Pratt, Kansas — Before me, a brick road spread out. Gleaming in the hot mid-morning sun, it could almost have been yellow. The bus dropped me at the makeshift Beeline stop, everyone looking with mild curiosity at the only person getting off in Pratt, and then roared off, stirring up dust, a circle, a small williwaw. The main street town stretched in either direction, two metal water towers looming over the town, painted, by some wit, “hot” and “cold”. Pyramid-hatted, with long legs, they looked like they were ready to walk all the way out of Kansas. This would happen hours later, but I’ll put it now: a woman standing outside the convenience store saw me looking at them, and said with a grin, “You know what they call ’em, don’t you? Tin men.” Once said, not forgotten. They were exactly like that, exactly.
Pratt had appeared in a cloud of swirling dust, a crazy dream, and maybe that’s fitting because the reason I was here was pretty crazy in itself — for Pratt, Kansas is about the furthest you can get from a Starbucks in the mainland United States, and still be in a town of any size. According to the invaluable map of coffee chain coverage published by Business Insider magazine, south-west Kansas is part of an empty triangle around Oklahoma and East Colorado. You have to go a couple of hours east to Wichita, up to North Platte, Nebraska, or all the way across to Denver to get to a Starbucks — and there are no other coffee chains in the region. There’s another gap up near the Montana-Dakotas border, but there’s no one really there, and only one big town, Miles City. Pratt sits nestled among the Kansas corn and cattle, surrounded by small towns, with bigger place nearby. You could go for years without encountering the green-and-black livery of Seattle’s finest.
Pratt has a McDonald’s of course, and a KFC and a bunch of other chains, all but the KFC, on the highway out of town, away from anything. But everywhere has that, those chains have been part of American life for half a century. Three generations have now grown up with the golden arches and the Colonel as part of the landscape, but there’s a difference between those things and what came after. They were fast food, and they wanted you in and out as quickly as possible. McDonald’s calls itself a “restaurant”, but North Korea calls itself a “people’s democratic republic”, so there’s a lot of wiggle room. When they invented the drive-thru, they could all but do away with the restaurant altogether. There’s none of this hipster exposed-wood and lemon yellow teardrop swivel seats nonsense about McDonald’s in the midwest — the places all look like they did in the ’70s, i.e like the canteens of prisons.
But Starbucks, of course, is different. From the moment in the ’80s when the small Seattle chain, once a single funky coffeehouse at Pike’s Place market, began to spread interstate it has been selling not a product but an experience. The product wasn’t irrelevant — American coffee was terrible, brewed and kept stewing for hours, known as “joe” as in GI, because many had acquired a taste for it during World War II. The whole point of joe was that it was meant to be a little resistant, an acquired taste, for its other aspect was the bottomless cup, the endless refill. You sat at a diner counter and your cup was refilled without you asking for it. The cappuccino hit in the mid-’70s, but it didn’t spread in the same way as it did in Australia because the joe culture was so strong. Even today a lot of places don’t have the sort of coffee machine you now find everywhere from Bourke Street to Brunswick. The genius of Starbucks was that it brought better coffee to people who were starting to want a more epicurean experience — the rising inner-city classes of the big cities — with an identikit model of the college-district coffeehouses that had made their way up the west coast from San Francisco in the 1960s. Best of all, Starbucks persuaded people to queue for their own coffee, and in exchange offered them unlimited time to hang out.
When Starbucks undertook vast and remorseless national expansion in the early ’90s, a new era in American life began, for it became the model all others followed. Its rise coincided with the Clinton-era boom and the great era of American ex-urbanisation, when main streets were abandoned, atrium malls started to falter, and life became regrouped around small chi-chi little centres with a Starbucks, a CVS chemist, an Au Bon Pain, an Olive Garden, an Applebees, a Brookstone, a Sharper Image, a Yankee Candle, a Borders, a Barnes and Noble a this, a that. For decades stores had been designed to keep you moving and then get you out; these were designed to give you a totalising experience, born of a near-aristocratic attitude that actual commerce was somehow disrespectful. More exactly, the business model took some of the utopian hopes of the ’60s, repackaged them and sold them back to you, but in a chill fashion.
Starbucks put in deep armchairs — of a style identical from Seattle to Key West — and Borders let you not only read books but stand coffee next to them while you took notes. Eventually the armchairs went from Starbucks, and Borders went altogether; the business model was part of the slightly giddy period of the “new economy”, where we would bootstrap ourselves out of exploitation, etc, through the wonders of dial-up internet. But by the time it had gone, something had been left: the idea, even the expectation, that there was nothing particularly unusual about having your consumption experience patterned and regularised to the Nth degree. Starbucks, in that respect, is to consumption what Henry Ford was to production, and its rise matches the reversal of emphasis in the economy. By massively replicating an identical consumer experience, costs and supply flow can not only be predicted, but consumption can be steered. It’s a long time since Starbucks was really a coffee shop. Its principal business is now as a sort of weird-ass milkshake vendor for people getting their morning venti-pumpkin-spice-vanilla-latte on. Ordering an actual coffee gets you odd glances. As the decor has become utterly uniform, the drinks have become baroquely individualised.
