Review: A cup of coffee with a large slice of humble pie

After years of privilege and good fortune, life handed Michael Gates Gill some lemons, and he made … coffee. Not for himself — for a living, at Starbucks.

It turned out to be far from the belittling experience you might expect for a man who spent the first years of his life rubbing elbows with the crème de le crème of Manhattan before moving effortlessly on to Yale and a well-paying job in advertising.

The punch line in How Starbucks Saved My Life, the book Gill wrote about working behind the counter, is that while the job was indeed humbling, it also made him happy.

It didn't take much for Gill to fall from the upper crust to sweeping up scone crumbs. The son of Brendan Gill, who famously wrote for The New Yorker for more than 60 years and moved in lofty circles, he had virtually everything dropped in his lap, including a job at the J. Walter Thompson ad agency.

Fast-forward, past the mansion in the suburbs where he and his wife were raising their four children — though he was often absent due to the demands of the job, called away by Ford Motor, a client, on Christmas Day one year — to the day he was let go by the agency. Plenty of young people, he says, could write and speak as quickly and well as he could, and for much less money.

At 53, he was fired. The downward spiral begins.

He sets up a consulting company, which gradually falters. An affair results in the birth of his fifth child and the death of his first marriage. Funds dwindle; insurance suddenly becomes unaffordable. More bad news: He has a brain tumor, albeit a slow-growing, non-malignant one that he has yet to have removed.

Also unaffordable: the latte he finds himself nursing in a New York City Starbucks on the day the store was holding a job fair. Enter Gill's polar opposite, Tiffany Edwards, a young, African-American woman from the Brooklyn projects who had survived a tough upbringing to become a Starbucks store manager.

"Would you like a job?" she asks.

Gill, at age 63, enters the Starbucks world, where workers are called "partners," customers are "guests" and respect is required.

The first day is appalling. The store where he will work is in a part of town he wouldn't have previously been caught dead in. His commute requires (gasp) public transportation. On the subway, he finds himself "pressed against people I would never want to know." Standing outside the store, he likens his situation to one of a sinner in the Pilgrim days — put in stocks in the public square as a visible lesson for others to watch their ways.

Then, as he braces himself to go inside, he discovers he'll stick out as one of the few white faces behind the counter. Finally, upon witnessing the "partners" in action at the crowded store, Gill becomes even more frightened.

Originally, he writes, he'd thought that a job at Starbucks might be below his abilities. Now, he's realized it might be beyond them.

His boss sits down to talk about coffee with him, putting him at ease a little. Still, he is not comfortable.

Comfortable, he reminisces, is summers in Connecticut, throwing apples at the poet Ezra Pound.

Upper-crust memories crop up repeatedly in Starbucks— happier times spent with the likes of Robert Frost, E.B. White, Jackie Kennedy, Ernest Hemingway, Muhammad Ali, Frank Sinatra and Brooke Astor.

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