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Death at Starbucks

A random group of patrons connected in the face of tragedy -- an object lesson for the Jewish community

One time, I saw a woman die at Starbucks. I was working on a novel, lost in my writing, when I heard screaming coming from the direction of the bathrooms. It was a Sunday afternoon and Starbucks was full, but everyone froze. I was working in a juvenile detention facility at the time, so my mind immediately jumped to the possibility that there was a fight going on. When no one moved, I gingerly got up and started to move in the direction of the screams, uncomfortable with the thought of intervening, but unwilling to do nothing. Luckily, two larger men sprang into action and I allowed them to rush past me.

The screaming continued. After a few minutes, a distraught woman stumbled into the main area, babbling into a cell phone, a tiny blonde child trailing after her. A random woman picked up the child and held her close. The little girl was staring straight ahead, her gaze not focused on anything. She rested her head on the woman’s shoulder and lay still.

Over the next few minutes, the story started to unfold. Two women had pulled into the Starbucks parking lot. One of them stated her intent to get high — heroin, I believe —  in the Starbucks bathroom and brought her young daughter in with her. After half an hour, the woman still in the car decided she should check on her friend. When she knocked on the bathroom door repeatedly and didn’t get an answer, she pushed the door open and found her friend dead from an overdose, her little daughter sitting silently nearby. That’s when she started screaming.

The two men who had rushed past me both knew CPR and tried to save her life. Unfortunately, city regulations did not require there to be an AED (an automatic external defibrillator) on site so there was no way they could restart her heart. By the time the ambulance arrived, she’d had no pulse for quite some time.

When they carried her naked, lifeless body out on a stretcher, I talked to the little girl and stood at an angle so she wouldn’t catch sight of her mother. The girl was in shock and simply stared past me as I spoke to her.

After the ambulance drove away and the dead woman’s friend left with the little girl, we Starbucks patrons sat there, stunned. And then we all started to talk. The two men who had performed CPR related what they had seen when they pushed past the screaming woman and took in the bathroom scene. They relayed their hesitation at putting their hands on a drug addict. We praised them for their willingness to act so selflessly and their persistent attempts even though the situation seemed hopeless.

We formed an impromptu therapy group. Several people left after 10 to 15 minutes, but many of us stayed for over an hour, chatting with one another. There was a young, black man from North Philadelphia who was about to graduate from Temple University. There was another young man from Saudi Arabia who was in his second year of college in the United States. There were several teachers and administrators from local public schools who had been studying for a training that they were taking together. We had nothing in common with each other, but we talked freely and comfortably, bonded by the tragedy that we had just witnessed.

Tragedy brings people together. It erases differences and unites compassionate people. It makes race, religion, and ideology an irrelevant element. The Jewish community needs to have more of this harmony because we are experiencing daily tragedies. Our brothers and sisters are hurting. They are feeling ostracized and judged. They are turning to substance abuse and other addictive behaviors. Families are being torn apart. We need to come together. We need to unite.

Let’s sit and talk. Let’s have open dialogue where we put aside our differences and pay our respects to the pain that exists in our communities. We are more than a random group of Starbucks patrons on a Sunday afternoon. We are a family and we can do better.

About the Author
Shoshana is an author and social worker living in South Jersey. She works primarily with teenagers and has mostly worked in urban environments. In her spare time, she can be found rock climbing and drinking iced coffee, occasionally at the same time.
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