The Starbucks cup. The town we left when we moved to Texas seven years ago didn’t have a coffee shop named after a Battlestar Galactica character. Okay, Moby Dick, but I like sci-fi better. Those of us who lived there knew about the white cup with the green logo, but we made do with Joe Mugg’s Café at Books-A-Million. It didn’t take long living in the metroplex to figure out that Starbucks was something more than expensive coffee. In fact, a couple of my coworkers thought they were nekkid (that’s unclothed for you non-southerners, bless your hearts) without that cup in their hands. For a lot of folks, it seems, Starbucks is an identity, and that cup is a status symbol.
Politics and the Wal-Mart effect aside, I prefer the independent coffee shops. The java is almost always better, and I like supporting smaller, local businesses. Sometimes, though, you have to take what’s available, and that’s the Starbucks business model in a nutshell – availability. They’ve got one on almost every corner, and even if the product isn’t as good as a local coffee snob’s shop, it’s consistent. Now, understand that when I go for coffee, I go for coffee. Medium or bold roast, hot, and black. If I wanted candy, I’d go to a confectionary, so I don’t consider something that you have to chase with an insulin shot a real coffee product. It’s just something to slow down the line, like lottery tickets at the convenience store.
Anyway, since I work all over the DFW Metroplex, I sometimes find myself in an area with a single choice – Starbucks. That happened a couple of weeks ago, and instead of getting immediately to work, I paused for a minute or two to people-watch. Half-an-hour later, still watching, I found myself ruminating on the fact that anyone who falls for the old “seeing is believing” line is a sucker. Every person standing in that line, sitting at one of the tables, or working behind the counter wore a mask. Every single one of us.
The mask is something we have to do, of course. Being seen in public without it is a social blunder no less damning than showing up to work completely nekkid. (Y’all remember what that means, don’t you?) Don’t believe me? Then try this experiment next time someone greets you with, “Hey. How you doing?” Instead of just answering, “Fine,” go ahead and answer them. For real, I mean. I’ll bet your mask snaps back on as soon as that person’s slides off, because what’s underneath won’t be pretty. If what my eyes told me that morning at Starbucks was true, I was in a building filled with incredibly serious, single-minded, wealthy, important-on-the-scale-of-the-President-of-the-United-States people. Not a single customer, according to the masks, had a sense of humor or had ever known a moment of doubt.
That’s nonsense, of course. Every one of us was full of memories, hopes, dreams, fears, and worries. Well, there was that couple over by the… Never mind. We all had on our public masks, the thickest, most opaque mask of all. It’s the one that makes us fit for public consumption. When it drops, even for a second, we’re vulnerable and, in public, we have no idea who might take a look or what their intentions might be. And we all know that safety is more important than humanity.
We switch to a different mask at work. It’s not as thick, so it’s usually a little more comfortable, and it’s a little clearer in some places, letting our true selves enjoy a few tiny rays of light. It has to be substantial enough to cover all our warts and make us acceptable to our employer and co-workers, but familiarity brings comfort, and this is a familiar mask for most of us. It’s the one we wear the most.
Leaving the office calls for a different mask, but not always the same one. Heading out to meet friends requires the pliant, somewhat transparent model. When we’re with really good friends, that one doesn’t always fit so well, and we have to make adjustments when it slips. Headed home to family takes another mask altogether. This one is usually hard to see, and it’s so close to our real identities, we often forget we have it on. We try to convince our loved ones and ourselves that it’s the real thing, the thing we hide behind our other masks, even though we all know that’s not the case. Families who understand this truth function well. Couples who are mature enough or savvy enough to know they have to maintain their own identities are rare, and their chances at happiness are better than most. Too many don’t have those qualities, though, and trouble ensues when loved ones realize that what they thought was real is just another façade – one they aren’t trusted to see behind.
Then there’s that other mask. It’s the one we wear all the time, except in our darkest dreams. It’s the one we use to hide from ourselves. We put it on sometime around puberty, and most of us never take it off. This mask changes over the years, getting thicker and more opaque, then thinner and more transparent. What it needs to hide depends on how we see ourselves and our place in society. But it’s always there, doing what masks do, keeping us safe from uncomfortable emotions, confrontations, and relationships.
According to the masks in that Starbucks line, nobody there that day had a story to tell. We were all cold, distant, unapproachable success gurus whose only emotions were impatience with inefficiency and brief satisfaction with a job well done. In reality, we were each one a best-selling novel or the next summer blockbuster. But those things are messy, and we don’t like messes. We push all of our stories, all of the opportunities we have to create empathy and find common ground under the surface and keep them hidden behind our masks. That keeps life orderly, predictable, and manageable, just the way most folks want things to be.
It’s sad that, despite our society’s progress in so many areas, we have changed so little in the one hundred sixty-six years since Henry David Thoreau published his Civil Disobedience and Other Essays. Even today, most of us lead, “…lives of quiet desperation, [and will] go to the grave with the song still in [us].”
So says the guy who always takes his coffee black.