That whining buzz

Jun 9, 1999 at 12:00 am

At the corner of our street, there’s an old gas station that must have been built in the 1920s. It’s got cool rounded corners and zingy red and white walls (OK, it could be zingier if it had a fresh coat of paint) that make it look like an old-fashioned Coca-Cola machine. It hasn’t been a gas station in a long time, but it’s a building I’ve often admired.

"And it’s for sale!" shouts the Lizard of Fun, pointing at the new sign posted on the chain-link fence around the building. "Finally! We can buy it and turn it into a café!"

"Specializing in refueling and jump starts?" I ask.

"No, specializing in revolution and intellectual excitement," says the Lizard. "Like all the coffeehouses in history, the ones where all the great French philosophers came up with their cute little theories about life. We could do the same thing, only hipper, with cool graphics and nifty names for the drinks."

"Sort of like Starbucks?" I ask.

"Noooooooo!" wails the Lizard. "Like anything but the evil empire! I want something original, not hyperprocessed, packaged and overpriced. Something that’ll make the community a fun place to hang out, where people can meet and chat and drink coffee that tastes better than they could ever possibly make at home."

I nod, admitting that the Lizard has a point – corporate coffee, no matter how hip it tries to look, is still corporate.

But then again, a strategically placed Starbucks outlet can sometimes transform a street into a community. Where once there was nowhere to hang, the local Starbucks provides a hub of humanity. ("And where else can you go and drink an espresso with your rottweiler?" notes the Lizard.)

It’s kind of like the corner bar, only the results of imbibing too much coffee are much less destructive than the results of glugging too many martinis. ("Speak for yourself," says the Lizard, shredding its fingernails in a burst of caffeine-fueled frenzy.) Europeans in the 17th and 18th centuries discovered this handy fact about 15 minutes after they discovered the joys of caffeine, and started drinking coffee at breakfast time instead of beer.

"Beer for breakfast?" says the Lizard. "Now, there’s a trend to revive – especially if we can have espresso ale! OK, prove it to me. Take me to Starbucks and show me community."

We walk over to the Starbucks in downtown Detroit, which is located at the edge of the Buhl Building on the corner of Griswold and Congress. ("Wow," says the Lizard. "I had no idea this was even here. Now we can come and hang out after dinner, or get buzzed before we hit the casinos!")

No such luck, I note. It’s only open until 6 p.m. on weekdays, and closed tighter than a vacuum-packed bag of Mocha Java on weekends.

The Lizard plunks itself down in one of the plush purple armchairs, bops its head around to the piano jazz that’s playing in the background, and samples a sip of my Frappuccino. "Hmmm," it says. "Needs a little something. I still don’t feel the community. Also I want to sit outside – that espresso machine is driving me nuts."

We escape the steam-screech of the chrome-plated coffee-god and head outside. There’s nowhere to sit, and the Lizard just about gets run over by office workers hurrying back from lunch.

The Lizard gets huffy. "How am I supposed to ferment a revolution if I can’t even sit to enjoy my caffeinated beverage? How am I supposed to develop great intellectual and philosophical ideas if my tail keeps getting stepped on? That does it, I’m calling the Starbucked guy."

That’d be Jeremy Dorosin, a Californian who has, for the past four years, waged a personal crusade against Starbucks. On his Web site,, and in big ads in the Wall Street Journal, he explains why he’s pissed at the nation’s biggest coffeehouse company: He says the two espresso machines he bought from Starbucks in 1995 (when he was a loyal customer) didn’t work. He wasn’t satisfied with the company’s offers for replacements, and declared his own David against Goliath death match.

"He must drink an awful lot of coffee to be that hyped," notes the Lizard. "Goes to show that cups of joe do contribute to revolution."

Maybe so. Dorosin has become the poster-dude for the angry consumer, and as such posts e-mails complaining about Starbucks (some from former employees, some from disgruntled customers) on his Web site. He’s received more than 6,000 phone and e-mail responses so far. No, he’s not giving up. No, Starbucks isn’t paying attention anymore.

"Well, it doesn’t have to be Starbucks," I say. "Any good coffeehouse could be a community hub."

"Which is exactly why we should open a café on our very own street corner," says the Lizard.

"With what money?" I ask.

"Easy. All we gotta do is demand a refund on all the coffee we’ve ever bought at Starbucks. …."