Starbucks, West 86th Street & Columbus Avenue NW, Upper West Side


You walk in, making a nice trio of people in the Starbucks, not counting the baristas, one of whom could only be described as a Disney princess working her way through college. Three is impressive for any Starbucks, but a minute later, the other two are gone. The place doesn’t hold more than six people the entire time you’re there. Unlike most Upper West Side Starbucks locations, this one is commodious, with tables and counters all along the wide stretch of 86th Street. If the bathrooms weren’t in the back, both ends would be perfect places to put a poetry reading or open mic night that half of the cafe would have no problem ignoring.

The lighting is a little too spot-lit, too track-lit. You’re keenly aware of the shade your luxurious eyebrows provide your eyes, but if you had to perform an emergency appendectomy, you’d only be working in the dark in a metaphorical sense. There are three outlets in the place—an almost suspicious lack of outlets for the store’s footprint, and like the Starbuckses without even a bathroom, it says something about how this place rolls. The rent must be insane here, across from the shuttered 3 Star Coffee Shop and just north of Le Pain Quotidien on Columbus, so maybe the only way the Seattle grounders can make it work is by not shunting free electricity to the neighborhood’s hordes of freelancers. One outlet is far in the back, another is covered in paper that apologizes for the out-of-service outlet, the third is over there by the Hispanic guy. The only outlets in the entire space are at least a hundred feet from the corner entrance.

It’s Saturday, and no one’s staying long. The couple that was there when you came in is gone within minutes; kids of various ages from middle school to college come in, order food, and bolt. It’s mostly you, the Hispanic guy, and the black version of Mr. Gower from the part of It’s A Wonderful Life where George Bailey has never been born. He mumbles to himself, watches you, watches the Hispanic guy, who moves out of his line of sight. He’s got money for a coffee and an egg sandwich, and he’s wearing a brown suit from a few years ago when he was bigger, more filled out—or maybe it’s not his at all. His shoes are brown leather or an approximation, and they’re clean as hell. They’re nicer than your shoes. You wouldn’t guess that he’s homeless, but if he isn’t, it’s by some grace larger than himself. He moves around the cafe, sits close, sits far, always turning to look at you, at the baristas, at the people passing on the sidewalk.

You clock the Hispanic guy, you clock the people that come in briefly, you check the now three-deep barista pool for any indication that they see this guy, too. He might be a ghost—of who, you can’t say. Maybe that’s what he’s trying to mumble: he can’t say who he is, either, but he wants to.

Still watching me, his hands start casting incantations for unknown spells. This isn’t why you come into Starbucks—to be noticed. And not to be cast upon. No one’s given you a single glance since you sat down, not even the Disney collegian. Just this guy, his hair wiry and gray, his suit wrinkled and brown. He wanders back from the middle tables, nearly walks into a kid who’s friends with one of the baristas. You don’t know if he’s a ghost. He dodges around the kid, as he’s dodged around every person he’s almost collided with.

He follows the kid back to the bathroom, opens the door on him, is told he has to wait, tries the Employees Only door. He shouts or mewls or keens, who knows. The kid decides he’d rather wait. The man goes into the bathroom—this is all out of site—and does whatever his business happens to be. Someone else comes back and tries the door, and again, it opens. The man growls at him to go away. He’s screaming and banging around in the bathroom—this is drunkenness, for sure. Ghosts can’t do any of this. That’s why they’re so unhappy.

At least it proves that this Starbucks isn’t haunted. Not really.

4 stars, 3 outlets. 540 Columbus Avenue. Bathroom code: 17048, or something like that.