Michael Gill talks about his memoir How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else
In his fifties, Gill had it all: a big house in the suburbs, a loving family, and a top job at an ad agency with a six-figure salary. By the time he turned sixty, he had lost everything except his Ivy League education and his sense of entitlement. When he was offered a job at Starbucks, he had nothing to lose so he took it. Crossing over the Starbucks bar was the beginning of a dramatic transformation that cracked his world wide open - and showed what wonders can happen when we reach out across race, class, and age divisions to help a fellow human being- Tattered Cover
Michael Gates Gill
The son of New Yorker writer Brendan Gill, Michael Gates Gill was a creative director at J. Walter Thompson Advertising, where he was employed for over twenty-five years. He lives in New York within walking distance of the Starbucks store where he works, and has no plans to retire from what he calls the best job he's ever had.
A friend of mine called him up and said, hey you know, you know let's work togetheragain, because he was running what was then by the way I am also the lot ofcompanies I mentioned are no longer with us, like Pan American Airways, once wasAmerica's biggest and most successful airline and he he would have that account andthat was one of the big accounts of J Walter Thompson which was the biggest advertisingagency in the world. So he said, you know, have a job over here and that was an easytransition, because they were eager to give any one who had that account, you know ajob, and only two copywriters were hired in those days for training program in JThompson guess what, I was one of them. And then I was promoted because our clientscame from the same background.In those days there was sort of a Eastern Establishment that was you know, HenryFord had gone to Yell Twp and Ford was the biggest account of J Walter Thompson, thatkind of thing. So we were all hiring each other and congratulating each other and welooked at and say, wow wasn't this great, you know, it's almost better than working fora living, because we sit around and make up these sort of nonsense jingles and youknow, go to recording studios and get big salaries, six figure salaries and when we werevery young, and so it was sort of a yeah, escalator going up. I was just talking to bythe way, I am so grateful that Jennifer, a Barista at Starbucks is with us tonight and shewas a former teacher she says she is happier than ever, too, so a little validation for mystory. But little different because Jennifer is a lot younger and mother to two youngdaughters and and she has discovered a lot quicker in life how much fun life can bewhen you get out of that escalator thing. But I was the one at I wouldn't have leftvoluntarily, that's why I don't want to get behind the podium and pretend you know,pretend like I am some guru about life, the Dalai Lama I am not. And I whenever gotbut that I was pushed off it pushed by this young woman I would say, you should bevery unforgiving, you have to be perceived as macho, she made it up to the Board ofDirectors, then she took me to breakfast you know, she invited me to breakfast offsite,never do that in corporate life. When they say, hello, would you like to have no, don'tgo, its like the mafia you know, that's not a dinner you want to attend you know,breakfast wow, it's a most professional death that was she was greeting me but but sheshe used the words you know, lead designer, we have to let you go, we are sorry, youknow, let me go, you know.And in other words I was fired and and it was sad. I really but I couldn't even admitto myself, I was sad it was a complain, because it is like the there is sort of a vow ofsilence in corporate life. If you complain in any way, if you say, hey I was fired, how doyou get your next and they said we will help you with our consulting company, right,which worked out for a couple of years because friends said okay, yeah I know you youknow, we will do some work, but then they all disappeared, either fired or move on to thefairways, where were they are today, teeing up balls or coming back, and so there was asilence at the back you know, so scary in America when you are trying to get work tohave silence in the phones. But I still had this magical thinking, if I dressed in my BrooksBrother suit, put on my neck tie, that's what we do in the East. It's so great to see no onein a neck tie, I am never going to wear a neck tie again, you have got to ride out, was theway before us and in Denver.But I so I put on my suit and good luck and then about a couple of weeks before Iwalked into the Starbucks store I had also been diagnosed with a brain tumor, which wasreally scary, don't ever go to the doctor after a certain age either you know, they willjust tell you that's physical but then they would say, we will just check on you know myhearing is not as good as it used to be in one, just have an MRI you know, it takes 20minutes, no big deal, you know. But then the doctor, when I saw him he was smiling witha photograph as he came towards me, I thought wow what a relief, you know, becauseyou go on to that MRI machine and you think, you know anything could be and whenhe came by he said wow, he said, you have one of the rarest brain tumors, no onealmost get this thing. Oh how you know why is he smiling. But he said the good news ishe said, that's my specialty, I am a brain surgeon, you know I can operate immediatelyand you know you know that was not my idea of good news. And he said you know, it'snot cancerous, we can taken it out right away, it won't you know, affect your hearing.But then he said, "And most people survive the operation." I was like wow. But he justtold me I was unique, I was one of the few percentage. So and also but then I told himas he was getting ripped up about you know, the possibilities of how he was going toshow up by performing this incredibly he says, it' brain surgery and we have to boreinto your skull and wow. And I said you know, I don't have any health insurance,because by that time I lost my health insurance and all the stuff and he