Celebrity Hocus-Pocus on Broadway

Magic Johnson opens a Starbucks in downtown Oakland to -- wink wink -- assist the community.

Finding parking near 8th Street and Broadway in downtown Oakland last Friday morning was difficult, as usual. The weekly farmers’ market along 9th Street stretched four blocks long, and the intense sunshine brought out a parade of young mothers in floppy hats and sandals who pushed strollers past bushels of freshly plucked bok choy, crates of oranges, and boxes of bananas. Suits from the nearby law offices and bellmen from the surrounding hotels walked along the streets, while a smiling street musician named Fred McCarty sat on a wooden stool at the corner of Washington and 9th and strummed his classical guitar. Signs attached to lampposts overhead reminded you that this was part of the city’s “Scenic Tour,” lined with plum Victorian buildings, high-end brewpubs, and $6 parking lots.

At the corner of 8th and Broadway, a new Starbucks was hosting its grand opening, an event its organizers preferred to call a “community celebration.” After all, this was no ordinary Starbucks — it was an “Urban Coffee Opportunities” Starbucks, which meant the coffee conglomerate had partnered with Earvin “Magic” Johnson, the former NBA superstar, to open this store. In the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots, Johnson founded the Johnson Development Corporation, which states its aim on its Web site: “Rather than follow the trend set by many retail businesses and service providers that dismiss urban communities as economic wastelands, Mr. Johnson regards them as renewed frontiers to introduce viable business enterprises and realize solid financial success.”

This location made for an interesting choice. The six-square-block neighborhood, according to a brochure put out by the Old Oakland Historic District Business Association, already has three cafes, two delis, ten restaurants, and is only a short “horse-drawn carriage ride away from Jack London Square.”

Regardless, nothing associated with this community celebration was regarded as anything less than extraordinary. A press release announcing the opening declared, “The 1,800-square-foot location will offer comfortable upholstered furniture and cafe tables with chairs, as well as outdoor patio seating with shading umbrellas.”

Shortly after 10 a.m., as the cafe crowded with Starbucks upper management and city employees and warmed to an uncomfortable temperature, a black four-door sedan pulled up and parked in the red zone outside. Out stepped Mayor Jerry Brown and his senior adviser, Jacques Barzaghi. Brown wore all black, looking a bit like the priest he once studied to be. Despite the warm weather, the bald-headed Barzaghi wore a Texas Tuxedo: denim jacket, denim pants, and cowboy boots. He carried a string of Buddhist worry beads, and his glasses darkened in the sunlight. When Jerry got caught up by well-wishers on the sidewalk, Barzaghi entered the cafe, took a few steps inside, then stopped and pointed a toe in front of him as if he were a ballerina. He slowly pivoted on the toe, looking up at the ceiling, across the crowd of faces, at once admiring the design of the cafe and, surely, scanning the room for something worthy of his eye.

A few minutes later, Barzaghi found an empty stool near the espresso grinding machine, which burst into shredding screams every few seconds, but he did not flinch, nor did he remove his sunglasses: Instead, he rubbed his beads and exuded quietude. A spirited Starbucks employee worked the room, carrying a tray of small cups with dollops of whipped cream while asking each and every person, “Wouldja like to try a complimentary caramel Frappuccino?” When she reached Barzaghi, the Frenchman cracked a faint smile, then politely declined with a shake of his head.

Once Jerry made it inside, a regional Starbucks manager tapped the microphone and welcomed the crowd. She listed the names of the employees she wanted to thank, but instead of calling them “employees” she called them her “partners,” which drew some awkward looks in this crowd. Sensing this, the manager felt compelled to explain, “We call our employees ‘partners,’ so if you’re wondering why I’m calling them partners …”

Then the store’s new manager, Maritza Flores, took the microphone and recalled her days at the Civic Center Starbucks, just four blocks away. “It was so crowded some days, we used to say, ‘I wish they’d just open up another one,'” she said. “Little did I know they actually would!”

When another guy from management introduced Jerry Brown, he said, “Please welcome the man they say was the most popular governor of California.”

Jerry took the stage and said, “I was also the most unpopular governor. Until Gray Davis came along.” He thanked the appropriate people and said he was happy another business had picked downtown Oakland. “This neighborhood has great potential,” he said to polite applause, until he suddenly changed his tone and added, “but I’ve been saying that for 25 years.”

A few Starbucks partners dressed in sports coats laughed, if uneasily.

“I hear you’re going to be open on weekends,” the mayor added, again gaining some nods, and a few sighs of relief that he had changed course. “Well, that’s truly heroic.”

Jerry had his audience teetering between their toes and their heels. “Unlike San Francisco,” he went on, “Oakland won’t ban any company that has more than six stores, or twelve, or how many ever it is they’re talking about,” which was a reference to a proposed ordinance working through that city’s bureaucracy. “So maybe one day you can come down here, order a coffee, and reflect on the sanity that is Oakland, California.”

With that, Jerry returned to his place in the crowd next to Barzaghi, who was still sitting, wearing his sunglasses, rubbing his beads, and scanning the room.

Back near the bathrooms hung a portrait of a smiling Magic Johnson, a cup of Starbucks in his hand, raised up near his cheek. Beneath the portrait sat Sister Ann Maureen Murphy from St. Vincent’s Day Home, a preschool and service provider for low-income families, who was on hand to pick up a donation from the new cafe. Part of Urban Coffee Opportunities’ mission is to partner with a local charity. When the time came, Sister Ann was called to the front of the room and handed a large symbolic check for $1,000.

Sister Ann said she’d use the money to help fix her facility’s playground and pay for its rising workers’ comp premiums — which she said have tripled in the last three years. With Jerry in her sights, the nun reminded the crowd, “The mayor calls St. Vincent’s the crown jewel of Oakland.”

After her words, Sister Ann posed for pictures. When the flashes stopped and the smiling faces walked away, she was left holding the large piece of rectangular plastic. She couldn’t figure out whether to continue holding it sideways or to stand it on its head like a snowboard, which seemed, somehow, to demean the value of the check. So she jokingly waved it like a paddle, and luckily a Starbucks partner understood her body language and stepped in to help a sister out.

By this time, Barzaghi was already out the door, beads in hand, standing on the corner next to the mayor’s sedan in the red zone, looking up at the sky. It took the mayor a few handshakes and thank you-thank yous to get outside, and when he did, a passerby stopped him, pointed, and said, “That’s the mayor!”

While the woman searched her purse for her disposable camera, Barzaghi whispered something into Brown’s ear, and without looking back at him, the mayor reached into his front pocket and handed over the car keys.

As the mayor posed for a quick snapshot, Barzaghi walked around to the front seat of the car and got in behind the wheel, and before the two men drove off, the door to the cafe swung open once more and you could hear the sound of an espresso machine screaming on Broadway.

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