Michael Gates Gill didn't ask to be born into a world of privilege, but sometimes these things just happen.
His father was writer Brendan Gill, a name synonymous with The New Yorker, and his mother was the bluest of New England bluebloods. As a child, he lived in a four-story townhouse on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Then the family moved to a 35-room mansion north of New York City. Par for the course, he went to Yale, which led directly to J. Walter Thompson, the largest ad agency in the world, where he became a top executive. He also married and fathered four children. And over the course of time, he managed to meet his fair share of luminaries: among them, Ernest Hemingway, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Jackie Kennedy. Then these things happened:
Gill, age 53, was downsized out the door of J. Walter Thompson. So he started a one-man consulting firm, but the firm floundered. He fathered a child by his mistress, but the mistress left him and his wife divorced him. Then, at the age of 63, he went to his doctor for a standard checkup. But an MRI revealed he had a small brain tumor. And so, without health insurance and down to his last savings, one day he sat himself inside a Starbucks, if only to wonder what to do. The store that day just happened to be hosting a "hiring event," and a Starbucks manager named Crystal just happened to ask if Gill, in his Brooks Brothers suit, wanted a job.
"Yes. I would like a job," Gill answered. But one question: "Have you ever worked in retail?" Crystal asked. Gill panicked and had to ask himself: "Quick, what is retail?"
He found out soon enough — as a barista at a Starbucks on the Upper West Side. He writes about it, in all honesty and humor, in How Starbucks Saved My Life (Gotham Books). But as he recently told the Flyer, "Before I made this 'transition,' I'd been — what's the polite word? — a jerk."
Hate to say it about a guy named Gill, but the man's right. He was a "spoiled prince." But by the time he started Starbucks, he was afraid. "I was scared, humiliated," Gill writes. "Terrified of being fired."
But he wasn't fired. He became Starbucks' star bathroom cleaner. He conquered the dreaded cash register. He even proved popular with the young, largely African-American Starbucks staff. And surprise: For once in his life, he was a contented man.
"I never imagined I'd be happy to be wearing a green apron," Gill says. "And as for the positive reception I've been getting for the book ... I'm still in a state of surprise. Or is it mild shock?"
His fellow employees have given Gill the thumbs-up: "They're pleased for me," he says. "But I guess they were thinking, Hey, this guy can barely make a good latte. How can he write a book?"
And as for actor Tom Hanks, he bought the rights to the book when it was still a proposal in the hands of Gill's agent. So don't be surprised to see Hanks playing Gill on film, with Gus Van Sant slated to direct.
Would Brendan Gill be this happy to see himself — his admirable along with his not so admirable sides — so portrayed on the printed page?
"He was a complex person," Gill admits. "Still, I think he'd agree with my portrait of him. It's a valid portrait, and I'm almost scared to say that. If he hadn't died, I don't think I could have written about him."
Gill has — movingly. But some things don't change.
Gill has kept the sparsely furnished attic apartment he rents in Bronxville, New York, and he still works for Starbucks. As for that brain tumor, Gill and his doctor are in the "watchful waiting" mode. In the meantime, Gill, former grade-A "master of the universe," is giving himself a C-plus in life, and it's fine by him. That's a gentleman's C, I have to add.