slowed a step.You can just see this stutter in his eyes, you know sort of 50 grand of whatever he wasimagining, because I still looked like I was prosperous, you know. He certainly said, okaywell and we are still by the way, four years later we are still doing what he callswatchful waiting, and I call fear and trembling. You know after this book talk I have to goback for another MRI, but I still its' amazing in life, one minute you are saying, "Whyme", right, out of all these billions of people. And the other minute you are saying, hey Ijust bought another couple of months you know, without this guy operating on me.But a couple of weeks before that had been he also told me and so I was fired and bythe way, I also got my divorce, my family thing is, you know in disarray, but I wentback you know how sometimes you go back when life is really hard to you, yourchildhood memories, some happy time and I went back to the neighborhood I grew upin Manhattan, we had a little brownstone in East Seventy-eighth Street, a very nice shantystreet and that can cough in the city and I noticed there was a new Starbucks store therewhere, you know the flower shop had been in my youth. So I went in I said, wellyou know, I might not have much in my life. I was sort of writing a chapter of and thenit ended you know, that kind of thing. But I am going to have a latte you know, and Iwent in and I had a briefcase, my suit, and I tried to you know I got my latte in I wasjust about to start you know, fake phone calls, you know to sort of the master of theuniverse was still, you know, at least going through the motions and by accident Iwandered in a Starbucks store that was having like a hiring event, in other wordsdifferent people were different managers from around the city were coming into see ifthey could like hire some baristas.And I didn't know that, but I happened to sit down next to this young and attractiveAfrican American woman and she said, "Would you like a job?" And suddenly youknow, finally, because I couldn't go ask for help, I couldn't even tell my family friends,hey I am getting broker and broker, I am in desperate need of a job you know how youget trapped in that the cocoon of sort of self pity and almost denial. You knowsomething will happen, may be I will get out. But when she said, you needed "Wouldyou like a job?" I said yes. So I broke through you know there is something about thatmoment. I said I was so desperate. And then she said, well just fill up this application anddrop it off and I knew I would fail. So I also had the courage because it takes courageat 63 to sort of say I need help, and I said, "Yeah, but you got to help me with this", youknow, I didn't tell her I never filled out a job application in my life. But I knew I neverhad to, I knew even if I had done it, I would have said something like, you know I wasCreative Director, do you want me? Then I would have gotten hired, you know I wouldhave been mixed up about it, because I was still in the entitlement titled positions, you know.So she was kind enough and once again, this is the kind of person I would never havethought about hiring or inviting into my elite group, right, that were doing all these greatstuff, because my background, you would only hire people that talked, acted like you,educated like you, we were the only ones who were you know good enough. And andcertainly but she saw me and I was obviously decades older than most people that sheprobably would even you know, work with. But she I think she pity it might bewrong, well I think she had sympathy, she realized I needed help. So she I sat downopposite to her and she said you know let's go through it. She said, okay do you haveany retail experience? So I said, well what is retail? She said, well you know Wal-Mart.But I said, well I have never been in a Wal-Mart. So I said I tended to lose her, youknow I could see so I remembered I had done a mission statement or something forBurger King, I said, well I worked with Burger King, she said oh Burger King, goodyou know. So she was on my side you know what's that helped how wonderful thatfelt, that she was going to help me make it. And that's the other thing that I had neverdone. My previous life we have had minority hiring programs you know, but Iremembered vividly not at that time, but looking back and now remembered how Iwould didn't believe it would work and guess what, it didn't work you know. Theperson I was assigned you know, she made a few errors, I said she will never do it.She went to the Community College, she didn't go to Ivy League, she was wrong gender,color etc you know, consciously or subconsciously I didn't think it would work and itdidn't and this young woman was going to help me make that transition.So sort of the world turned upside down. But she did she said okay now and then shecalled me about a week or two later saying, okay come over to my store, its on the WestSide of you know, 93rd Broadway, wow that was scary too. I had never been over theWest Side. I didn't know what it's like in Denver, there are certain neighbors you don'twant to go to, you know, what they call mixed neighborhoods or what they call youknow, up and coming or it's you know, nicely but tricky people, at any particular pointyou could be mugged or whatever it is, you know, New York New York, sort of -. Sodidn't really I said, well I thought you were on East Side, you know, 78th Street youdon't worry, because that was I was you know, I was clinging to those sad passages ofmy former life. At least I would be working in the Starbucks in my neighborhood, youknow and my own neighborhood.But she said, no, no, I am the manager of the store over there you know, do you want towork for me or not? In other words, for her she was going through a list of people and shewas getting impatient, because she probably reached out to me and she was going to help,but to a point - you know and so I said "yes I do" and so she said show up and you knowget some black pants, white shirts - you will have a black pants, white shirts or or khakipants and white shirts and that kind of thing and so I showed up and when I entered thestore I was still