The New Yorker writer and critic Brendan Gill, may be just the literary figurehead for the new First World vogue for neoAugustinian piety. There have been indications that such a genre was under way: think Barbara Ehrenreich’s brilliantly edgy expose of unskilled labour conditions, the best- selling Nickel and Dimed: On ( Not) Getting By in America , and Melissa Plaut’s square- shooting Hack: How I Stopped Worrying About What to Do with My Life and Started Driving a Yellow Cab . But Starbucks will be remembered as the lodestar: the tale of how a rich, white, successful, Yaleeducated sexagenarian opted for menial labour over involuntary retirement, golf and death.
Universal Pictures optioned Starbucks in proposal form; Gus Van Sant and Tom Hanks are pencilled in as director and lead actor respectively. Their enthusiasm is easy to understand. The memoir’s premise is, in these conservative times, revolutionary: what happens when an insider turns the capitalist canon on its head? When the complacent scion of a patriarchal elite rejects, in the flower of his posttumescent panic, every social expectation? When a former executive vice- president for advertising giant J. Walter Thompson dons an apron to serve coffee under the tutelage of a young woman?
In every respect other than literary — the neophyte Gill is a sincere but mediocre stylist — Starbucks is a profoundly courageous memoir and loud in its advocacy of conscious reincarnation, albeit within the confines of a single life. The narrative compels.
After 25 years at the heart of the establishment, Gill is sacked. He struggles with a consultancy business and fails, does not cope well with leisure or with the sudden avalanche of exposure to his wife, and has an affair with a fortysomething professor of psychiatry who claims to be infertile. Predictably, this extramarital union produces a child — Jonathan — and Gill’s wife files for divorce.
His four adult children side with their mother. The professor decides he is boring as both man and lover. Gill is then diagnosed with a small brain tumour. Shipwrecked, he finally begins to examine his life.
I flew many hundreds of thousands of miles to spend time with my clients,’’ he writes, and hardly saw my children. My clients became my children, and my children grew up without me . . . Like many men of my generation accepting the role of breadwinner, I rationalised my devotion to work and trust in ( corporate life).’’
He remembers his privileged youth in New York City and the African- American woman who changed him. He writes:
My parents always seemed to be going out to cocktail parties and dinners. I was a lonely little boy. As usual, they were not home when I returned on the bus from Buckley School, but there was Nana, as always, waiting for me with arms outstretched and a big smile on her face. I rushed into her commodious bosom.
This old woman was the love of my young life . . . I spent all of my time with her in the warm and delicious- smelling basement kitchen, imitating Charlie Chaplin and making her laugh . . . I had buck teeth and big ears, but Nana said, ‘‘ You are a handsome boy.’’
Like Gill, Nana was sacked because of her age. It is only when he finds himself in Starbucks nursing a latte he can no longer comfortably afford that he suddenly feels the hole in my heart’’ for a woman he hasn’t seen for almost 60 years. Which is why when a young, black female Starbucks employee asks if he wants a job — unwittingly, Gill has stumbled into an openhiring situation — he immediately trusts her and replies in the affirmative.
Through the performance of ostensibly demeaning tasks such as toilet- cleaning, Gill realises that the only real love of his adult life was his status in the eyes of other men. Clients such
as Ford, Burger King, Christian Dior, the US Marine Corps and IBM had assumed a nearreligious significance in his universe, bathed as they were in the aura of corporate significance. Born to the world of superficies, he also remembers throwing apples as a boy at Ezra Pound on a Connecticut dock, meeting the
jolly’’ Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot, discussing drinks with W. H. Auden, irritating the Queen at a garden party, and falling a little in love with Jackie Onassis (‘‘ There was also a seductive sexiness about her one- on- one that no camera could really capture’’). Gill’s finest anecdote concerns Ernest Hemingway, with whom he spent time in Pamplona in 1959.
Those big parties, and these literary celebrities, really meant very little to me,’’ he concludes. I would have preferred more time alone with my father.’’
Gill is not completely successful in making amends with his family, but he does succeed, finally, in being true to himself. Since birth I had been placed on an upward escalator reserved for those few affluent, properly educated, wellspoken and well- dressed peers who would never stop ascending,’’ he understands, and no one seemed to have been able to help me or even really notice my great distress and basic needs.’’
is a beautiful book that speaks not only to those who no longer believe they have anything to offer, but to everyone who enjoys an unexpectedly affecting story.