Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Safe as Starbucks

There's a false sense of safety in this city. We see it when people leave their doors unlocked while they go off on three-hour jaunts, only to come home to find that thieves strolled in and stole their Rolex watches and Apple products. We see it when people leave their bikes unlocked, their strollers unattended, and their laptops free for the taking.

Now the New York Times reports: Starbucks is the epicenter of thievery, the heart of the Bad Old Days' return.

As a regular chronicler of this phenomenon, I'm enjoying the Times piece with ample Schadenfreude. It's filled with examples of people who believe they can leave their valuables on a table or chair, then ignore them completely--people who are shocked when they're then stolen. One "commanding officer said people who left laptops behind to use the restroom should not be surprised to return to an empty table."

It never fails to amaze me, but people really do that--and then they panic. This is what happens when your false belief in safety comes crashing into reality. So what's happening here? Why are New York City Starbucks a hotbed of five-fingered crime?

In the Times article, Starbucks is described as "A place so comfortable and familiar, with its jazz, leather chairs and Wi-Fi," that people don't think twice about leaving their purses and laptops unattended. Starbucks has provided a perfect environment for feeling safe--without actually being safe.

It all reminds me of a 2004 Malcolm Gladwell article. In "Big and Bad," Gladwell concludes that for SUV drivers the feeling of safety is more important than actually being safe. "That feeling of safety isn't the solution," he says, "it's the problem," because SUVs aren't safe--they rollover and kill other drivers.

He explains how people who feel helpless will seek a seemingly safe environment, like an SUV, where they can be passive and thus have their perception of risk distorted. Says cultural anthropologist and marketing expert Clotaire Rapaille, "Safe means I can sleep. I can give up control. I can relax. I can take off my shoes. I can listen to music."

Research has shown that people who drive SUVs tend to be self-oriented, attracted to luxury, and fearful of crime. What about the avid Starbucks customer?

At Starbucks they like round tables, because round makes single people appear to be less alone, and they like the odd names for sizes, because the special language makes them feel like part of a special community, according to author Karen Blumenthal. From this we could assume that people who love being inside a Starbucks fear being alone and want very much to belong to a select group.

This false sense of community could certainly make people feel safe, lulling them into blunders based on a belief that everyone around them is like them, and looking out for them. No wonder the buzzards are circling. But we know this isn't just a Starbucks issue. It's happening all over town, this blind belief in false safety.

The city as a whole has been engineered to be like one big Starbucks or SUV
, a comfy womb-like environment, up high (in status) and filled with cupholders (amenities), created for helpless, frightened people who want to feel safe, so they can relax. The people who design Starbucks and SUVs make them this way so they can sell the products and make money. Why would a city be so engineered? Who benefits from a passive and pacified populace?


  1. Creepy. Parts of the city are creepy. I remember years ago, leaving TGI Friday's by Madison Square Garden where my daughter worked during college. and making a wrong turn because we were chatting. Suddenly, we didn't know where the heck we were. We back-tracked quickly. There is an episode of Sex in the City when Carrie does the same thing (hope I can mention that name here) and I thought some things never change. Then, back in the '80's the same thing happened in SF while I was on a business trip. Its just a city thing.

  2. I have never seen it so well put or so concisely summed up. This is a post that should be on the front page of every newspaper, hung in every subway car, and posted on the home page of every blog catering to the residents of New New York.

    Personally, I hope all of the idiots who feel so safe here get the shirts stolen off their backs and run back to wherever they came from, so we can get back to being the smartest city on earth instead of the most complacent and superficial.

  3. there have been countless times i have been in a cafe where folks have gotten up to go to the bathroom or get coffee and left their personal belongings unattended. almost every time i have seen this, i could probably guarantee that NONE of them were born in n.y.c. Maybe i am sounding cliche, but a real new yorker would NEVER, EVER leave their stuff unattended. Even though it is a crime, i never feel sorry for these people. you are not in wisconsin anymore. have a little more sense and wake up.

  4. i was about to say that starbucks is just a microcosm of the city's sense of false security, but you've summed it up in the end

    the only time i go to starbucks is to use its bathroom to secure my continence

    also, the starbucks and the suvs and the condos, et. als., sprouting in the city are making me insecure -- i used to walk around the city/ev with my head held up high; now i walk looking down while hugging myself...

  5. I've lived in West Harlem for six years now, and people are still afraid to come to my apartment. They stay in their isolated enclaves of white wealth and think anyone who lives elsewhere is crazy. They ask me how can I feel "safe" living here. I tell them that I use common sense and lock my door when I leave the apartment. (Just as I did when I lived in a small town.) I am apparently speaking a foreign language to them from the glazed look on their face when I say these words. The people who do this live in a fantasy world of self entitled privilege, they deserve to have their precious bubble pricked by reality.

    Plus, the only reason to visit a Starbucks is to use the bathroom.

  6. Jeremiah, please compose a companion piece about people who sit on the floor in public (airports, museums, even the curb). I think it's a similar phenomenon.

  7. Great post. So insightful. Love how you put together many relevant articles and viewpoints in here.

    Also, Bloomberg L.P. is set up to be 'safe' so as employee you'll never want to leave. Although considered a harrowing work place, it also is set up to be very luxurious in its surroundings, free (huge) cafeteria, and all desks in one room (tho' I might consider that not so wonderful). That is Bloomberg's mentality as an employer and I think he may look at New Yorkers as his employees.

    Thanks again.


  8. I moved here to be around people who were comfortable being alone and, like Groucho Marx, wouldn't join any group that would have them. I guess I got here too late.

  9. James, those sidewalk sitters get under my skin, too:


  10. I've thought about this as you've written about it before. I think it's due to the disconnect that we're now experiencing in this newfangled electronic age. As we communicate with each other via texts and blogs, there is less and less personal interaction. Lonely people hang out in the coffee shop, but don't actually talk to one another. Crime is something you read about on the internet, not something that is ever personal, happening to ME, in the here-and-now. When people want privacy, they log out of Facebook or turn off the iPhone, never mind locking the front door...

  11. i dont understand why all of you are so concerned about these people? and how exactly does this make NYC a bad place? most "americans" are in lala land. they even are shocked about TSA, our goverment, duh. what makes you think the younger ones are smarter? how does this make NYC bad for YOU? if you yourself dont leave your laptops, bags around then thats all that matters. right?? if you dont like starbucks dont go! im not a starbucks person. ive only seen one place w/the tables etc. (in boston). whats wrong w/it? personally i dont like the coffee, & maybe in an airport its ok to grab one to go. as there are no stools. the best "takes" on starbucks ive heard are on YOU TUBE. micheal savage does a great routine about the idiot people in san francisco. jackie mason is hilariously telling it like it is. you get to "clean your own table", & drink crappy coffee......, & you get to pay triple'! and i guess you get to have your laptop stolen as well, we can add that to the list! welcome to the masses. they never were too bright. were they????

  12. How interesting that the Starbucks lingo makes people feel like they've joined a club. I guess that's why I can't go in there, I always feel so alienated, left out and confused trying to buy a beverage, a task that normally doesn't register any emotions at all.

  13. I like your work in general, but when you quote a glib pundit like Malcolm Gladwell as an authoritative source, you're succumbing to the mediocrity you otherwise insightfully catalogue and dissect.


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