Reusable Irony

For just a dollar, Starbucks patrons can now wait in line with newly purchased, reusable coffee cups. Never mind that the plastic lids and cups are identical in appearance to their disposable predecessors: buyers will be able to personalize them, so a related micro-industry of reusable coffee cup ornamentation will no doubt arise before you’re done reading this.

But because this reusable Starbucks tumbler is a visual match to a highly recognizable symbol of the downtrodden  –an over-the-counter coffee cup–  I’m looking forward to watching it make its way from the hands of the homeless and into the hands of the privileged. I’m talkin’ about skinny-pants and cool moms, coming in off the street and waving their empty cups at strangers, just like those they ignore on the sidewalk. The irony is cruel, exquisite, and reusable.

Standing in food service feeding lines can make some for good people watching, but it’s also a deeply distressing proposition. At places like Starbucks, people shuffle in with all sorts of attitudes, entitlements, and jealousies that percolate under the surface of their barely-patient postures.

Guess who else stands in line with personalized plastic cups, waiting for their “issue” of coffee? Dudes in prison! (There’s always something to remind me of that disregarded little microcosm, isn’t there?) You’d think waiting for an Americano at a Starbucks would put me as far away from a cell block as could be. Yet memories of Chicano art and the only cups most California prison inmates are authorized to possess – plastic, multi-use ones – will soon invade my every Starbucks experience. Go figure.

In many cell houses, a communal coffee maker is maintained by someone unlucky enough to be fingered as “the coffee guy.” Each morning, before the fellas head off to their work assignments, they glare at each other and mutter under their breath as they inch toward their turn at the urn. Here too, all manner of resentments are present and accounted for, but unlike at Starbucks, there’s more head-punching. Still, empty cups in hand, the envy is palpable among those who arrive too late to receive the freshest servings; it doubles when an inmate is complemented on how he has chosen to personalize his cup.

In prison, the fellas use safety pins to prick the sides of their plastic tumbler cups, making clichéd patterns of guard towers, Our Lady of Guadalupe, wolves, Aztec imagery, and so forth. Ashes are then rubbed into the etching to make the art visually pop.

Often, a dot-to-dot house artist will render this iconography for a price to talk up his tattoo services in the process. (Naturally, the resulting cups look like most prison ink work emphasizing penitentiary martyrdom, skulls, and Gandalf.)  Some guys bore holes around the tops of their cups through which scraps of electrical wiring can be threaded: the accessorizing is endless. No doubt the Starbucks version will be also, though far more sanitary.

For the record, after I purchase any coffee to-go, gourmet café whatever-the-hell, I remove the cup’s lid between sips. ‘Cause drinking through a slurp-slot, I cannot do: there’s something about those little legs of coffee crawling down the sides of the cup that bother me.
It’s one thing if the drippings result from repeated removal and reapplication of the lid, but if the splatter’s due to someone’s undignified less-than-surgical slurp-slot maneuvering, it’s just gross.

I digress…

Back East, the new cups are selling well. When they’re everywhere, I’ll be shaking my head at this new thing coffee-slurping Range Rover drivers, prison inmates, and panhandlers will have in common.