Subverting Starbucks

If there is one thing that constantly perplexes foreign visitors about the United States, it is the complete absence of public toilets. In world capitals from London to Tokyo, Milan to Moscow, visitors seeking relief can find it in clean, well-lighted places for just a couple of coins. But in most American cities, a full bladder gets no respect.

This isn't about to change, especially in New York. That's because the city's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is convinced we already have enough public toilets and don't need more. Why? "There's enough Starbucks that'll let you use the bathroom," says he.

Hizzonor was joking. We think. But this had a grain of truth: New Yorkers hate Starbucks. Like our sophisticated European counterparts, we feel duty-bound to stand against the homogenization that's turned America into a transcontinental strip mall, where all the clothes are from the Gap, all the food comes from Taco Bell and all the entertainment can be found at the Loews multiplex. But our resistance is crumbling. Some say Starbucks coffee is just too good. (I actually prefer mine a little less charbroiled, thank you.) Others celebrate the delightful jazz, comfortable easy chairs and free newspapers. Buy a coffee at a Starbucks, and you can sit for hours in a room that's a lot more pleasant than your apartment. And then there's that time-tested mantra of Manhattan real estate: location, location, location. Only Starbucks doesn't just pick the best spots. It picks all the spots.

Starbucks is everywhere, in close to 200 locations. By urging New Yorkers to stop by Starbucks to deposit the liquid byproduct of coffee consumption, Mayor Bloomberg was only acknowledging what's fair. Starbucks causes much of the problem. Its geographical ubiquity should thus be the solution.

Actually, I'm way ahead of the mayor. In fact, when a Starbucks displaced a well-liked mom-and-pop store in my neighborhood, I became obsessed with making the company pay. For me, that meant long afternoons whiling away the hours in one of Starbucks' comfortable chairs--not spending so much as a dime on one of its tall, grande or venti concoctions, let alone the fey macchiato. And I started using the bathroom so often that I considered leaving a book in there.

I was not alone. While I was using the chain as a living room, my neighbors were using it as a dining room. They'd buy food elsewhere, go to Starbucks, plump into a plush sofa--and nosh, maybe with a couple of other anti-Starbucks subversives. Such people make my heart swell with pride. Once I turned to a woman sitting next to me, downing a large mound of lasagna. Starbucks? I asked. "What, are you crazy?" she replied, a standard New York response to life's incomprehensible questions. "That's nothing," another friend said later, when I told her the story. It turns out she'd been using Starbucks as a grocery. Whenever she's low on milk for her morning cereal, she pops by Starbucks and helps herself to theirs.

Clearly, many New Yorkers have heeded the mayor's advice in times of need. It's hard to say this politely, but some Starbucks bathrooms have begun taking on the distinctive aroma of the subway system during the city's last fiscal crisis, when a lot of folks called the underground home. The other day, the Starbucks across the street from city hall (the mayor's secret water closet?) had the look of a stadium bathroom after a Megadeth concert. The toilet seat was in three pieces on the muddy floor. Toilet paper was as scarce as antiwar voices in the Bush administration. Five people were on line, but only one was a Starbucks patron. None of the staff seemed to mind.

Why should they? As I see it, if I buy a coffee in the morning, or yesterday, I'm still a customer entitled to full service, and that includes, well, you know what. I mean, when it comes to coffee, is there a statute of urinations? The other day I concluded that it was time to escalate my war against Starbucks, so I headed over to Greenwich Village, a predominantly student neighborhood where the word "customer" is a misnomer; these people are squatters. Settling into Starbucks early, they spend their mornings reading the paper; during afternoons they do a little class work, and in the evening the place becomes an alcohol-free singles bar. (I've heard of "beer goggles," but who knew that caffeine lowered inhibitions?)

Finding a seat near the window (I love a Starbucks with a view, which in this case was a view of another Starbucks directly across the street), I took out a ham sandwich. When I finished, I couldn't help but notice how thirsty I was. Given my crusade, I couldn't exactly buy something, so I did the next best thing: I asked the "barista" for a glass of water. Sure, she said. She even put ice in it. They serve a good cup of water at Starbucks. Maybe someday I'll buy a coffee.