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Starbucks, orange hair, and a caution to the young

June 24, 2010

I must admit that I, like so many others, frequent the scourge of the small, friendly neighbourhood coffee shop — that devilishly charming and yet cancerously invasive blight on the face of humanity — Starbucks. I used to feel guilty about this fact, but at some point the guilt got washed away in the convenience. I also find a certain comfort to being able to walk into a Starbucks in almost any country and know exactly what to expect. Although I do continue the pretence of rejecting the organisation like so many others, by rebelling against the utter stupidity of the size names — I insist on calling them “the smallest”, “the middle size”, and “the bloody great big one”. But I digress.

Starbucks (and certain other similar brand coffee shops) is unlike other chain restaurants in that it draws a more varied and rapid-moving crowd; within the span of a single visit one day I saw a suited man with iPhone, a hassled-looking mother with two young obnoxious children, several men with that look that says “thank god for coffee breaks”, and the usual collection of random grey individuals that seem to fill out every place in London, like extras in a rather lightly-scripted television drama. This constant flow of varied and potentially interesting individuals makes for a really lovely people watching location. While it is true that a majority of said people watching is of the most mundane character, one occasionally has a most interesting encounter. I recently had one of those experiences; an experience that demonstrates exactly how marvellous a people watching location Starbucks can truly be.

I had already ordered (a “bloody great big skim milk latte”) and was waiting for my order to be filled, when a rather amazing character entered the shop. I heard the door open, and while I did not turn immediately, as that would be rather too obvious, my senses tracked the sound of the new possible people watching objective. Right off I knew that the sounds were not those of walking, but rather of a person in a powered conveyance. Still listening carefully, I turned my attention first to the CD display, then to a seemingly abstract poster, and finally, (feigning randomness) to the scene behind me. I was struck first by a burst of orange. Not since last watching an episode of “Are You Being Served” had I seen such amazingly orange hair — it was really most shocking. But I doubt if even Mollie Sugden would have approved, as this woman’s hair was not even arranged in a stylish coiffure, but rather hung limp and unattractively.

The woman was older, definitely past middle age, and wrinkled in a way that seemed to scream smoker. The prune effect was enhanced by her large number of piercings, which occupied multiple locations on her ears, nose, lip, and eyebrow. These pieces of metal dragged at her loose skin, and to say that the effect was disturbing would be a definite understatement. I had enough presence of mind not to stare fixedly in horror, but rather to keep my gaze moving, as though I were used to seeing such people everyday.

Through careful manoeuvring I managed to gain a better vantage point, and continued my observations slightly more discreetly. I couldn’t help wondering who this person could be; what sort of past lead to this woman’s present appearance? I noted with horror that she had multiple tattoos on her arms, which were all too visible thanks to her sleeveless shirt. These tattoos had obviously been created many years in the past, and now they had stretched and wrinkled and distorted until they had become nothing more than exceedingly bizarre-seeming birthmarks or strange scars; there was no way that the previous identities of the images could be determined from a distance, and I doubt anyone could have the stomach to make a detailed investigation.

While watching this woman, and wondering about her past, I was struck by a sudden realisation — this is what all of those young kids will look like someday! This woman was once one of those pale kids smoking on street corners. I was able to imagine her with her spiky hair, painted fingernails, and studded dog collar; this is what lies in wait for all of those punks (well, those who survive long enough anyway). I wonder if so many young people would get extra piercings and extensive tattoos if they knew that this is what they have to look forward to? I doubt it.

Finally my coffee was ready. As I was leaving, the old lady motored up to the counter, and just before I closed the door I heard the chap at the till say, “The usual Murgatroyd?” and the returning croak, “yep”.

Maybe I’ll go back tomorrow.

  1. Brilliant post and a right-on observation about how turning your body into a ‘work of art’ can/will backfire in future. You are forgiven for going to Starbucks since you use it as a people-observation post. Tell us more about Murgatroyd!

  2. Thanks Jamie!
    I have seen some striking things in Starbucks, but this person was I do believe the most memorable. I was also particularly struck by the idea that she was a regular customer. The chap behind the counter did not actually use her name, but clearly knew her — I decided to give her the name Mergatroyd as I’ve always rather liked it. If I do write more about her, it will likely be based on observations of other people, as I have never seen her before, and thus doubt I will actually see her again.
    I think I may do a post about people who go the other way and get so much cosmetic surgery that look like a plastic doll (think Sophia Loren), as that can be just as shocking.

  3. Hmmm. I sort of fell in love with Sophia Loren when I saw her in It Started in Naples, so could she stay on her pedestal, please? How about that cat lady or the living Barbie instead?
    I am a professional eavesdropper. Who needs to make up dialogue when you can get it handed to you on a plate? Some of the best eavesdropping takes place in restaurants…and at airports, on trains, in cafes, just about anywhere really. A bit like people watching.
    Saw your Twitter about the woman reading the murder mystery. Shame you didn’t get a photo of that. Priceless. Very Weegee-esque!

    • Don’t worry — I will not touch Sophia Loren! She is amazing — I was just a bit shocked to see her in the movie Nine. She’s pushing it a bit…

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