STARBUCKS OF THE SOUL
by Melodie Johnson Howe
Driving to our daughter’s home for Christmas dinner I found the malls beside the freeway with their homogenized architecture (if it can even be called architecture), comforting. I liked seeing Starbucks, Home Depot and Best Buy. Even the prefab townhouses and condos that line the hills in perfect unison seemed alive to me. I know I ‘m supposed to look down my nose at such things and decry the sameness. And yes, I could have been going through any area that looked just like this one and not know what city or county I was in.
But I knew if I went into Starbucks I’d get a wonderful Vente Latte. If I went into Home Depot I’d get a good solid hammer, wrench, or towel hook; but if I went into one of those townhomes I didn’t know what I would discover. Probably Families. Christmas. Food. Gifts. Happy families?
According to Tolstoy all happy families are the same in their happiness. And God knows the abodes of these families do look the same. But I’m going to disagree with the master. Happy families are not equivalent. Happiness is not like a Vente Latte. Happiness has to be earned, and it comes at a price, a price worth paying, but none the less a price. And that cost is what makes our happy moments different.
I felt like I was driving through a giant mystery section of a bookstore where every book looks similar on the outside: “Can Isabella find out if her husband is having an affair without revealing her own dark affair?” “Will the assassin kill the president of the United States before Preacher can stop him?” “Can Detective Myrna Spade find The Straggler before he slowly kills again?” These stomach-turning questions are on the book jackets of the good writers and the not-so-good writers, making their works appear to be the same, mostly bad. But readers can know the difference by opening the book and reading it. They give the not-so-good author a certain amount of time like you would a bore, who you hope will turn out not be a bore but never does. If the reader is bored he can leave the book by closing it like a door.
When I looked at all the homogenized dwellings I wasn’t worried about the human soul being twisted into some kind of uniformity. A Starbucks of the mind. A Home Depot of solidity. A Best Buy of the heart. I knew that every possible range of emotion that I could imagine and some I didn’t want to were going on behind those prefab stucco walls.
I was also just as sure that a budding struggling writer lived in one of those townhomes, as I was that my latte will taste exactly like the last one I ordered. And in her youthful exuberance my budding writer will think she’s shattering the conformity that binds her. Much later she will realize that the sameness gave her a structure and a motivation to write and to smash. And her characters? If she’s good they’ll be fleshed out and as unique as her neighbors livening closely behind her, in front of her, and to the sides of her. She may be watching them with teenage disdain now, but as she matures she’ll find them popping up unexpectedly on the page repeating what they said ten years ago in quotation marks.
After wonderful food, toasts, gifts opened in a chaotic rush, stories half heard, hugs, and “I love yous” that are heard, my husband and I leave our daughter and return the way we had come. Starbucks. Best Buy. Home Depot. I look up toward the dark hills and all those condos and townhouses like twin shadows repeated over and over. I think of my young writer who is now real to me. Did she open her gifts? Did she have a turkey dinner? Is she disappointed? Of course she is. Is she happy? She will be in her own unique way, I hope.