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Sobbing in Starbucks

I took a seat by the old man reading the paper, held my grande mocha, and cried

At a strip mall Starbucks off a Long Island highway, I felt my bare face flush. The telltale tingle showed up in my nose, then the room blurred as my eyes welled up. Right there, with an old man reading the paper in a plush chair beside me, I cried. No one asked what was happening. I just wept, and the solitude of that moment gave me the first release I’d experienced in months.

There’s a grand tradition of crying in public, especially in New York City, where it’s difficult to ever be truly alone. Guides have been written with best practices; maps have been marked with the best spots. And I’m certainly not the first to point out that Starbucks provides one of the more accessible tear-friendly spaces around (searching Twitter for the phrase “crying in Starbucks” yields fun results). All this literature on the subject would have you thinking there’s an art to it, but no: You just do it when you need to and hope no one interferes. There are only a few public spaces where criers can count on that kind of blithe indifference, and Starbucks happens to be the most ubiquitous.

Back in 2012, a personal powder keg of forced femininity and deprivation erupted into the most intense Starbucks breakdown of my life. I was a 26-year-old weirdo in the thick of bridesmaid season. Despite working full-time, running a vegan baking business as a side hustle, and producing endless emails in which I competed with other bridesmaids to prove how much better I knew our mutual friend, I’d given up coffee. As is perhaps clear from running a vegan baking business, I was going through all the stages of wellness: cutting caffeine, adding chia seeds, eating kale with every meal, and somehow still sweating out what I was told were toxins at daily hot yoga classes.

A bridesmaid meeting had been organized to go over the details of a tea party bridal shower. We were to make bonnets befitting a royal wedding. My hair then was almost completely shaved off, so I glue-gunned a flower crown while everyone around me excitedly fashioned elaborate fascinators, gushed over the impending nuptials, and uncritically swooned over monarchy and matrimony. It was profoundly alienating, and I found myself longing for coffee, toxins be damned. Specifically, I was desperate for a Tall double soy iced mocha.

After my immersion in the wedding-industrial complex, I drove to Starbucks, my flower crown riding shotgun, and ever so briefly reconsidered my decision to trade perfect kale-fueled bowel movements for the sweet relief of something cloying. But I was already there, so I parked and scurried inside. One cup of garbage couldn’t undo months of sweating and oatmeal, right? I ordered, took a seat with my cup of espresso and chocolate syrup, and cried.

In Starbucks, I was just a body with a need. To cry there was as acceptable as reading the paper. In that moment, I realized that it wasn’t just the pressures of running a business and being a bridesmaid that were stressing me out, but also my self-inflicted obsession with physical, political, and spiritual purity. As the sugar and caffeine dulled my pain, I felt free from the wedding drama, from my baking business, from the expectations of society. There, I was alone, among strangers, realizing that I’d been kind of a self-righteous vegan asshole. Instead of feeling happy for the bride-to-be, I was a mess at a chain coffee shop. Still, six months later, I showed up to the wedding sipping a green juice through a metal straw.

I had donned the green apron once myself, during my senior year of college, the fulfillment of a dream I’d had since I first walked into a Starbucks in 1996. I was a fifth-grader then, eager to taste the finer things in life. In my suburban child’s mind, Starbucks represented urbane erudition with its dark wood, its roasts with vaguely foreign names, and its just-cozy-enough vibe. When I worked there, the job paid about $8 an hour and gave me nightmares in which customers showed up at my bedroom door demanding white chocolate mochas, but even after I quit a year later to take an office job, I remained loyal to my first impression.

This was all according to Starbucks’ plan, which is derived from urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s “third place theory.” He’d coined the phrase in his 1989 book The Great Good Place, arguing that we need public spaces beyond home (first place) and work (second place) to serve as functional community centers. Oldenburg created parameters for the kind of cheap and open places that could qualify — churches, cafes — noting that food and drink are important, as are neutrality and comfort. It should also be somewhere that no one has to be, a spot populated only by those exercising free will.

In design, offerings, and principle, Starbucks has explicitly sought to be this place, calling employees “partners.” Though many have mocked it for serving bad overpriced coffee, you can get a Tall cup for around $2 in New York City, and even if that’s all the money you have to spend in a day, it’s the same coffee some finance guy making seven figures might get, too. The chain, in seeking to be this neutral, inviting ground, has become a practical venue for both the third place and Andy Warhol’s Coca-Cola philosophy: “A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.”

Somehow, Starbucks is communal and aspirational and inoffensive all at once, a perfect expression of what a third place can be. This is why, when a white manager in Philadelphia called the cops on two black men for sitting in one awaiting their friend, it was such a monumental affront to the corporate philosophy that 8,000 stores were closed for an afternoon of anti-bias training.

It’s also why, when someone feels really shitty, they can go to the nearest Starbucks to have a cry with their coffee. The sameness of every store promotes anonymity, while its bourgeois affectations are soothing. “When you need to cry, are you going to go to Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks?” an acquaintance recently asked, rhetorically, because the answer is so obvious: Starbucks lighting is less severe, for one thing, but it also invites you in for more than just a transactional doughnut. Starbucks wants you to sit, get comfortable, open that paper — perhaps have a cry, who are they to judge? America might run on one, but it feels comfortable weeping at the other, whether the breakdown is about something as frivolous as being a bridesmaid or as serious as the sickness of a loved one.

A friend living in Virginia told me that when her husband was undergoing cancer treatment, she found catharsis over breakfast at the chain. “I rarely go into Starbucks and sit, but once I went with my girlfriend at 6:30 a.m. before heading over to the hospital for the 20th day in a row, after my husband’s surgery to remove the tumor,” she told me. “I took a personal break from our hell that we were living in and just broke down crying while eating a croissant. Starbucks was on the way to the hospital and for me, personally, when I started to go there, it felt like a mini break from it all.”

Another friend told me about how, when her first college girlfriend broke up with her, she went to the Times Square location. “I ordered a giant Frappuccino and openly sobbed for far too long in what may be the most chaotic Starbucks in America,” she said. “It was oddly comforting to have a breakdown and not have to be alone but still be totally anonymous.”

While the corporate giant chases the trends of the newer-wave coffee shops, perhaps there’s something the cool kids can learn if they’d like to attract clientele during their lowest moments. There’s no better way, it seems, to become a fixture in a person’s life despite their higher-minded intentions than to provide a space to cry in while stuffing themselves with lemon loaf. What good is freshly ground, single-estate coffee in a chic minimalist cafe if you can’t comfortably salt it with your tears? They might try to win us over with cold brew, but Starbucks knows the real way to capture hearts and minds is by letting us cry.

Alicia Kennedy is a New York-based food and spirits writer.
Camila Rosa is a freelance illustrator and designer from Brazil.
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter