Ethnographic Field Notes from Starbucks

The population that appears in and around the S at 600 South 9th Street, fronting on a corner with South Street, reflects a diverse, liberal, and generally upwardly mobile and creative neighborhood. The atmosphere, literally and metaphorically, is stimulating to the senses and the intellect.

The S on South Street near the Whole Foods supermarket is in a highly advantageous position for observation. The two large supermarkets (Superfresh is the other one), the large pharmacy (CVS), the three playgrounds (Seeger, Palumbo, and Starr Gardens), the community garden, the eclectic shopping and night life of South Street itself, the mural art of Isaiah Zagar, and other attractions, all pull a wildly varying crowd of people into, and by, the coffee house.

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The street itself has always been a symbolic dividing line between the Center City neighborhood and South Philadelphia. The area was historically a neighborhood where freedmen of African descent lived and worked and had a lively and comprehensive community. In fact, a historical marker notes that W. E. B. DuBois did his seminal work of sociological observation and analysis on African-Americans in this very neighborhood.

This was also a region of the city where Jewish merchants had their businesses, such as grocers. A bit farther to the south is the heart of Italian South Philly, and the Italian Market, which is now known as the 9th Street Market, to reflect the influx of Latino and Southeast Asian merchants. All this was conveyed to me by customers at the Starbucks, sometimes in rather strong terms, but is also documented in the names of the stores and the faces of the merchants themselves.

The shop itself is typical of the Starbucks franchise, benefitting from visual access both the 9th and to South. It is not very large, but has several seating options along South.

The smell is overwhelming of coffee, backed up by the scent of pastries that tempt visitors. This smell is not just a scent, but carries with it a strong punch of caffeine, according to the staff. They insist that the caffeine released when the beans are ground and tossed around during the coffee-making process is absorbed into the mucosa of the lungs, and passes into the bloodstream that way. I have had no further opportunity to follow up on this fascinating bit of amateur science.

Although the health code does not allow dogs, they are prominently in evidence right outside the shop. They are tied to the lamp posts whenever an owner stops by. This provides a whole additional panoply of behavior to observe, both of the animals and of their owners. A striking number of them were greyhounds, lovely, often skittish, and very carefully tied up.

I asked about these beautiful rescued animals and was told repeatedly that although greyhounds love nothing better than lap-sitting, they would take off and run away unsafely if allowed off the leash. They certainly managed to get into a number of conflicts, prompting their owners to race outside and disentangle the mess, apologizing profusely and evidencing all the same embarrassment that the parents of kids demonstrate when their children act out – several even inside the Starbucks.

I chose to set myself up there on a blisteringly hot day, the XX day of XXXXXXXXXXX, XXXX, between 2:30 and 5:30. The baristas were a young woman with a piercing and a young man with a tattoo. They were competent and friendly without being intrusive.

I asked the first person who seemed willing to speak to me why he was here, and he said that he had a young child at home and needed some peace and quiet to concentrate on work. His stated purpose was work, specifically trading stocks on a short-term basis.

However, the website on his screen was more relevant to a private male sexual activity than to research on the fundamentals of a company being evaluated for a stock purchase. He seemed embarrassed at being observed and I moved away promptly to avoid irritating him. Later on, he fielded several increasingly frantic phone calls from home urging him to come back and share the burden of child care.

He took these cell phone calls on loudspeaker, allowing anyone sitting next to him to hear the mother of his child pleading for some relief while he rolled his eyes or squinted at the screen of his laptop. The inconsiderateness of all these behaviors seemed to be all of a piece. He was one of many, many men coming in with a laptop and apparent work (or job-hunting) to accomplish, but the only one who behaved this way.

In fact there was one fellow, a young man with a full arm, or ”sleeve” of tattoos (which he said he had obtained on a “tattoo holiday tour” to Thailand that paid for itself in the low cost of the detailed ink work), who clearly used Starbucks as his corner office. From 2:30 to 5:30, he had what was clearly an appointed meeting with someone every 20 minutes or so.

He finished up each interaction by entering data into his laptop and then pressing SEND with evident satisfaction. He could have been anything from a spy to a sales supervisor, but he did not invite or welcome my advances, forestalling me by saying, “I have an appointment with someone now”. He was willing to talk about his tattoos, and those of his girlfriend’s, but nothing else.

Tattoos and other body modifications were common among all the customers, and a number of people made complimentary comments on other customers’ decorations. The most dramatic was a jewel anchored under the skin of a young woman’s chest, as though a tie tack had been attached to her breast bone.

Other customers approached her several times to make commentary, which she accepted with equanimity, noting, however, that although she loved the look of it, it was so painful to acquire that she would never have it re-done if it fell out. This made me a bit sick to the stomach, especially when she described having pierced her own ears at 16 when her parents did not permit her to have them done by a professional “piercer”.

The next customer with whom I was able to interact in detail was a young woman whose conversation with the barista I could overhear quite clearly. She had short hair, cut in a very current and aggressively un-pretty style, and wore glasses that are called cats-eye, according to her.

She also talked with another customer, apparently previously a complete stranger. The conversation addressed her plans for her wedding. The reception was to be at the Mask and Wig Club, by coincidence, and she found her budget stretched by the basic rental, so she was casting about for ways to save elsewhere.

