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.
Setting up for a coffee tasting, he recalls the time he reached for a cucumber sandwich at a polo match and jostled Queen Elizabeth's arm in the process, earning a frown from the queen and a physical brushoff from the Duke of Edinburgh. And no sandwich.
The book covers roughly the first year of Gill's Starbucks career, from his early success as one of the store's most thorough toilet scrubbers, to his struggles with the cash register and, finally, the making of complicated espresso beverages.
Throughout it all, Gill eats plenty of humble pie and learns countless life lessons.
Sound like a movie? It will be — reportedly starring Tom Hanks. Rights to Gill's story were sold to Hanks' production company for "six figures." Gill will likely receive a screenwriter credit, another sign his fortunes are on the rise again.
Which raises the question: Is it easier to ascend in life once you've already been there? With as much as he lost, his fine education and connections will always be part of him.
Much will be made of the prominence of the Starbucks name and philosophy throughout the book and even more so if the movie keeps the title.
But Gill's love of the company doesn't come off like corporate propaganda — he still works there and will ask fellow partners to cover his shifts while he goes on the book tour.
The coffee giant has no plans to sell Gill's book in stores, at least not nationwide.
Perhaps blue-blooded Gill is the last person you'd expect to see sporting the green Starbucks apron, but he wears it well.