We Are All Essential: A View From the Starbucks Drive-Thru

Meagen Svendsen
Apr 17, 2020 · 9 min read

Social distancing is my thing. At least it was up until a year ago. Now social distancing is everyone’s thing. Except mine. Now, I am essential.

Before COVID-19, when people at social gatherings asked me what I did, I often responded with a question, “My chosen profession, or the one that makes me money?” For the answer to one, I explained that I am an artist; in a band; and mother to two teenage boys. For the other, I explained that I manage the bookings for our vacation rental in Mexico and am the administrator for our design and build company. Either answer was a mouthful. Neither told the whole story.

The part I rarely told people at those gatherings was that I also work as a barista at Starbucks. If it happened to come up, I apologetically detailed the great healthcare benefits and further explained that it was only part-time. Then, still apologetic, I’d explain that I had worked from home for the past two decades and I needed a way to socialize. Clearly, I was having a very hard time squaring my affiliation with an American coffee conglomerate and my progressive left-wing identity. In my world, we shop local.

Since COVID-19, the closest thing I get to a social gathering is my job at Starbucks. The galleries that represent my art are closed to the public; my son is old enough to home-school himself; my band cannot practice; and all our bookings on our place in Mexico were refunded. At this point, nobody knows what the future holds for our society or our economy. I do know one thing for certain: I am one of the lucky few who still has guaranteed healthcare and who has been issued a letter from my employer that states that I am essential. Defining what is essential has become the zeitgeist of our time.

As a studio artist, I have made it my mission to explore the big issues ravaging our natural world — plastics in the ocean; species extinction; migration. I even did a series on viruses that originate in animals and transfer to humans. The series was called Viral. But as many artists do, I often doubted the legitimacy of my profession. My work did little in the way of providing financially for my family, and although I had representation in one of Denver’s top galleries, I still questioned my value. I believe with every fiber of my being that great art is vital to civilization, but ever since Trump came along, nothing felt like enough. My art seemed anything but great. I was losing faith in myself. I needed to feel like I was contributing more.

This was not always the case. In the first decade of my art career, when my children were young and our design and build business was booming, I made no apology for my art. But when the recession of 2008 came along, it nearly crippled us financially. By pure luck, we were able to sell the two houses my husband was building on spec, buy a tiny one to renovate in Mexico, and wait it out for two years with our young boys. When we returned to the States in 2010, we thought we were in the clear. But a year later, a predatory lawsuit knocked us to the ground. We sold the house our kids had grown up in to avoid bankruptcy. We were still dusting ourselves off when I noticed the Starbucks half a mile from our new home.

I knew very little about Starbucks. I had followed their recent handling of the wrongful arrest of two black men in one of their stores. Other than that, I didn’t know much beyond my boys’ manic desires for frappuccinos. I had no idea which size was the grande and which was the venti. I was that lady that walked into the store to get her decaf espresso beans because she could never locate the speaker box at the drive-thru. Naturally, I submitted an application.

I forgot that I had applied when the call came for an interview several months later. By then we were well on our way to recovery. We no longer needed the income. I was free to make art with abandon.

I loved working from home. Driving my son to school. Hiking in the mornings. Spending hours mining our world for inspiration and tossing around creative ideas over coffee with artist friends. But far too often, I also found myself hiding from the demon of depression. That sepia tone that overtakes the mind and pulls you underwater. Holds you there. Shames you. Robs you of the light and makes you wonder if you even matter. I spent far too much time fending off loneliness. I knew deep down that I couldn’t continue the way I had.

So I went for the interview. I hadn’t been to a job interview since before my oldest boy was born. He was about to graduate from high school. I was nervous, but not for long. The store manager interviewed me and blindsided me with her enthusiasm. She had only been at the store for a few months. When she arrived, sales were down and complaints were soaring. She was there to turn things around. Her passion and drive to build community in the neighborhood- in my newly adopted neighborhood- inspired me. I wanted to be a part of it.

When she offered me the job, I accepted. Suddenly, I was jettisoned out of my bubble and into the real world that is my corner of Northwest Denver. Within a week, I knew many of my new neighbors. I met our regular customers and embraced the angst of my teenage and twenty-something coworkers. While my fellow baristas remembered our customers’ drinks, I remembered their names. It was fast-paced and gave me just the right dose of daily human interaction. About nine months went by. Nine months without loneliness. Nine months depression-free.

