Every time I drive through the Republic I see that more of it has disappeared … sunken into the abyss like sludge at a filthy beach when the tide comes in. More tiny little mom and pop motels converted into an Econo Lodge if they can wash the stink out, a Motel 6 if they can't. Needless to say, certain sorts of stink can be quaint, or at least tolerable when accompanied by character. But when all that stands between you and the noxious odors of a thousand sweat-soaked nights is the kind of faux art that would make a big-box retailer blush and the thin veil of hospital disinfectant, then it's time to sleep in the car.
“You need some coffee,” said Charlie B.
“Has the conversation grown that stale?”
“No, but you're getting droopy lids and I don't want you putting her in the ditch.”
Fair enough, I thought, so I hit the blinker at the next exit, and sure enough the green mermaid was looming down from a well-lit highway sign as we rounded the ramp.
“Welcome to Starbucks, what can I get for you?” asked the male barista who, were it not rural North Carolina, might have seemed out of place behind the counter with barely a hint of the hipster cred that seems to be a job requirement.
“Give me the Christmas blend,” I said after glancing the bold and mild offerings for the day.
“We stopped serving bold sir, but can I offer you our signature blend, Pike Place?”
“It's 10:30 in the morning, what do you mean you stopped serving bold?”
Starbucks used to make two coffees a day: one real one, one lighter one. A while back, deciding that they'd been losing too much business to places like McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts, they introduced this particularly-bad blend called Pike Place. You can get bold until noon, but any later and you're stuck with this rancid swill. It tastes like the sort of stuff you'd get at two in the afternoon in some insurance company break room that's been on the burner since the agents stopped loitering around the second pot six hours earlier. They market it as a diner coffee – not too strong and all that. I guess burnt, break-room, insurance coffee didn't test well in the focus groups.
The guy reads the frustration on my face and raises his eyebrows as if to question its source.
“It's just … well, that's really bad coffee. I mean, no offense, it's just low quality joe,” I try to explain.
“Well it is our most popular blend,” he offers in its defense.
Chalrie B. shakes his head, knowing me and this guy are about to enter a dialog. Their most popular blend?
“Yeah, well not for nothing, but your other most popular items are espresso and milk drowned out with things like caramel, chocolate and something called pumpkin spice, so that might not be a good gauge,” I tell him.
“It's what our customers prefer,” he responds stubbornly, and with the kind of smirk that suggests he's enjoying seeing me with the coffee shakes.
“No it's what your customers who don't like coffee prefer,” I answer, my voice rising a bit, blood pressure creeping into the danger zone. “Starbucks: coffee-like drinks for people who'd rather a milkshake of a hot cocoa, but with enough caffeine to get them through their dull day,” I mock.
Wandering off onto a genuine riff by this point, I start to tell him how I saw a guy drinking something called Michelob Ultra Pomegranate and Raspberry at the beach the other week – beer for people who don't like beer. I tell him how some other guy recently charged me $13 for a martini because it had a new “ultra-premium” gin that didn't include all of that “bitter juniper” business and was “infused with fruit flavors.” Gin without juniper? Infused with fruit? Sounded like a cheap, flavored-vodka, but no way to get $13 a shake with that pitch.
The stop-off spoiled by this point and no chance of real coffee in sight, me and Charlie B. got back in the car, grabbing a few Red Bulls at the gas station on the way back to the I-95. We glanced the Target, the Best Buy, the Beds, Bath & Beyond and the Dollar Tree, remarking how the plaza only needed a Dick's Sporting Goods to look exactly like the one we'd seen in Georgia when we pulled off to get gas five hours earlier. Gram used to say that the country was going to hell in a hand-bag, but it looks like we'll be traveling south in a holiday-themed paper coffee cup with a cardboard sleeve.
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