Providence arrives in the form of a benevolent woman named Crystal who asks Gill if he’d like to come work for her at Starbucks. No longer a master of the elite universe and eager to qualify for health insurance, Gill agrees. And thus begins a journey of discovery. Formerly an arrogant, entitled, and heartless soul, Gill ultimately experiences a Scrooge-like epiphany.
As Gill takes the subway in rush hour for the first time in his life, takes pride in keeping the store bathrooms clean, and becomes an equal with the African-American “partners” (as the company’s employees are known), the dignity and respect fostered by Starbucks works its mojo. Slowly he learns the value of earnest hard work, of serving customers, and of working in an environment where everybody is judged by merit, not class. “I no longer had the luxury of time for philosophical self-concern,” he realizes about his new station in life. “I was about to discover that at Starbucks it was not about me — it was about serving others.”
Gill learns to work the cash register, makes drinks, and even rises to the role of coffee master, where he teaches small groups the secrets of great coffee. Gill comes to appreciate, perhaps worship, something more important than any coffee knowledge: the humane environment that forces him to reexamine his entitled, privileged background. The benevolent capitalism he encounters makes his old life seem worthless. “Here at Starbucks,” he writes, “both the Partners and the Guests seemed to agree tacitly that everyone should be treated with respect and dignity. I had never seen any work environment like it. The best Fortune 500 companies I had encountered, despite spending months and lots of money writing and publishing high-sounding mission statements, never practiced the corporate gobbledygook they preached.”
His story is as heartwarming as a movie on the Lifetime network. (Indeed, Tom Hanks has reportedly optioned the movie rights.) And it’s this sentimentality that makes it hard to trust Gill’s contention that Starbucks is “a work environment that valued those precious moments of interaction.” A reader’s justifiable skepticism has little to do with tangible evidence to the contrary, but much to do with the unreliability of the source.
The screaming need of the narrator to draw such a neat, comforting lesson from his experience undermines his credibility. Throughout this fable of redemption, Gill projects an opera of wishes and fears and emotions onto the coffee behemoth. For Gill, Starbucks acquires dense and crushing meaning. The store he toils in becomes a potent force that serves to frame and highlight all that his privileged life denied him.
As the son of a New Yorker editor, Gill rubbed elbows with Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Jackie O, and Ernest Hemingway, and even snatched cucumber sandwiches from the Queen of England. As the aging barista, Gill finds himself explaining the poetry of Muhammad Ali to his fellow partner Kester, a streetwise African-American. He views his own story through a prism of noblesse oblige that renders it condescending. You can never quite tell if Gill is a brilliant author who mocks his background by deliberately creating a stuffy and pompous narrator or is simply as clueless as the Gill who torpedoes his marriage by knocking up a yoga pal.
Ultimately, the most notable material in How Starbucks Saved My Life may be what the author leaves out. The factual story of the company’s growth has given way to the myth. For Gill, Starbucks is no longer a business story; the company has become a country unto itself, governed by such clear rules and principles that one need no longer discuss them. Starbucks has become, for him, an economic and philosophical force with the power and resources to salvage his life.