worried you know as I was going through that process of - I neverimagined, you know I never had those expectation some day I wear a green apron and ablack base ball cap and serve coffee you know, that had not been in my mind, so I wasstill in that state of sort of what what am I doing here and I came in and - but she cameover to me and she brought me to a table and she gave me some delicious coffee.Jennifer loves coffee, I love coffee, it makes a big difference, that making a transition thatthat that actual business is drinking coffee. Who would have imagined that the actualbusiness is enjoying yourself drinking coffee? It's that was great anyway, may be it wasa sumatra it was delicious, then she also brought espresso brownies for me to eat and Ihave always loved brownies, so you know how those simple things and - not so simplebecause I had never in 26 years you know as the top executive in corporate America ever inmy wildest dreams ever imagined bringing coffee for any one who worked for me I meanI say I don't say this as a pride but isn't that sad? I never never well though it hadbeen across my mind to make that gesture of - and I and the first day at work Iwanted say "hey we got these 18 things to do", you know I would not - you know my firstboss told me in advertising, "fear is great motivator" so we have already gotten into youknow how can we but she may be comfortable - she welcomed me in other words, shetook time despite the busy retail of our and that was the other thing that sacred me a littlebit because it was so busy you know I I saw these young 20 some things and basicallyor mainly African American, I would be a minority at the store and they were movingwith such grace and speed to you know moving ventis or grandes or cappuccinos orfrappuccinos wow and I know I had been an athlete you know as a third-string footballplayer, the kind of guy only invited to the game when we are like 50 points ahead youknow and these two were moving so quickly and also I heard the register going and andmoney was not a good making changes you know even with the simple transaction withwith the challenge for me, that's one of the reasons I was there, I was no good inmanaging money.So that worried me, so I said you know at first I said "this job is below me and itshumiliating then I said "wow, this could be a way beyond me you know, I really thoughtat that time that gosh you know being fired from J Walter Thompson one thing but beingfired from Starbucks within a couple of days, that would be wow how do I explain it evento myself and I was scary, then she introduced me to the I met a young guy came intowith a bit bulky and had one of those du-rags around you know phones you knowknow things in his ear and he was a kind of person I went to you know he looks eitherlike a gangster or gangsta rap or what ever, but I would have avoid him, you know crossthe street to avoid him and she said Kester Kester come over here you know meet Mike andand you know Kester is going to be your training coach, wow you know but he gave me abig smile that actually turned out that Kester help me because he just - you know healways said Mike you will make it, you know like first day on the bar, I dropped awhole container of milk he says everybody does that you know in other words instead ofthinking I wasn't going to make it like I had thought towards other people that weredifferent than me, he thought I wasn't going to make it. I was sure to make it, it's just aquestion of of how but I I did sort of a - I thought a very sure thing is I didn't try bythe way to make any drinks or cash registers just luckily Crystal was the name of themanager and she she had a cleaning problem, so I merely said "I love to clean" now Inever had cleaned in my life. I never cleaned my office you know some of those whohave meet this cleanly, some one is coming up. I never cleaned my home in my youknow all that stuff is done and so but I had to - I knew I had to do something that could bevaluable, so when she said that's great we have a we have a grout problem I shouldcall it a grout opportunity and that's the dirt between the tiles you know so I I said"wow I love to - you know I can do this" you know I got a little brush and then she andthen I also discovered I could clean a bathroom and she said boy Mike I have never seenany one clean a bathroom like you I mean I was detailing a Ferrari you know, it was likesparkling and you know it's so because I think none of you probably could really,probably imagine this satisfaction you could get out of that finite achievement because Ireached the point in my life where I didn't seem to be useful or have any value, you knowthat were just scary and - not not to be seen as contributing and now I can do some thingand then gradually yes I went on to the register and and but even today I - the other dayI made changes says what changes should be like 17 dollars 31 cents and this says for mesays for all the guest but I you know I I for some reason I am still having to dropmaking conversation and change so you know I give him back three dollars or some thingand he said you know Mike I think it's 17 and I am making drinks with Jennifer, we aretalking about it - you know this lady came on the other day, Grande you know two pumpsugar free vanilla, non fat, extra hot no foam latte, you know so I was making the milkand I dropping the - just it's it's tricky to drop just two pumps rather than the usualfour, I was concentrating and I gave to her and she smiled, I smiled "wow! I did it youknow" and then she came back two seconds later, later she said "Mike, I think somethingis missing from my drink". I said what is it? she said the coffee. I forgot to drop thecoffee, little things like that. So I am still learning three and a half years later.But you know one of those nights closing with Kester after mopping and doing thosetables and all so, I went on the street in in this west side which is tricky but it was youknow it was after midnight and it was dark but you know I put my hand on my heart and Isaid you know I am happier than I have ever been and it took me unaware as you knowsometime happiness can