And then one day our manager announced that she was implementing a new policy. She called it “torso out the window.” When we worked the drive-thru window, which I often did, she wanted us leaning out, singularly focused on the customer. She ceremoniously turned the screen that helped us monitor the orders we were handing out the window, away and out of my view. She explained again that from now on we would have only one job: to connect with the customer. No more turning around to look for the next drink to hand out. To me, that meant about forty-five seconds of dedicated awkward conversation.

I was one of my manager’s favorite victims and I didn’t like it one bit. I was comfortable with the quick one-liner and slow-cooked intimacy, but more than that just felt wrong. I am from New Jersey where staying out of other people’s business is a form of courtesy. The best I could do the first day was to ask vaguely where each customer was headed and whether they had a long commute. I was appalled at the thought of asking anything more personal than that. It offended my culture. I felt like a petulant teenager. I wanted to rebel. I even considered quitting.

The next day, my manager stuck her torso out the window. She asked customers all kinds of personal questions as I watched covertly from the espresso bar. She laughed the whole time and made it seem easy: like a party without the social anxiety. So the next day, I took the plunge. I asked people what they did for a living and I was shocked to see people’s faces light up as they told me. It was the beginning of a new level of exchange that I was unprepared for. Each new day was another chance to continue the conversation. To learn a little more. To grow a little closer.

I never could have predicted that it suddenly would be cut short or that it was preparing me for our current shared situation: this togetherness we are all facing from afar.

Sinead is a doctor with an office nearby. Before the virus hit, she often brought her kids through the drive-thru before school. They were planning a family trip to Mexico. As the days passed we wondered if they would be able to go. Now we don’t bother to mention it anymore.

Shelly is a corporate interior designer. She was the first customer to introduce me to the practice of paying for the car behind you. Recently, I told her so.

Alexandra is a therapist. When I told her I appreciated how she helped people, she said we all do in our own way. She couldn’t go to the office anymore when this hit, so now she is taking care of her nieces while they are out of school.

Lydia used to gram weed. She has stopped working even though her job is still considered essential. She has to stay home and care for her elderly father with dementia. She still comes for her frappucino every morning.

Brooke always responded to “How are you?” with a big smile. One day she looked away and said, “I’m okay,” so I gave her a free drink. She came in to the café the next week to tell me how much it had meant to her. Months later I noticed her arms were covered in henna. She explained that the henna was left over from when she hennaed her grandmother’s bald head while she was in chemo. Last I heard, her grandmother was traveling around South America on her survival trip.

I miss the new friends I made just weeks before all this change. So many of them were on their way to work. Now they either work from home, or no longer have work. Others came in to café, but now the café is closed. There was the elderly couple that stopped by on their way to physical therapy; the shy engineer who designs explosive devices; the single dad and his young daughter who was going to bring more of her drawings to show me; the grandmother and grandson who came by after music class. The list goes on and on. I don’t know what any of them are doing now.

When Rossann Williams, the executive vice president of Starbucks announced at the start of the COVID-19 crisis that we would remain open as an essential business, she wrote, “Let’s face it, lattes aren’t essential.” We were to remain open primarily to serve the first responders at the front lines of this crisis.

And we do. But we also serve people who drive through just so they can talk to a real, live human being.

Every day, as the days wear on, I ask myself if my job really is essential and if I really should be working while so many people are staying home to keep others safe. But then Kate shows up at the window. Last week I remembered that she was a nurse and told her about our free coffee. She looked like she might just shatter. When I offered to give her a carrier with four other cups for her co-workers, her eyes filled up with tears. She returned the next morning, as she always does. She did not ask, but I offered her another carrier. She didn’t want to take it, but I insisted. This time we both almost cried. When I asked her name and I told her mine, she said, “Oh, good, now I know your name. When my co-workers asked me who gave them the coffee yesterday, all I could say was, ‘I don’t know her name. She has blond hair and she is my friend at Starbucks.’”

With every day that passes, we see fewer of our regulars and more nurses and doctors. Without fail, they don’t want to take their coffee for free. I tell them they are the reason we are working. But that is only part of the truth for me. I am there because I need to be — without daily human connection, I was drowning.

Recently Starbucks announced that all partners would be required to wear masks at the workplace, effective immediately. I pulled my dusty sewing machine off my closet shelf, only to realize that the needle was broken and that I couldn’t find my supplies. Just then, I got a text from our store manager. She and her mother were sewing masks for everyone scheduled to work the next day. That morning she handed the masks out. Then she told us we were all going to need to work harder at smiling with our eyes.

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Meagen Svendsen

Written by

Denver-based artist, mom, singer-songwriter, and nature-freak

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +792K followers.

Meagen Svendsen

Written by

Denver-based artist, mom, singer-songwriter, and nature-freak

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +792K followers.

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