People will say it’s a luddite point, but this patterning has changed our selfhoods in the same manner as the assembly line changed it in the 20th century. Books like Shoshana Zuboff’s In the Age of the Smart Machine documented the way in which the coming of the factory system in the 19th century smoothed out the wilder, and in some sense, freer work rhythms of workshops and tradesmen; soon, someone might need to try to remember a time when you didn’t expect everywhere to look the same in all directions. The place furthest from any Starbucks seemed a good place to start.
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Pratt was just stirring as I arrived, a slow mid-morning opening up of stores and garages. The main street was better preserved than most, two neat rows of brick stores from the ‘30s. At one corner was the eight-storey hulk of the old railway hotel, a towering Art Deco remnant from a time when the town of 6835 had two railway stations, one at each end, the Santa Fe line at the main street end, the Topeka and Kansas up near the silos. The hotel has long been shuttered, but it’s still there, which is a rarity. The shops aren’t what they were — Walmart has leapfrogged Starbucks and sits behind fast-food row on the outskirts — and you can see what they were by the tile-patterned entrances on the footpaths — Jett’s, Burstein’s — that have survived long after the shop itself has become a Sears or a Goodwill. Half the street was offices, which showed no sign of life, a couple of haberdashers — their term — a computer store, one of those discount et cetera stores that have fake porcelain jaguars and filament lamps in varying sizes, and a wool store, with its owner, Sue, dragging a table of yarn outside. Later, she’d prove my best interviewee, remembering when the street was full of “stores, real stores, where you got everything you needed” and where she got her first “bought-in dress”. “At Jett’s?” I said, and her eyes opened wide as saucers. “How did you know?”
Finally, two coffee shops, one a wacky old cafe going to seed, and the other with bare wood tables, retro album covers on the wall, and, in the mismatched armchairs, two girls in the Goth-cutting-edge of 2005. Starbucks hadn’t reached Pratt, but the hipster zombies had stalked across the cornfields from Austin and converted their victims. Beanz opened from eight to 11 in the morning, Pratt’s three hours of Williamsburg a day. It had the usual clientele — kids who didn’t know how to get out of town and straight-edge types taking notes from Business Studies textbooks with something like “Chester A. Arthur Community College” stamped on the cover. I wanted to ask about Pratt, wondered if I should ask about the election, decided to ask about both, the point proving moot when it became clear that nobody knew anything.
“Oh, I haven’t really — I don’t even –” said the much-tattooed Goth girl serving coffee. Didn’t really know, or much like Pratt. “I’m from Lawrence.” Lawrence, Kansas! She had so much ink in spiky German lettering, she had to know. “Oh, where William Burroughs ended up?” “Who?” “What are you studying?” “Business.” Tyler, textbook kid, was even hazier. “Man, does Kansas have an election this year? I’m from Texas, next door.” Texas is two states away, Oklahoma intervening. On the Greyhound down from Colorado, I’d sat behind two young white guys, which is to say the underclass in its purest form, heading to Houston. They kept sleeping and waking, asking, “Man, are we in Texas yet?” They had no mental map of the country, no idea where they were.
Maybe it was the Kansas effect. Here was the middle of America, the America that had not yet become a territory for roll-outs, planned out in an office building in Atlanta or somewhere. Somewhere, right then, people were sitting round a table looking at artwork for Dr Pirogi — the new Russian-themed fast-food joint, or Dobie’s, a mildly ironic beatnik referenced drive-thru coffee house. Plans would be finalised, land bought, and in a couple of years slab-tilt concrete dachas going up near exit ramps across the land, often as not beside the forlorn and dead outposts of franchises past, Dr. Pita, Ollie’s Trolley, Rancho Cucamonga, etc, etc. I can’t really get over how this is the way that a culture makes itself, with an operation as precision-planned as the smart bombing of enemy territory.
Pratt delivered. Entire of itself, vibrant, and self-sufficient, it appeared a million miles from the microplanned airpower wars of the election, for which Kansas was a centre. Pratt seemed out of all that. Sue, at the wool store, explained why. “Oh, we’re very self-sufficient here.” A teacher for 40 years, she now ran the local street commerce chamber. “We stopped them from tearing down the middle of the row, and we didn’t let them put a 24-hour store in. And we’re restoring the hotel and that’s going to reopen next year.” Small-town teacher, she was obviously a Democrat, but what of her colleagues? “Oh, they’re very … Kansas,” she smiled. “But you know, at the local level, it’s just whatever works. I’m sad they pulled out the brick roads though. It was all brick here until a few years ago, but the trucks damage it too much.”
I don’t know what I expected — something out of a ’70s movie I think, all wrong colour register and solarised deep-focus — but I got enough of it. Some quality of a place where you could not only avoid the last 25 years, but had to travel all day to get near it. The last part of Kansas that ain’t in Kansas anymore.