The new space has been designed to be welcoming to signing customers, both hearing and not
I order coffee about two hundred times a year, but my hands shook as I stood in line at the Starbucks at 6th and H in Washington, D.C. I’d been rehearsing my order for a week:
A coffee with hot milk.
My name is Kirsten.
Thank you very much.
This seems like a basic interaction that wouldn’t require much practice, except I’m ordering in American Sign Language. While Starbucks is fond of saying that all their stores are different, this one actually is: here, all the staff members are fluent in ASL, be they hearing or not, and every detail of this location, from the dimmer lights to the erasable LED ordering pads, has been designed to welcome signing coffee lovers. Though I’m hearing, my late grandmother taught me to sign as a child, a skill I haven’t used in about 20 years.
I moved to D.C. a couple weeks ago, and I live just blocks from Gallaudet, the world’s only liberal arts college for Deaf and hard-of-hearing students, which is (surely coincidentally) near the new signing Starbucks. I’ve been trying to re-learn via a patchwork of YouTube videos, free classes, and fingerspelling things to very gracious college students. My grandmother was circumspect when talking about her origins, but here’s what I know: she was raised by her grandparents, her grandparents were both Deaf, and her first language was ASL.
Here is what I don’t know: anything else. Once she told me they met at a school for Deaf, Russian Jewish children in the Old Country, but a cursory Google doesn’t tell me if these existed. I don’t know their names, or even what Old Country this was in, exactly. The initial questions beget more questions. Why didn’t they speak Yiddish Sign Language? Is there a Yiddish sign language? When did my grandmother start concealing her Jewishness? Why did she undertake the considerable task of teaching a kindergartener ASL? The more I think about it, I’m not even sure about the basics of the timeline or if they even had swinging saloon-style doors in the Russian Empire (tangentially related). I have one photo of them, and that’s where the clues dry up.
When I stepped into the signing Starbucks early on their first day in business, I was channelling both my more competent six-year-old self and my abler ancestors. If signing under your breath is A Thing, that’s what I was doing. Coffee (manual coffee grinder). Hot milk (milking a cow, then steam coming out of your mouth). K-I-R-S-T-E-N (I’m not going to describe that). Thank you (blow a kiss). Due to a combination of caffeine withdrawals and performance anxiety, I finished this standard retail interaction having sweat an amount commensurate to completing a SoulCycle class. The barista seemed nonplussed by the entire thing, even teasing me a little about how timid my signs were.
I waited under the colorful mural depicting hands signing “community” and perused the Starbucks ASL mugs stacked up among the bags of beans. It’s totally quiet; the only sound is the steamer frothing my soy milk. A large sign blinks my name to tell me my drink is ready, and it’s perfect! My name is even right—a coffeehouse miracle! I am triumphant. I made an emphatic “THANK YOU” with my hands and face, then take a selfie with the cup to share with Instagram, where it is met with significantly less ceremony than I find appropriate.
Grande blond roast with steamed soy milk in hand, I feel more awake, but also a little closer to solving this minor mystery: maybe the reason my grandmother taught me ASL was to prepare me to be a good community member. Now that that’s settled, I can start unraveling the origins of popular door styles in turn-of-the-century Odessa and work backward.