She was going over all the websites she had visited in her efforts to find a wedding dress (and bridesmaids’ dresses) at a modest price, and exclaiming over the prices at J. Crew. Another woman, older and wearing a wedding ring herself, asked her whether she had investigated secondhand purchase. The bride-to-be responded that she had not done so yet, but would consider it.

She immediately performed a search on the internet, and exclaimed over the attractive results on Craigslist. The older married woman then recommended that she check out thrift shops, and recommended the Hamper Shop, the Junior League Thrift Shop, and the Bryn Mawr Hospital Thrift Shop, all of which could be accessed by train stations on the Main Line. She also recommended looking there for bridesmaids’ outfits, men’s formal wear, and funky gifts for the bridal party.

The bride thanked her delightedly and I took the opportunity to ask her whether this sort of interaction was unusual in the coffee house. She said that she had gotten gigs from the coffee house, and made friends and found dog-walking jobs there as well. She then took herself off, looking very pleased with herself, and promising the barista and the other lady that she would bring pictures after the wedding.

This brought me to 3:00 p.m. I sat and watched without attempting interaction for a while after that, noting a rapid influx of moms with kids and dads with kids, ranging from tiny toddlers to school age children. They all promised a cold drink and a sweet pastry before their next activity.

These activities included ballet at the Rock School, baseball at Palumbo, music lessons, martial arts, going to one of the playgrounds to play, or having a tutoring session. There were several sets of twins and one set of triplets. The moms were dressed professionally for the most part, while the dads generally were not.

A group of moms took over one table, and allowed their rather obviously adopted Asian daughters to order whatever they wanted. I approached them and asked what brought them together in what almost seemed like an official meeting. They told me that they had formed an informal mutual support group after discovering how hard it was on their daughters and on them as parents of children who looked so different from them.

They told me that they met at the children’s museum, or libraries; at other museums such as the Academy of Natural Sciences, and several nice playgrounds around the city, such as the one at Brown Street in the Art Museum area, as well as Seeger, Palumbo, Starr Gardens, or Three Bears playgrounds. Some of the moms were in pairs, suggesting that these represented two-mom households. They were not excluded or treated in any way differently from the other parents.

None of these adoptive moms were, however, very welcoming to me as an apparent non-parent. They were vague about times and locations. I inferred from this that they might have been concerned regarding child predators of any type.

I watched a 20-something woman take a text message and suddenly crumple, changing in an instant from a highly poised, very attractive person into a weeping, tear-streaked bundle of wrinkled linen, cradling her mobile device like a wounded hand. I did not feel that I was an appropriate person to approach her, in spite of her distress.

To my relief, another customer who apparently knew her well enough to sit down across from her without asking laid a hand on hers and spoke soothingly to her. I did not hear all of their conversation, but it included references to the sender of the message as an idiot, and “cold”, as well as some profanities regarding the cowardice and poor manners of ending a relationship via e-mail or SMS text message. They agreed that he might have been “fine”, but he was “ignorant”.

As the work day ended, roughly at 5:00, the numbers of customers with grocery bags from Whole Foods, Superfresh, and Essene’s all increased. There was a smell of rotisserie chicken and take-out food from some of the bags, suggesting that few of these people were cooking for themselves in the intense heat. This supposition was confirmed by repeated references to the heat and the inappropriateness of trying to cook by the customers themselves. Several spoke of grilling, with enthusiasm.

I asked several people what had been here before Starbucks, and received some strongly phrased responses. A middle-aged woman described her Jewish grandfather’s grocery business, which had been successful until “white flight” took the customers away. She also described a vibrant area with myriad small businesses and its own movie theatres, night clubs, and other venues catering to the fairly successful African-American population.

Another middle-aged of apparently Italian extraction, judging from the “Kiss Me, I’m Italian” key ring that dangled from her purse, pointed out that the Italian Market was neither Italian nor as much of a market as it once was. She was rather scornful of the recent immigrants from Central America and Southeast Asia who have populated the area. She used derogatory words to describe immigrants who did not learn to speak English promptly.

The role of this Starbucks in the life of the neighborhood was encapsulated for me in an observation of a woman tapping away at her laptop who offered to do SEO copywriting for her neighbor at the next table. They exchanged contact information, and then I asked her whether this happened often.

She said that this was the first time she had ever had the courage to promote herself and her freelance writing and editing this way. She was clearly pleased with herself, and explained SEO copywriting in detail to me. It sounds like three dimensional chess but without the fun.

As the dinner hour approached, I folded up my own tents, having exchanged contact information with at least 3 people who seemed either pleasant or useful to me in the future. The Starbucks here functions as a Commons, a town square, a pub, and all from 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

The one thing that worried me was that there was still avid and distressed discussion of the shocking attack and rape in a neighborhood coffee shop last winter. I could not find out from either staff member whether any change of policy had resulted, but was referred to Media Relations instead.

The experience was challenging because these were all complete strangers, with no clear connection to the campus. On the other hand, it was liberating that no one knew me. I had no definite preconceptions about their origins or role in their community. People, however, behave much the same all over this area.

The neighborhood seems to have a strong presence of working mothers, stay-at-home dads, same-gender couples, people who put their ethical and political opinions in practice. I would infer that the demographics of this region of the city reflect this.

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