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How Starbucks Saved My Life

Millions of us wake up every morning to a good strong cup of coffee. And, as it happens, coffee figures in the story of the wake-up call one man received after hitting a low point reminiscent of George Bailey's in the film "It's a Wonderful Life." Anthony Mason tells the tale:



By his own admission, Michael Gill was a child of privilege.

"I was born with just about every advantage you could imagine, or even wish for," he told Mason.

He went to an Ivy League college, was a top executive at a world renowned ad agency, and had a six-figure salary. But now at age 67, he's trudging through the dark just before 5 o'clock in the morning, to make the early shift for his new job.

He's a barista at Starbucks.

"This was not on my goal list when I went to Yale."

This is the story of an affluent man's fall from grace, and how he found redemption in an unexpected place, a story Michael Gates Gill tells in his book, "How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else."

He describes it with almost a religious connotation.

"Oh, I think there's definitely a sense of, I would have to say, divine grace about my life. Because I definitely didn't deserve this kindness."

He was born the first son in a prominent family. His father, Brendan Gill, was a writer for the New Yorker for more than 60 years, author of a bestselling history of the magazine, and friend to many of the city's most famous faces.

"My father was a very well-recognized figure," Gill said.

When Mike was still a boy, the Gills moved to a prosperous New York suburb called Bronxville. Their house had 25 rooms, a gymnasium, and a two-story library.

Following in his father's footsteps, Michael went to Yale, and was hired out of college to work at J. Walter Thompson, then the world's biggest ad agency.

"I was what was called a creative director, and that means my job was to encourage other people to have ideas, like an orchestra leader," Gill laughed.

He presided over ad campaigns for the Marines, Christian Dior and Ford. For 26 years he climbed the corporate ladder. But he didn't see the end coming.

"No, I was really shocked by it, which I shouldn't have been."

He was 53 when a fellow executive invited him out to breakfast:

"And she said, you know, those classic words: 'Michael, we have to - we have to let you go.'"

"How did you feel at that moment?" Mason asked.

"I felt stunned. To be 53 and fired in advertising is really a death notice."

Gill tried to start his own consulting business, but couldn't make it. Then money began to get tight.

"I was dressing up everyday with a tie. It's sad now to think about it, but I was dressing up like I was an executive when I didn't have any work."

"Were you surprised at how fragile it all turned out to be?"

"I was surprised at my inability to cope."

Things quickly went from bad to worse. First Gill lost his job, then an affair ended his twenty-year marriage, when his girlfriend gave birth to a son. The final blow came four years ago, when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

He was at rock-bottom.

In a desperate attempt to find comfort, Gill found himself going back to his first home in New York City.

"You know, I didn't do it consciously, but I found myself back in the neighborhood I'd been at least appreciated and loved in, [where] I was a fortunate son in a fortunate world, and I was trying to, I think, recapture that sense of, 'I have a place in the universe,' because I felt like I'd fallen out.

"But then I looked over there. And there was a brightly lighted Starbucks store."

He walked over. What he didn't know was Starbucks was hiring that day. And when Gill sat down to brood over his latte, a woman approached him.

"She said, 'Would you like a job?'"

Gill's answer would literally change his life.

"And when she asked me that, I just didn't have the energy to lie or even be polite. I just said, 'Yes, I need a job.'"

"Why did you say, 'yes'?" Mason asked.

"I don't know. It was desperation or courage, but I think I just realized this is the moment I can't afford to miss."

He said the idea of putting on a barista's uniform was humiliating, and scary.

"I mean, it's one thing to get fired from J. Walter Thompson. It's another thing to be fired from Starbucks because you can't even do the basic job."

Those fears proved unfounded. In fact, he had found his calling.

Nehemiah Luckett is the manager at the Bronxville Starbucks where Gill now works. He says Gill's forte is customer service.

"There's just this positive energy flowing from him - from him to the customers."

Customer Lisa Diaz said, "Mike's a great guy. I come in every morning at like 10 of 6 and he's always happy and cheerful."

"When you think of simple pleasures, it's coming to Starbucks and seeing Mike."

"That's the magic of serving people an enjoyable experience," Gill said, "is that you become very good friends with them, where you enjoy moments of laughter. They're just precious seconds I realized almost too late in life those are the moments you can really savor most."

"At any point did your kids say to you, 'Dad, you've just lost it?'"

"Our children have shown me so much love during this difficult time. There's never been a moment where I didn't feel that they loved me and wanted me to be happy."

One of his daughters even suggested he keep a journal, which became the basis for his book. Only after it came out this year did Mike's customers and co-workers learn the real story of the man behind the counter.

"Now when you know the full background of everything, it's an absolutely amazing story," said Luckett.

So amazing that Tom Hanks has bought movie rights, and reportedly wants to play Michael in the film.

"I was in a state of shock, because I'd written a very different ending for my life," Gill said. "I'd written sort of an unhappy life going from riches to rags, and here was Tom Hanks calling and saying he wanted to play me in a movie."

But he's hardly living a movie star's life. Home is now a third-floor walk up in Bronxville. He says he so much happier in the "cozy little attic apartment" than he ever was in the 25-room house.

"So, you've downsized a bit?"

"Right, I was downsized. Now I'm downsizing myself."

Stripped of his sense of entitlement, Mike Gill says he's a new man.

"There's not a smidgeon of me that wishes I could be back in that life. I'm so relieved that all this huge weight of this huge mansion is gone from me, and all the expectations associated with it."

"When you say Starbucks saved your life, you're not kidding."

"This is the literal truth, not a metaphor or poetic exaggeration," Gill said. "It's literally true - my life for me was over. I'm so much happier serving than I ever was being served."

Not only have his five kids accepted their father's new life, that brain tumor has turned out not to be life-threatening.

"I'm alive. I'm happier than I've ever been. And I have a chance to share my story, and maybe somebody, hopefully younger than me, can say, 'Hey, if you ever get a chance, and you feel stuck, leap to a new life.'"

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