creep up on you and just surprise you. Even today I am not quitesure what I think part of it was, wow I don't have that huge so - superstructure of status,of big houses and big and expense accounts and a big life but I got a little life. Ooh! Whata relief, what a relief and I go home now to a little apartment you know it has - I Ithought it was a coo, I - I called it American minimalist style because I once had ahardware store saw these white picnic furniture you know these little - like chairs andtables and the chairs cost five bucks and the table cost 20 or something. So I have got adining room set for about 35 dollars and that a New York Times reporter visited me inmy home you know she just wanted to see how I was living and the sort of the life I am inand she said I got to stop being a reporter for a minute, she was really shocked, twominutes of silence you know she was a very talkative, causative.She saw this apartment, just no - nothing you know just this little picnic table, a one bedroom etc and she said "you know I have got to stop being a reporter" you know becausereporters hate to do that, they they want to be professional. I have got to stop being areporter for a minute, I said "okay" She said "you have got to get a couch" you knowwow you know this is terrible you know you are living like a - you know a college student.But maybe that's the idea a a college student without books you know because I havedeassentioned - you know museums get rid of stuff and once again I am notrecommending this to everyone but it is such a relief to me to come out and this is littlerenovated - apartment. I am living in the same town I grow up into a 25 room house. 25room house with so many - so much stuff and it is such a relief to come home. I don'teven have a TV because I would be pathologically watching you know the talking headsif I did, but I play music, I read a book and I think that time and that lack of stuff evenif it had emotionally and mentally has given me the chance to write write this book.My daughter Annie told me to keep to journal before - while this all was happeningbefore Starbucks so after about a year I I said this might be a story worth - worthsharing and the other aspect of that I think is is the part time job of it. And I know manyof you probably are working hard at full time jobs but in America I think we go overboard in that puritan ethic of you know "The devil makes works for idle hands" it mean Iwas working 12 hours a day and when I wasn't working I was thinking about work andwhat a sad thing that was, so I was playing with my kids and I wasn't really aware youknow I was thinking about - Oh! I got to get this campaign or this politics or this memoit's it's such a sad, we live such a evanescent and and just precious few moments onthis world to fill up that full with work and to be saying, what you will do, what we meanwhen we just ask each other, what we do or virtually saying "what is our work, now whatis our life and because Starbucks is a part-time job with full time health benefits by theway for me and my kids and everybody.But because of the part time job, I think I I get up out of bed at 4 AM in the morningand at '67 I creep and crawl out but I get about 5 AM and I make coffee and share coffeewith my partners and with the guests and it's enjoyable but in 1 O'clock I go out the doorand I don't have to think about it. It's a finite part-time job. It is giving me a fullenjoyable flowing - full time life and I I was so grateful for that and I think that's a bigpart of my happiness too, not only dropping those need to pretend like I could control life,you know because we also feel in America we can plan things out like a marketing planfor ourselves, we are going to do this, we are going to do that and if we forget thatspontaneity and accidents, so that joy of life or the magic of life, that's when you canreceive the unexpected blessings of life.So I think if there is one lesson I would say is that I was trapped somewhere on in thatupward escalator and then and the downward escalator in a little box that I couldn't getout, I was so uptight and scared and that it could be worse if I did anything completelydifferent and what I discovered and I think when Tom Hanks called to say do you want tomake a movie of this and you wanted to play me you know weird uh-huh?. I I weirdI mean that is totally unexpected. I am still in a stage of shock about that because I hadwritten a different ending that to you know that - this is not a script that Hollywood becalling because I had such a wonderful life to talk about, right?So - but he said what appealed to him wasn't that was when you was unsuccessfullysuccessful he he is much younger I think he is like 50 this year, he said is that jump to awhole new life, that you never imagine, that's the key. We - I didn't planned or I neverimagined it, I never would have expected that I would be so happy and that that haveappeal because you know it's sort of saying "there is a whole new life after your normallife - a few hour - the life you try - try to plan and that can be, if you just have the courageto reap, I had the desperation, I had the - you know just and I was given that helping handthat - but I don't think I would have done it still if I hadn't had that you know beingtrapped in that box but I think the one lesson out of this is you know we say to America,"look before you leap". My my only advice would be to to leap before you look. Justget into a whole new life because you could get at the very least I think it's rejuvenating,wow, I can move, I can contribute, I can be useful, I can be happy. But also for me it wasreductive because it made me feel that I was more in the spirit of what was actually somuch better life which had nothing to do with my previous life.So anyway I just wanted to say that I am so grateful to be at this great bookstore and I Iknow how many other things in your life you have to do, sounds so grateful that youcame and I am I am - so feeling of joy and I am actually surprised happiness that I canI can share my story, I am walking around talking and share my story with you tonight.Thank you very much.